Saturday 18 January 2020

Bach Round-Up: violin, piano, organ, recorder, viol, choral and orchestra by Bach and his cousin Johann Bernard

Solomon's Knot (Photo Gerard Collett)
Solomon's Knot (Photo Gerard Collett)
This month's Bach round-up starts off with the viol consort Phantasm providing an alternative view of the composer with A Well-Tempered Consort, and then we move to the unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas, Sei Solo recorded by Thomas Zehetmair. From violin to the keyboard as pianist George Lepauw has recorded Bach's complete 48 for Orchid Classics, whilst organist Manuel Tomadin has recorded a selection of Bach's organ music under the title Harmonic Seasons on the historic Christoph Treutmann organ in Church of St George, Grauhof, Austria for Brilliant Classics. Still in an instrumental mood, recorder player Michala Petri is joined by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani and viola da gamba player Hille Perl for the complete flute sonatas on OUR recordings. 

The Baroque collective Solomon's Knot's, known for their performances from memory, make their debut recording on Sony Classical, Christmas in Leipzig which features the original Christmas version Bach's Magnificat plus Christmas music by two of his predecessors in Leipzig. Our final disc is a different Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach's cousin, Johann Bermard Bach whose surviving orchestral suites are played by Thüringer Bach Collegium on Audite.

The Well-Tempered Consort - IThe Well-Tempered Consort - I
Johann Sebastian Bach
Phantasm (Laurence Dreyfus, Emilia Benjamin, Jonathan Manson, Heidi Gröger, Markkus Luolajan-Mikkola), with Liam Byrne (bass viol)
LINN CKD 618 1CD [66:55]
Released 31 January 2020

This disc is not quite what you might expect from the title. Whilst the majority of pieces on the disc are arrangements of movements from Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, not all of them are. So we start with Ricercar a3 from The Musical Offering, and other examples from Inventions and Sinfonias, the Prelude and Fugue in C major BWV 547, and Clavier-Ubung III. The intention behind the disc is to take the Preludes and Fugues from the keyboard and created equal-voice polyphony from the members of the viol family.

It is a fascinating and intriguing exercise, applying older consort-style genres to the music of Bach who, whilst he wrote for instruments like the viola da gamba, did not write for the viol consort. The result has striking intimacy, and the directness and equality of the viol sound means that the interior structure of the fugues comes over in ways that one cannot always experience in keyboard versions. But this is no mere academic exercise, and the results from Phantasm are beautifully expressive and highly engaging. You might not want to hear Bach's Preludes and Fugues played like this every day, but the disc will certainly stay on my library shelves.

Sei Solo
Sei Solo
Johann Sebastian Bach - The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo, BWV 1001-1006
Thomas Zehetmair (baroque violin)
ECM 2551/52 2CDs

Thomas Zehetmair is one of those violinists whose work you want to listen to, whatever the era or style of music-making. On this two-CD set he addresses Bach's great sequence of music for unaccompanied violin, played on a pair of baroque instruments. Zehetmair has already recorded this music, but using a violin with modern set up. For this disc he dispenses with chin and shoulder rest, and uses playing techniques far closer to those that we know about at from Bach's time. His instruments, one by an unknown South Tyrolean maker of 1685 and his own Joannes Udalricus Eberle of 1750, provide him with the ability to create a wide range of colours.

This is music-making of a high order, Zehetmair clearly loves and understands the structure of these pieces and brings out a multitude of colours in the music. The one violin is quite an intense, wiry sound whereas the other is somewhat lighter and perhaps more elegant. In all the music, Zehetmair's playing is very textural, like a lot of musicians who move between the modern and the period, he clearly relishes the meaty quality of the textures he can produce, whilst at the same time being able to spin the most aetherial of tones. But all this would be as naught if it wasn't clear that he brought great understanding to the structure of the pieces. The acoustic of the priory church of St Gerold is quite resonant, but the violins are caught well with the acoustic simply providing atmospheric support for the supporting notes of the harmony.

The CD booklet includes copious illustrations of the autograph manuscript which form an atmospheric counterpoise to a superb recording.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 & 2
Johann Sebastian Bach - Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 & 2
George Lepauw (piano)
Release date,  14 February 2020

The American pianist George Lepauw has recorded Bach's complete 48 preludes and fugues, but before he did so he undertook a Bach journey, tracing the arc of the composer’s life from his birthplace in Eisenach to his grave in Leipzig, in order to feel more connected to the man behind the name Bach. The disc was recorded Weimar’s Jakobskirche, a church well-known to Bach and close to where he had served the dukes of Saxe-Weimar and was briefly imprisoned by his aristocratic masters for disobedience.

Lepauw's style is definitely pianistic, he is not one of those who approach Bach on the piano by way of the harpsichord so he doesn't peck, yet nor does he give the sort of highly romanticised view which was more common in the earlier 20th century. Instead, he plots a nice middle way, the fugues have an admirable clarity of line with plenty of clear inner detail whilst the preludes venture into slightly more romantic territory. Leepauw also brings a nice feel for structure, making this an admirable way to explore one of the masterworks of keyboard repertoire.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Harmonic Seasons
Johann Sebastian Bach - Harmonic Seasons
Manuel Tomadin (organ)

One of the stars of this disc must indeed be the organ. Manuel Tomadin plays the organ of the former Collegiate Church of St George, Grauhof, Goslar in Lower Saxony, Germany, midway between Hanover and Leipzig. The organ was built from 1734 to 1737 by the veteran organ builder Christoph Treutmann. Treutmann was in his 60s, and this was the largest instrument he built and we are lucky that it survives relatively unscathed.

Manuel Tomadin studied in Udine, in North Eastern Italy and is based in Trieste where he was organist at the Cathedral from 2004 to 2008 and is now organist at the Evangelical Lutheran Church. On this disc he makes an intriguing choice of music. He gives us Preludes, Fugues and Chorales by Bach, sixteen movements in all, but organised by the months and seasons. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into his programming, and he explains it in detail in the CD booklet, but frankly I was quite happy to sit back and listen to the way that he uses Treutmann's magnum opus in Bach's music.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Six Flute Sonatas BWV 1030-1035
Johann Sebastian Bach - Six Flute Sonatas BWV 1030-1035
Michala Petri (recorder)
Hille Perl (viola da gamba)
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
OUR Recordings 6.220673 1CD [74.19]

Not all of Bach's works come down to us in their original versions, and scholars sometimes postulate an 'original' instrumentation from a later incarnation. For example for Bach's Sonata in B minor, BWV 1030 for transverse flute there are indications (another harpsichord part in another key) that the work originated on different instruments. The suggestion with this work is that Bach transcribed it from something earlier for his Collegium Musicum in Leipzig.

So, on this disc we have the distinguished recorder player Michala Petri, joined by viola da gambaa player Hille Perl and harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani for Bach's six flute sonatas in versions transcribed for recorder. Petri plays two different recorders, alto and tenor, and the sonatas are generally played transposed. But what really counts here is the sheer quality of the music making. Petri plays with wonderfully rounded, speaking tones and completely convinces in the sonatas' new incarnations. The sheer expressivity of her playing is outstanding, and she helped by the superb partnership she receives from Esfahani and Perl. This is very much ensemble music making, not the sort where the solo instrument is placed top dead centre with the others relegated to the rear. I was particularly struck by the sheer vibrancy and vividness of Esfahani's harpsichord, so that all three instruments make apt complements.

Unlike the solo violin music, these pieces were not written as a set and that makes the sheer variety and quality of the material so remarkable. This is music that I did not know very well, in performances of such engaging quality that I shall certainly be listening to the CD again and again.

Magnificat - Christmas in Leipzig
Magnificat - Christmas in Leipzig
Johann Schelle (1648-1701) - Machet die Tore weit
Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) - Magnificat in C major
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - Magnificat in E-flat major BWV 243a
Solomon's Knot
SONY CLASSICAL 19075992622

This is the debut disc for the much admired Baroque collective, Solomon's Knot, and the disc is based on one of the group's concerts [see my review of the concer at Milton Court in 2018 on which the recording is based]. The singers from the group sing everything by heart and perform without a conductor, which means that for an audience member what we might call the performance experience is very specific and distinctive, and tricky to transfer to disc. Here they have recorded a programme 'as live', making the disc in one day, based on a single performance with some pre- and post-recording. The result has an immediacy and vividness which we appreciate from the live performances.

There are ten singers, two per part with a man and woman on the alto line, and an instrumental ensemble of eight strings, two oboes (one doubling flute), bassoon, three trumpets, timpani, harpsichord/organ and theorbo. The singers take it in turns in the solo movements, so that by the end of the disc you have heard each one. And this is very much a vocal ensemble, you can sense that there are ten individuals there, and whilst the performing forces are akin to what Bach might have used in Leipzig, the sopranos and the altos do not try to sound like boys, they sound like themselves and the performance is all the better for it.

There is the odd wrinkle in the texture, it is clear that this is as live and this is not the sort of performance with starry soloists aiming at perfection, each individual brings their own qualities to the performance. The repertoire is based around Bach's first version of the Magnificat, the version in E flat with Christmas interpolations, and performed alongside Christmas works by his two predecessors in the role of Kantor at St Thomas's Church. Whilst it is lovely to have Schelle's Advent motet Machet die Tore weit on disc (not much of Schelle's output survives), it is fascinating to have Kuhanau's Magnificat here as it is clear that work was a very big influence on his great successor's setting.

Each Solomon's Knot concert is vibrantly vivid and highly communicative event, and on this disc the group goes a long way to bringing its ethos into the recording studio.

Johann Bernard Bach (1676-1749) - Orchestral Suites
Johann Bernard Bach (1676-1749) - Orchestral Suites
Thüringer Bach Collegium
AUDITE 97.770 1CD [82.22]

The subject of this disc is not the great Johann Sebastian but his cousin Johann Bernard. Johann Bernard Bach was harpsichordist and organist in the court orchestra of Duke Johann Wilhelm of Sachsen-Eisenach, Johann Bernard would have had Telemann as an intermittent colleague and he and Johann Sebastian seemed to enjoy good relations. Johann Bernard stood godfather to Johann Sebastian's third son whilst Johann Sebastian had copies of his cousin's orchestral suites and performed some of them with the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. There is not a great deal of surviving music by Johann Bernard, so these suites are valuable.

There are four suites here, each with six or eight movements and all are very much written in the mixed style (of which Telemann was a great exponent) combining French and Italian taste, something that was popular at the German courts. Here we have a nice mix of virtuosic brilliance and elegant taste. The Thüringer Bach Collegium is a compact group with six strings (led by Gernot Süssmuth), plus harpsichord, three oboes (one doubling flute and recorder) and bassoon.

The sound-world here is as much Handel and Telemann as Johann Sebastian Bach, and these are wonderfully engaging pieces. Each suite starts with an overture in the French style (slow-fast-slow), followed by  a series of dance movements full of character and galanterie. It is notable that the overtures do not have strict fugues but polyphonic sections related to the Italian concerto grosso. This is most definitely music of the mixed taste, and Johann Bernard Bach mixes things up with great skill and elegance.

If you wonder what was happening in Germany outside of Leipzig during Bach's lifetime, then these suites from his highly regarded cousin are a fine place to start.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • European song exploration: Malcolm Martineau's Decades - A Century of Song reaches the 1840s (★★★★) - CD review
  • An engaging Baroque recital from City Music Foundation artist, Anna Cavaliero - concert review
  • Notable debut: the Armenian State Symphony orchestra's first Barbican appearance gave us music from Armenia alongside Bruch and Ravel with the orchestra's artist in residence, Maxim Vengerov (★★★★) - concert review
  • An anarchic approach to the everyday: Bastard Assignments debut album (★★★½) - CD review
  • Songs from the Soil: Theatre of Voices launches Kings Place's Nature Unwrapped season  (★★★½) - concert review
  • Strong revival: a well-balanced cast bring a sense of enjoyment to Richard Jones' highly theatrical production of Puccini's La Bohème at the Royal Opera House (★★★★½) - opera review
  • The music around him: a look at Mozart as he writes Mitridate, Re di Ponto in The Mozartists '1770 - a retrospective' at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Handel Uncaged: chamber cantatas revealed in new context by Lawrence Zazzo on Inventa (★★★★½) - Cd review
  • Haydn’s The Creation at the Bartók National Concert Hall (Müpa Budapest) by Concentus Musicus Wien and the Purcell Choir produced a memorable performance under Ádám Fischer (★★★★) - concert review
  • The other concertos: Mendelssohn's Double Concerto & Piano Concerto No. 1 from the Stankov Ensemble (★★★½) - CD review
  • Britten and Dowland: Allan Clayton, Sean Shibe, Timothy Ridout and James Baillieu at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Jordanian-Palestinian pianist Iyad Sughayer explores the brilliant piano music of Aram Khachaturian on this debut disc (★★★★) - CD review 
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