GRAMOPHONE AWARDS SHORTLIST 2014
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CPE Bach ‘Württemberg’ Sonatas, Wq49 H30‑34, 36 Mahan Esfahani hpd Hyperion F CDA67995 (77’ • DDD)
Mahan Esfahani’s debut recital recording commemorates the tercentenary of Carl
Philipp Emmanuel Bach (1714-88), whose collection of six sonatas published in 1744 was dedicated to Duke Carl Eugen of Württemberg (later the Stuttgart employer of Jommelli), and composed while he was employed at the court of Frederick II of Prussia (who had not yet won his epithet as ‘the Great’). Thus these sonatas date from before JS Bach’s visit to his son in Berlin that spawned The Musical Offering (1747), and their stylistic peculiarity reconfirms the inadequacy of clumsy attempts to categorise mid-18th-century composers who straddled the so-called ‘late Baroque’ and ‘early Classical’ periods.
Esfahani’s booklet-note provides the listener with a convivial commentary in which he draws attention to CPE Bach’s ‘Janus-like musical personality’ – nowhere more apparent than in the juxtaposition of recitative-like introduction, an intricate Adagio non molto and an extrovertly contrapuntal conclusion in the final sonata (H36). It is apt that Esfahani plays on a copy of surviving instruments by the Berlin court instrument-builder Michael Mietke (from whom JS Bach bought a two-manual harpsichord for the Cöthen court in 1719). There is an unpredictable lute stop used briefly in the Andante of H30, a gentle exploitation of dissonances throughout the Adagio and Vivace of H33, and Haydnesque playfulness in the finale of H32. The elusive fusion of thematic intricacy, ‘Baroque’ rhetoric and ‘proto-Classical’ Sturm und Drang offered by the instrument are caught perfectly by Esfahani’s supple touch and disarming sense of rhetorical pacing. David Vickers
JS Bach Brandenburg Concertos, BWV1046‑51 Dunedin Consort / John Butt Linn M b Í CKD430 (93’ • DDD/DSD)
Expertly stylish recordings of the six concertos Bach presented in neat copy to the Margrave of Brandenburg in March 1721 are two-a-penny but the Dunedin Consort offer more substantial style and bona fide expertise than most. John Butt’s essay is an accessible commentary, narrated with a friendly authority that bespeaks his extensive academic and performing experience. Several choices reveal sincere reflection about how Bach might have expected such concertos to be played during his years of service at Cöthen, such as the use of low ‘Cammerton’ pitch (A=392) and Werkmeister III temperament, and a decision to tune the viola da gamba and violone grosso to ‘Chorton’ (ie up a third) in order to better exploit the sonorities of open strings. None of those principles would be quite so valuable if the music-making wasn’t charismatic and refreshing.
The pair of horns and three oboes in the opening of Concerto No 1 offer unforced conversational sparkle and the French-style fourth movement is an eloquent courtly dance (particularly the poignant trio for oboes and bassoon and compassionate strings in the Polacca). The nine-part strings in the dazzling finale of Concerto No 3 (which Butt takes at quite a lick) suggest the extravagant flair of Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico. The final Presto of Concerto No 4 is just one example of Bernardini’s articulate bowing and relaxed phrasing in rapid passages, and cellist Jonathan Manson and harpsichordist Butt provide continuo with characterful joie de vivre. Butt plays a modern replica of a large Mietke harpsichord like one purchased by the Cöthen court in 1719 and his flexible performance of Bach’s cadenza in Concerto No 5 has a rare extemporised atmosphere of exuberant fun; the amusement of the orchestra is almost tangible in the closing ritornello. In contrast, the lower strings convey sublime melancholy in the Adagio ma non tanto of Concerto No 6. Notwithstanding the distinguished Brandenburg discography, this set is nothing short of sensational. David Vickers
JS Bach Four Orchestral Suites, BWV1066‑69 La Petite Bande / Sigiswald Kuijken Accent F ACC24279 (79’ • DDD)
There are few musicians who appear more steeped in their worlds than Sigiswald
Kuijken and one senses that Bach’s pure instrumental vein frees his spirit like none other. For while his concurrent cantata series promotes a particular rhetorical posture, sometimes over-driven by dogmatic signposts, these performances of the four surviving suites not only sound supremely natural but register among the most stylish and subtle to emerge in years. Forming the basis of many a self-respecting early music group, the Suites tend to encourage a degree of muscle-flexing in gestural grandeur and corporate homogeneity. La Petite Bande have the latter virtue in abundance but take opulence in their stride and add a kaleidoscopic range of intimacies, inferences and gestural landscapes which are both thrilling and delectable.
By presenting in the order 1, 3, 2, 4, the two D major works are successfully broken up while retaining the unequivocally elegant C major Suite as the scene-setting ‘pastorale’; the strings and winds traverse the music with a geniality and irresistible sangfroid. If less is not always more in Kuijken’s cantata performances, the taut 15-odd musicians present the trumpet-anddrum works with just the right mix of élan and spit and sawdust (old trumpets with no holes provide many extra overtones and gamey tunings). Some might find the Air a touch sour but this is less about intonation than Kuijken exhibiting the maverick, never too far below the surface.
Yet it is Kuijken’s uncomplicated delight in Bach’s arresting view of this Teutonically adopted French art form that wins the day. The flute suite (No 2) is like a delicious puff pastry in the lithe hands of Barthold Kuijken, restrained and flirting with French inégales in the Rondeau – those suggestive swung figures which one assumes were still currency in signed-up Gallic-inspired German courts such as Celle. As in all the
6 GRAMOPHONE AWARDS 2014