Tuesday 19 September 2023

Vivid and strong-minded performances: Bach's Harpsichord Concertos from Steven Devine and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos, BWV 1052, 1055, 1054, 1059; Steven Devine, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Resonus Classics
Bach: Harpsichord Concertos, BWV 1052, 1055, 1054, 1059; Steven Devine, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Resonus Classics

Single instruments and intimate recording make for a vibrant and satisfying sound on this exciting new disc of Bach's keyboard concertos

I have long been fascinated with Bach's harpsichord concertos, what were they supposed to sound like and what were they for. The concertos for single harpsichord and accompaniment survive in a neat manuscript in Bach's own hand, so no questions there. But put a harpsichord together with an ensemble of instruments and you have problems in a hall of any size, the tone of the keyboard rarely carries as well as other instruments; it fills in gaps well enough (usually, but not always, that is however another discussion), but hardly dominates in concerto mode and I have heard plenty of live performances where the soloist was hardly done justice to from the middle of the hall.

Perhaps my ears are at fault. But, clearly Bach's idea of a keyboard concerto is rather different to our modern ideas. Wanda Landowska playing her steel-frame industrial-sized harpsichord this was not. However, wouldn't it be good to have some sort of eye-witness description of exactly what happened at Cafe Zimmerman? What sort of instrument did Bach play, was there an additional continuo instrument besides the soloist, how many instrumentalist played, how big was the room, what was the acoustic effect. And that is all without going into the fact that Cafe Zimmerman ran and outdoor musical season too!

On this new disc from Resonus Classics, Steven Devine directs the Orchestra of the Age Enlightenment (OAE) from the harpsichord in four of Bach's keyboard concertos, those in D minor, BWV 1052, A major, BWV 1055, and D major, BWV 1054, along with Devine's reconstruction of that in D minor, BWV 1059 which survives in fragmentary form but which was going to be based on the opening sinfonia of the cantata Geistund Seele wird verwirret.

Whilst the disc uses the instrumental forces of the OAE, of which Devine is principal keyboard player, there is not what we might think of as an orchestra. Just single instruments, Margaret Faultless and Kati Debretzeni, violins, Max Mandel, viola, Andrew Skidmore, cello and Christine Sticher, double bass, pluse Katharina Spreckelsen, oboe in the final concerto.

Steven Devine plays a double-manual harpsichord by Colin Booth (2000) after a single-manual by Johann Christof Fleischer (Hamburg, 1710). The harpsichord has a fine musical sound with a good core to the notes. It isn't my favourite recorded harpsichord, but certainly the tone quality of the notes are more centred, more tone and less pluck than some (sorry to sound so picky, but these are the sorts of things I think about when listening to harpsichords).

The disc is recorded quite closely, these are not delicate, intimate performances but rather strong ones where all concerned give a good, full sound. The harpsichord does not dominate, in the way a piano would, but the way the players allow notes to die away and to take account of whether this is a tutti or a solo moment, means that we do get to appreciate Devine's full soloistic capabilities. I will be quite frank, my ears did take a bit of adjusting, but it was well worth it.

These are vivid, vibrant performances and certainly the schmoozy, romantic Bach that can sometimes happen. There is often a brisk, no-nonsense feel to the music. It is never rushed, there is always the right space for the music to expand into, but there is none of that sense of lingering which can move a performance into more Romantic territory.

There is also a quite serious tone to the music making, focused and sober, yet with plenty of toe-tapping rhythms and vibrant performances. And I love the sense that this is real chamber music, just listening to the vivid opening movement from the D major concerto (based on the Violin Concerto in E major), it is toe tappingly good, but in the solo passages where Bach has considerably elaborated the figuration for the keyboard, you feel that all the performers are giving and taking together, allowing Devine space for his fingers, but never with any sense of frantic counting. This is briskly lively performance that really breathes. And in the slow movement of the same concerto, I loved the way you can clearly hear the way Devine is double stopping the melody line. Pure magic.

The final concerto, BWV 1059 is a new world as I had never come across it before. Devine's reconstruction is very satisfying and here, the harpsichord does seem to dominate more along with moments when Devine duets with Spreckelsen's oboe. This reconstruction seems to be stronger in tonal depth and colour than the other works, perhaps it is the effect simply of adding the oboe, or perhaps the music is closer to the original cantata material. However, I never felt this was anything other than Bach, a wonderful credit to Devine.

Steven Devine and members of the OAE recording Bach's Concerto in D minor, BWV 1059
Steven Devine and members of the OAE recording Bach's Concerto in D minor, BWV 1059

Bach's keyboard concertos leave so much space for the performers that each  recording is going to appeal to a different audience. Here Steven Devine and the OAE give us small scale yet soloistic performances, individual players at their utmost, creating some vivid and strong-minded performances.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052
Johann Sebastian Bach - Concerto in A major, BWV 1055
Johann Sebastian Bach - Concerto in D major, BWV 1054
Johann Sebastian Bach, reconstructed Steven Devine - Concerto in D minor, BWV 1059
Steven Devine (harpsichord & director)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Margaret Faultless, Kati Debretzeni, Max Mandel, Andrew Skidmore, Christine Ticher, Katharina Spreckelsen)
Recorded at St John's Smith Square, London, 1-3 March 2022

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1 comment:

  1. I have had a couple of private comments about Landowska's harpsichord. She favoured a Pleyel model, created to her specifications, 7ft 6in long with a 16ft register, and iron frame. It was designed to be of sufficient power to be heard in a concert hall and robust enough to withstand frequent moving. There is an illuminating article in The English Harpsichord Magazine, Vol 2, No 5 1979 from the British Harpsichord Society.


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