Tuesday 29 March 2022

A programme of Bach's concertos and cello suite from Il Gusto Barocco gives us a distant echo of Bach's concerts at Cafe Zimmerman

Bach Suite & Concertos; Il Gusto Barocco, Jörg Halubek; Berlin Classics
Bach Suite & Concertos; Il Gusto Barocco, Jörg Halubek; Berlin Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 March 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Vividly engaged playing in a programme which attempts to take us to Bach's Cafe Zimmerman

Having released a recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos last year [see my review], Jörg Halubek and Il Gusto Barocco continue their Bach journey on Berlin Classics with a disc that combines the Cello Suite No. 3 with the Violin Concerto in A minor, Harpsichord Concerto in D major, Concerto for Two Harpsichords and Concerto for two Violins, with soloists Leila Schayegh (violin), Jörg Halubek (harpsichord), Alexander Gergelyfi (harpsichord), and Anais Chen (violin), plus cellist Jonathan Pesek.

The programme is constructed in an intriguing manner, the movements of the Cello Suite are spread throughout the disc punctuating and linking the programme. The ethos behind this programming is a desire to evoke the atmosphere of Bach's concerts at the Cafe Zimmerman whilst recognising that we do not know enough about the details and will probably never be able to accurately reconstruct these events. Bach directed the Collegium Musicum at the Cafe Zimmerman, and recycled music from his earlier days for the ensemble, performing secular cantatas, concertos, orchestral suites and instrumental works in the cafe's main room. What we have is the surviving music, which provides us with a distant echo of these events.

When Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723, Cafe Zimmerman was the largest and best-appointed coffee house in the town, and whilst women were forbidden to frequent coffee houses they were allowed to attend concerts. The main space consisted of two adjoining rooms, one 8m by 10m, the other 5.5m by 10m, and how one would love to know what went on and how. Zimmerman evidently didn't charge the Collegium Musicum a fee, nor did he charge for attendance, his expenses were paid entirely from the sales of coffee!

What Il Gusto Barocco do is bring out the sense of intimacy and music making amongst friends. The core ensemble uses just one player to a part, with first violin Anais Chen taking the second solo part in the double concerto, and solo cellist Jonathan Pesek is also the cellist in the ensemble. This has a significant effect on the relationship between soloists and ensemble. There is never any sense of the solo lines being artificially spot-lit, and the way the soloists weave in and out of the texture is appealing and convincing. The ensemble never has a purely accompanying role, and there are moments with the various ensemble instrumental lines take the spotlight. 

This is highlighted by the harpsichord concertos where the instrument is never able to quite dominate, though the textures really thin down during the solo moments. The effect is not so much a soloist in the 19th century sense, but a key player on whom the spotlight falls occasionally.

The playing has a vivid sense of engagement throughout, whether it be the lively and bouncy fast movements or the spinning out of long lines in the violin concerto slow movements. And that bounce is a key factor throughout, this music has a wonderful spring in its step. You never feel that the playing is underpowered, and I never longed for a larger string ensemble, such was the vividness of the playing. In the movements of the cello suite, Jonathan Pesek brings similar virtues to bear, so that the two types of material seem to be build from a common weave, and the programme is remarkably successful.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - Cello Suite No. 3 in C major
Johann Sebastian Bach - Violin Concerto in A minor
Johann Sebastian Bach - Harpsichord Concerto in D major
Johann Sebastian Bach - Concerto for two Harpsichords in C minor
Johann Sebastian Bach - Concerto for two Violins in D minor
Il Gusto Barocco
Jörg Halubek (director)
Recorded at Evangelische Kirche Peter und Paul, Gönningen/Reutlingen, 10-12 August 2020

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