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The Imaginary Music Book of J.S. Bach
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Wir danken Dir, Gott, BWV29: Sinfonia in D [3:26]
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Trio Sonata in B-flat, Wq.161/2 [17:54]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Adagio and Fugue, K404a (after JS Bach BWV527 and BWV1080) [10:27]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Wir danken Dir, Gott, BWV29: Aria Hallelluja, Stärk’ und Macht [4:42]
Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen, BWV182: Sinfonia in G [1:52]
Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV169: Aria Gott soll allein mein Herze haben [5:25]
Schwingt freudig euch empor, BWV36: Aria Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen [6:17]
Ein ungefärbt Gemüthe, BWV24: Aria Ein ungefärbt Gemüthe [3:06]
Sonate sopr’il Sogetto Reale BWV1079 [16:48]
Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit BWV 668 [4:17]
Café Zimmermann
rec. November 2020, Temple Saint-Jean, Mulhouse, France
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
ALPHA 766 [74:35]

It has always been the case that that most zealous of arrangers and rearrangers, JS Bach, has attracted all manner of creative responses from performers, even to the extent of his surname acquiring iconic status as a musical device when transcribed into musical notation. We also seem to have passed through the musical equivalent of a Puritan age with regard to performing his music and emerged into a period much keener to explore new avenues into this inexhaustible fund of musical inspiration. Even in the last few weeks we have had an illuminating pair of discs from Daniil Trifonov devoted to Bach the family man and his musical family as a way of approaching the seemingly austere edifice that is the Art of Fugue (DG 4838530). The best example of this more oblique and creative way with Bach’s music remains Vikingur Olafsson’s superlative collection of 2018 (4835022) which demonstrated that a collection made up of bits and pieces doesn’t have to be bitty.

This new recording from the terrific French ensemble, Café Zimmermann, is a continuation of this new way of coming to Bach’s music. The theme, and it is a loose one, is that of the notebook in which Bach like other composers jotted down music that took his fancy. I said the theme is loose because none of the music, with the possible exception of a trio sonata by CPE Bach, strikes me as fitting that brief. I guess I am being overly literal here and overlooking the important qualifier that this is intended as an imaginary music book. We also get another kind of composer’s notebook in the form of Mozart’s arrangements of pieces by Bach. Overall, my impression is that this is more Café Zimmermann’s own notebook containing their favourite morsels of Bach related music. More importantly, it is a notebook I am thoroughly delighted to peruse, especially in such perceptive and imaginative performances.

I have enjoyed a lot of Café Zimmermann’s previous recordings and their set of the Brandenburg Concertos is probably my favourite amongst modern versions (Alpha 300, download only, though given a real run for their money by the set by the Akadamie für Alte Musik which I recently had the pleasure to review Harmonia Mundi HMM902686.87 – review). My high expectations of this new recording were more than met, as this is another exceptional CD, albeit one of a more low-key character than their romp through the Brandenburgs.

A lot of the music in their programme is derived from the cantatas, which is a lovely way to provide a route into that particular treasure chest of wonderful music. Sometimes it involves arrangements of instrumental sinfonias, sometimes of arias with the vocal line taken by instruments. Either way it is not hard to tell why these particular pieces caught the ear of the musicians sufficiently to be jotted down in their imaginary notebook.

As is the case with listening to the cantatas, the listener is continually encountering reminders of and resemblances to other music by Bach. In the opening track, this association is direct, as it is a rewrite of the opening prelude from the third partita for solo violin. What we get, therefore, is an arrangement of an arrangement. Very Bach!

The arrangements are for a flute-led trio sonata group and the whole programme is anchored by the trio sonata from Bach’s Musical Offering which comes second to last. It is balanced by a trio sonata by CPE Bach, a composer whose reputation seems to be finally and deservedly emerging from his father’s giant shadow. His music doesn’t seem out of place in this company on this record. Stylistically, it reminds us of the musical environment the older Bach was reacting to and, more often, against. The sonata from the Musical Offering sounds determinedly old-fashioned for all its leaning toward the galant style.

My personal preference amongst recordings is the Reinhard Goebel version, which displays considerable wit and flexibility in its navigation of the intricacy of the music (DG E4696802, budget-price download only). The Café Zimmermann account is more staid and serious-minded. They convey a greater sense of yearning, for example, in the opening movement, which is another way of belying this piece’s totally unjustified reputation for dry abstraction. Some will want more energy in the faster movements but I enjoyed the unhurried approach with time and space given to Bach’s fertile invention.

Their manner in the adaptations is similarly relaxed. I don’t mean by this that there is anything slack about the music making. It is just that in allegros they don’t sound like something is on fire! Indeed, by not driving things so hard, I feel there is greater opportunity to get a real spring into the step of the dance-derived music.

Typical of the playfulness that underlies this project is the retelling in the liner notes of the Forkel story about Bach writing Vor deinen Thron BWV 668, immediately prior to expiring, before then rejecting it as almost certainly apocryphal yet still including it as the epilogue to the collection! Clearly as a yarn it is just too good to ignore! The performance, incidentally, is as sober as sober regardless of the high jinxes that have inspired its inclusion.

With Café Zimmermann’s recordings I am never far from imagining myself enjoying the musical fare on offer along with the Kafee und Kuchen at the coffee house that gave the ensemble its name. In this case my fancy is that I am taking in a relaxed matinee in the company of those who, like Bach, have an enthusiasm for the older, polyphonic arts of music. My suggestion is to make yourself a cuppa, grab some biscuits and join them.

David McDade

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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