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Gramophone awards shortList 2015

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Baroque instrumental

CPE Bach Symphonies – Wq179 H654; Wq182/4 H660; Wq182/5 H661; Wq183/1 H663; Wq183/3 H665 Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Rebecca Miller Signum F SIGCD395 (57’ • DDD) Recorded live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, January 30, 2014

CPE Bach’s two sets of ‘Hamburg’ symphonies from the 1770s have long been famous for pushing the contemporary musical language to the brink. No other orchestral music of the period, not even Haydn’s so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies, is so consistently disruptive. Bach’s long-range control ensures that chaos is ultimately averted, but it’s a close shave. The symphonies Bach composed two decades earlier in Berlin are far less familiar. Yet the E flat (Wq179), from 1757, is hardly less disturbingly outré than the Hamburg works. The Prestissimo first movement continually wrong-foots the listener with its manic outbursts and weird dislocations, while the contorted, chromatic Larghetto mines CPE’s characteristic vein of brooding Empfindsamkeit. Only the exuberant ‘hunting’ finale suggests anything approaching stability.

Galant decorum simply won’t do in CPE. Not that the OAE needed reminding in these vividly recorded performances from the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Under Rebecca Miller’s inspiriting direction, the crack players tear into the fast movements with disciplined craziness. In the two Hamburg symphonies with wind (Wq183), the orchestra’s tigerish attack and cumulative energy eclipse even the performances they recorded with Gustav Leonhardt in the 1990s (now on Warner Classics, 8/90). The players make you unusually aware of the tense contrapuntal friction between violins and basses, the latter both weighty and athletic. Horns glint and holler through the manic, seething tuttis; flutes and oboes proffer glimpses of precarious calm.

The two Hamburg string symphonies (Wq182) are just as exciting. Antiphonal violins spar edgily, offset by fleeting moments of yearning lyricism. I can’t recall hearing such a viscerally thrilling performance of the finale of the B minor (No 5), with its firestorms and grinding, wailing suspensions. But these performances are not all about seismic shocks. Miller and the players think long, ratcheting up the tension towards Bach’s cadences. And they are closely attuned to the dark, febrile beauty of the slow movements, whether in the long, singing lines, eloquently shaped, of the B minor Symphony’s Larghetto or the shrouded viola-cello duet in the F major (Wq183/3). If you’re still a CPE novice, I can’t think of a better introduction to his brand of inspired eccentricity than these terrific, high-octane performances, live in every sense. Richard Wigmore (May 2015)

JS Bach Solo Cello Suites, BWV1007-1012 David Watkin vc Resonus M b RES10147 (145’ • DDD)

As with so much mainstream repertoire, the catalogue is so full of recordings –

good and bad – that there often has to be some form of abstract justification to qualify any further additions. David Watkin’s profound musicianship, though, is more than enough to accelerate this recording of Bach’s Cello Suites to the top of the tiny league of ‘definitive’ recordings, beyond the infinitesimal care of Ditta Rohmann (Hungaroton, 5/14, 11/14), the meticulous intellectualism of Anner Bylsma (Sony, 7/81, 1/93) or even the refined warmth of the benchmark Fournier performances (Archiv, 3/89): all encapsulate the vital elements of these works but none succeeds completely in covering them all. Watkin plays the first five suites on a cello by Francesco Ruggieri – a luthier contemporary of Bach’s whose instruments are famed for their warmth of tone – and the sixth on a rare five-string cello by the Amati brothers of the same period. But the extraordinarily resonant sound he makes is probably less to do with the instruments than with the playing itself, which is warm, expansive, generous and friendly. That is not to say that this performance is not of the highest level intellectually and technically: it is, and largely because of its appreciation of these suites as not just dances but discourses almost verbal in their directness. It is as if all the work that Watkin has ever done on these pieces has been absorbed absolutely and then reproduced in a performance that is able to be completely original in its voice at the same time as never producing a phrase that jars in its unsubtlety, or presents an ego that overarches the music.

That generosity of artistry directly results in some movements that are not only opened up to the listener as the masterworks they are but as paeans of heart-cracking joy. If you only buy this disc for the Prelude of the G major Suite, for exactly that reason, it will be money well spent. Caroline Gill (June 2015)

Rameau Pièces de clavecin Mahan Esfahani hpd Hyperion F b CDA68071/2

Some of the finest harpsichordists of our day have celebrated Rameau’s 250th anniversary with versions of his highly regarded if relatively little-known solo and concerted harpsichord works: highly innovative music for supremely accomplished practitioners. Among the recordings is something for nearly everyone, including those who prefer a Steinway to a Ruckers (Esfahani plays one in 18th-century states).

A key factor in determining the longevity of an interpretation is the degree to which the performer succeeds in characterising the music and, on this point alone, top marks must go to Mahan Esfahani, who seems always to have its


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