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CLASSICAL  July 2006

CLASSICAL July 2006

Subject:

Bach Harpsichord with Pinnock

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 17 Jul 2006 04:46:59 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (84 lines)

    Johann Sebastian Bach
Complete Harpsichord Concerti

Trevor Pinnock, Kenneth Gilbert, Lars Ulrik Mortensen, Nicholas Kraemer
(harpsichords)
The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock
DG Arkhiv 471754 Total time: 199:27 (3 CDs)

Summary for the Busy Executive: Sprightly.

Bach, as far as I know, is the first composer to write a concerto for
harpsichord.  Vivaldi and Handel had written organ concerti, but Baroque
composers generally regarded the harpsichord as a "utility" orchestral
instrument, something to fill in harmonies.  Not even Vivaldi, one of
the most brilliant and inventive orchestrators in music, saw the potential
of the instrument as a solo superstar on the order even of, say, the
bassoon.

Bach arranged all his harpsichord concerti from ones for so-called
"melody" instruments - usually violin or oboe - mostly his own concerti,
but in one case a Vivaldi concerto for four violins.  Almost all the
rearrangements are re-imaginings of the music, by necessity.  After all,
a harpsichord plays more simultaneous lines than an oboe.  Yet, if you
didn't know better, you would think them original compositions.  One can
also consider his earliest concerted work highlighting the harpsichord
- the fifth Brandenburg - as a harpsichord concerto, and it must have
astonished its first hearers, as the keyboard gradually rises out of the
orchestra and eventually monopolizes the musical interest - sort of like
watching a geriatric suddenly bust a move.  The Brandenburg, however,
stands apart from the recognized canon of Bach's harpsichord concerti,
which all come from later in the composer's career.  Bach's relations
with the Leipzig town council had plunged from habitually pissy to
horrific.  From the beginning, they considered him a mediocrity, a
judgment which startles us today.  They sneered at his music as "learned,"
in much the same way you now hear people scoffing at "intellectual"
music.  In my experience, you actually have to know something to be
this blinkered.  Most inexperienced listeners, while they might be bored,
nevertheless don't normally get so specific.  Furthermore, the Leipzig
burgers tended to favor the newer, simpler pre-classical styles of the
eighteenth-century Bright Young Things, like Quantz or even W.F. and
C.P.E. Bach.  So, in a way, these worthies showed their musical
sophistication.  However such negative criticism, often accompanied by
dogmatic delivery, usually has very little to do with anything other
than self-flattery.  It seldom shows much understanding of the work it
criticizes.  At any rate, Bach had been effectively replaced at the main
Leipzig church, although he continued at one of the others.  To fill in
time and to supplement his income, he took over the directorship of the
Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a band of, I believe, mostly amateurs and
created these concerti for their repertoire.  Compared to the orchestral
writing in the Brandenburgs or the orchestral suites, for example, the
ripieno demands a lot less from its players.  The harpsichord - or two,
three, or four harpsichords - provides the fireworks.

The first recording I heard was an old Nonesuch LP of the entire set.
I remember none of the performers (Ristenpart?), only that the music,
with the exception of the concerto for four harpsichords, failed to
impress me - and that was, at bottom, Vivaldi.  I disliked the set so
much that it took me about ten years to hear another - this time, Raymond
Leppard and friends on Philips.  Leppard hadn't recorded all the concerti.
He left out some of the more obvious arrangements, like the one of the
fourth Brandenburg.  However, Leppard, one of the great harpsichordists
of the century, possessed an aural imagination and rhythmic elan unmatched
by anyone but Landowska.  He also happened to conduct Baroque music
incredibly well, if not with "historical" correctness.  He made it sound
both rich and buoyant, indeed joyful.  To this day, Leppard's set remains
my standard, its only disadvantage its lack of completeness.  Some of
these recordings have been re-released on a Philips two-fer, well worth
seeking out.

Pinnock, one of my favorite musicians, may lack the sumptuousness of
Leppard, but he still has plenty of bounce.  Indeed, he swings.  The
sound of the orchestra is leaner as well, and attacks have bite and
purpose.  Everything moves.  The orchestra may not be as necessary to
the success of these works as the soloist, but it's a nice bonus when
the band engages the music in high gear.  Everything here steps lightly
and definitely.  Most importantly, everyone steps with one mind, like a
superb pair of dancers.  The other harpsichordists fall in with Pinnock
in the multi-soloist concerti, matching the energy of his line.  The
engineering creates a detailed sonic landscape which distinguishes one
harpsichord from another, particularly helpful in the concerti for three
and four keyboards.  This recording stands in line just behind the
Leppard.

Steve Schwartz

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