Comparison: Pieter Dirksen (Brilliant Classics)
Bach's harpsichord transcriptions of concertos by - mostly Italian
- contemporaries don't belong to the most popular part of his
oeuvre. The list
of recordings shows that individual pieces have been recorded
quite often, but that the number of recordings of the complete
set is rather limited. Some of these are probably not available
anymore. Two of them were part of a Bach Edition at the occasion
of the Bach year 2000: Peter Watchorn (Hänssler) and Pieter
Dirksen (Brilliant Classics). The former I have not heard, the
latter I have used as a comparison in this review.
There are five - not six, as Elizabeth Farr writes in her liner-notes
- for organ and 16 for harpsichord. Make that 17, if you also
count the Concerto BWV 592a, which is an arrangement
of the organ transcription BWV 592. It is omitted in Ms Farr's
recording (and Watchorn's), but is included in Dirksen's. These
transcriptions all date from the years 1713/14 when Bach worked
as organist at the court of the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar. It is
not known for sure why Bach made them. It is often suggested
that this was his way of becoming more acquainted with the style
of the Italian concerto and developing his own skills as a composer.
That doesn't explain, though, why he also transcribed pieces
by Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar, half-brother of his employer,
who composed concertos in imitation of the Italian concertos
which he had brought along when he returned from his study period
in the Netherlands. Also notable is that Bach transcribed a
concerto by Telemann, and scholars suggest that the concertos
whose original versions are unknown, may have been written by
other German composers. Lastly, we know that Bach was especially
interested in the Vivaldian concerto style. However, in this
set we also find the transcription of a concerto by Giuseppe
Torelli which is of a pre-Vivaldian structure in six movements.
This piece is late example of the 17th-century concerto which
reflects the stylus phantasticus with its sequence of
contrasting sections. Some other concertos are in four movements,
following the model of the Corellian sonata da chiesa,
like the Concerto in c minor (BWV 981), a transcription
of a composition by Benedetto Marcello.
Six concertos of the set are transcriptions of concertos by
Vivaldi; those Olivier Baumont has selected for his recording.
Three are taken from the op. 3 which was published in Amsterdam
in 1711 under the title of L'Estro Armonico. There can
be little doubt that these were among the concertos Johann Ernst
took along when he returned to Weimar. The other three are from
Vivaldi's op. 4 (La Stravaganza) and op. 7 which were
published in 1716 and 1720 respectively. It is likely that they
were circulating in manuscript - sometimes in early versions
- and they could have been part of the repertoire of the Weimar
court orchestra. After all, Bach's employer was a great lover
of Italian music and must have expected his orchestra to play
the latest fruits of the Italian concerto style.
The 12 Concerti a 5 op. 1 by Benedetto Marcello, published
in Venice in 1708, could have been among these fruits. The Concerto
BWV 981 which I have already mentioned is based on the second
concerto from this set. Bach also transcribed concertos by Johann
Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar: two for organ (BWV 592 and 595) and
three for harpsichord (BWV 982, 984 and 987). Two of these,
BWV 982 and 987, are based on concertos from the Prince's set
of six concertos op. 1 which were published by Georg Philipp
Telemann in 1718. The Prince had already died three years before,
at the age of just 19. According to his music teacher, Johann
Gottfried Walther, Bach's cousin and town organist of Weimar,
the Prince had written 19 compositions in total. The six of
his op. 1 are the only pieces which have survived. The other
transcriptions are based on concertos which have been lost.
Considering the relative small number of complete recordings
which are available one would like to welcome the Naxos set.
There are two reasons which make me hesitate to do so, though.
First of all, the choice of harpsichord. Ms Farr plays an instrument
by Keith Hill, which is based on a harpsichord by Ruckers from
the 17th century. To this Hill has added a 16' stop. He rightly
refers to the German 18th-century builder Hass from whom an
instrument with a 16' stop has survived. But adding this to
an instrument after Ruckers results in a fantasy instrument
which has no historical foundation. It has little to do with
historical performance practice. It would have been better to
use a copy of a Hass, such as Andreas Staier has used in several
recordings. That said, very few instruments with a 16' stop
have survived, and it is very hard to establish how widespread
such instruments were in the 18th century. From a musical point
of view I find this choice of instrument largely unsatisfying.
There is a clear contrast between solo and tutti in these concertos.
Ms Farr conveys them by mostly using the 16' stop for the tutti.
In the early 18th century instrumental ensembles were mostly
rather small. Performing with one voice per part was probably
the rule and using two or more per part the exception. Because
of that the contrast in volume between solo and tutti wasn't
that large. That should be taken into account when performing
these transcriptions. By using a 16' stop for the tutti the
contrast with the solo passages is exaggerated. Pieter Dirksen
and Olivier Baumont show that one doesn't need a 16' stop to
realise this contrast. Those movements where Ms Farr omits the
16' stop are the best of her recording (for instance allegro
from BWV 975 and andante from BWV 979).
One may think that the use of a 16' stop makes the performances
more dramatic. That is not the case, and that brings me to the
second reservation regarding the Naxos set: Ms Farr's interpretations.
Despite the lack of a 16' stop Baumont's performances are certainly
not devoid of drama, but he realises it in a generally more
convincing way. Part of the tension within these concertos is
the result of the contrasts in tempo between the movements.
Ms Farr's tempi are more or less middle-of-the-road, whereas
Baumont's fast movements are considerably faster. His slow movements
could have been slower, such as in Dirksen's recording; there
the tempo contrasts are most satisfying. Ms Farr rather varies
the tempo within movements: she consistently slows down and
speeds up the tempo. Basically I am all in favour of differentiating
the tempo within a movement, for dramatic reasons, but here
it has no dramatic effect. It has turned into a mannerism just
like the frequent desynchronisation of right and left hand.
Very odd is the second adagio from the Concerto BWV 981,
which begins with a sequence of chords. Ms Farr changes manuals
from one chord to the other.
In the six Vivaldi concertos I prefer Baumont, although not
all is well here too. I have already mentioned the tempi of
the slow movements which I find a shade too fast. He also plays
staccato now and then, like in the opening allegro of the Concerto
BWV 976 and the closing movement from the Concerto BWV
972. It is at odds with the hierarchy of the notes. The
hammering chords in the closing allegro from the Concerto
BWV 976, without any differentation, isn't very nice to
The choice of additional music is different in both recordings.
Ms Farr has opted for the Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV
894) which dates from the same period as the transcriptions.
It contains material which Bach would use later in his Triple
Concerto BWV 1044. Ms Farr again makes frequent use of
the 16' stop. Baumont has chosen the well-known Italian Concerto
which is of a much later date, but is modelled after the Italian
concertos which are also the subject of Bach's transcriptions.
In both cases the choice of the additional material makes sense.
Baumont gives a good account of the Italian Concerto.
On balance I have reservations in regard to both recordings.
From a historical and musical point of view I prefer Baumont,
but he offers only six of the 16 (or 17) concertos. All in all
Pieter Dirksen's recording satisfies me most: it is complete
- he has recorded all 17 -, he uses a copy of a Ruckers harpsichord
and delivers musically convincing performances in which the
contrasts in tempo and between solo and tutti are well conveyed.
Johan van Veen
see also review of the Naxos recording by Brian
Track listing - Farr/Naxos
Concerto in D (BWV 972) [8:10]
Concerto in G (BWV 973) [7:58]
Concerto in g minor (BWV 975) [8:56]
Concerto in C (BWV 976) [10:53]
Concerto in F (BWV 978) [7:31]
Concerto in G (BWV 980) [9:53]
Concerto in C (BWV 977) [7:19]
Concerto in g minor (BWV 983) [8:58]
Concerto in G (BWV 986) [6:20]
Concerto in b minor (BWV 979) [12:13]
Concerto in d minor (BWV 974) [8:44]
Concerto in c minor (BWV 981) [8:55]
Concerto in B flat (BWV 982) [8:42]
Concerto in C (BWV 984) [8:27]
Concerto in d minor (BWV 987) [7:05]
Concerto in g minor (BWV 985) [7:28]
Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 894) [12:08]