Johann Sebastian BACH: Harpsichord concertos 1, 2, 3—Marcin Swiatkiewicz—Channel Classics

by | Mar 18, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Johann Sebastian BACH. Harpsichord concertos 1, 2, 3 (BWV 1052-1054)—Marcin Swiatkiewicz (harpsichord), Zefira Volova, Anna Nowak-Pokrzywinska, violins, Dymitr Olszewki, viola, Tomasz Pokrzywinski, cello—Channel Classics CCS 40418—56:00, ****1/2

[headline quote]: Just another Bach concerto recording this is not! This team puts strong improvisational skill at the head of their imaginative performance of three of Bach’s harpsichord concertos, ushering us to re-think about historical performance practice and the beautiful merits of what is most certainly a lost art.

As old-fashioned as we might characterize Johann Sebastian Bach, writing a musical treatise on contrapuntal writing near his death in 1750, at a time when his own sons were adopting a much lighter, more melodic galant aesthetic, it’s just as easy, perhaps, to view Bach as an innovator as well. It’s easy for us to point out that the first concerto with a solo keyboard instrument may be, in fact, his fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Or that through his cantatas he matched the color of instruments to themes.

But it is the pragmatic composer/musician that is the best way to view Bach in the context of his concertos for solo harpsichord, including those recorded here, BWV 1052-1054. Given the responsibilities of providing music in Leipzig with young musicians as entertainment in the gardens or inside the Zimmermann Coffee House, Bach most likely took center stage at the keyboard, employing university students to round out the ensemble with strings. The pragmatic part of the whole enterprise is that Bach, more than likely, conceived of these concertos as a platform for his own improvisation, after being wrought as arrangements of earlier, original concertos for other instruments.

The musicians in this recording have adopted very small forces, accompanying the harpsichord with just four strings and no violone (8’ or double bass). I contrast this with one of my first exposures to these concertos from the Pinnock recordings in the 1980s with a chamber orchestra (to my memory, Pinnock used around four strings per part, at least for the violins). Swiathkiewicz joins harpsichordist Jean Rondeau in using smaller forces, one to a part, for his recording.

In the first concerto, a 16’ instrument is used. Most listeners will find the timbres of this instrument different than what we typically hear; when the 16’ strings are engaged, they sound an octave lower than regular pitch. This richness was explored in the recordings made my Aapo Hakkinen in his Aeolus recordings with Helsinki Baroque. Hakkinen argued that this type of instrument was at the Coffee House and may be the most appropriate type of instrument for Bach’s harpsichord concertos.

In BWV 1053, the E major concerto, a French-style harpsichord is used. This lighter instrument, combined with the lack of a double bass, gives a particular lightness to the entire texture of the concerto. The transparency is perhaps even more intense than what was achieved in Monica Huggett’s recording of the Bach violin concertos with one per part forces. The E major concerto exposes the hallmark of the recording: no one instrument seems emphasized in the mixture; instead, the musicians can expose or hide themselves in a very natural acoustical setting. What’s not there is the fundamental boost of bass, any special stereo effects with extreme panning, or any perception I have of techniques used to isolate the the articulation of the harpsichord from the overall texture. Kudos to the team for going “honest” in the recording; what’s captured more or less is a front-row seat in an intimate concert space.

Portait Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

The D major concerto, BWV 1054, is a re-working of Bach’s E-major violin concerto, BWV 1042. For this concerto, Swiatkiewicz uses a Flemish instrument. While I think the diversity of instruments is interesting on account of us, the listeners, discerning the differences between the timbres of each harpsichord, I question the decision from a pragmatic angle: would Bach have had the luxury of switching instruments between concertos? And since I’ve brought up that there are audible differences, it’s the Flemish instrument in this concerto I favor the best.

In his album Dynastie, Rondeau also records BWV 1052, the D minor concerto. The two recordings are therefore worth comparison. This concerto aside, I am not sure the albums compete, per se, as Rondeau’s is conceived more as a recital/concert featuring concertos by other Bachs as well. But beyond the surface, they are not similar. Rondeau’s recording of the first movement is quicker, with the entire ensemble making a more musical expression out of the opening theme, using dynamics, space between phrases, and perhaps just a tighter integration. The recorded sound is also very different; the Rondeau recording is richer sounding, with the use of a double bass adding luxury to the sound, and the percussive aspect of the keyboard instrument cutting through the texture (which I suspect was made possible by the sound engineers).

But before we dismiss this newer recording by Swiatkiewicz as thin and anemic, I’ve said nothing of what makes this recording truly shine: the very real commitment Swiatkiewicz has made at improvisation (the effect is even taken up by the strings as well). To my memory, I can’t think of any recording of the Bach harpsichord concertos that have included such a florid rendering of music from the score. Sure, it’s easy to add an ornament here or there, but this is something altogether different. The slow movements, which I have been known in haste to skip over from time to time, come alive under Swiatkiewicz’s fingers. The outer movements get this especial treatment as well. In approaching these pieces in this way, I think these musicians have truly internalized the purpose behind these works. Transcribing these concertos to feature the harpsichord (in lieu of a violin, or say, an oboe) was more than just about tone color. Let’s be honest: Bach was known as an awesome keyboard player. We have evidence of his improvisational skill in the written-out cadenza included in his fifth Brandenburg Concerto. I applaud Swiatkiewicz and his team for re-inventing these concertos (the closing Allegro from BWV 1054 is very short, but sweet example of their ingenuity) with organic freedom and flair. The effects they achieve would be far more difficult in the context of a fuller chamber orchestra. And all the extra filigree added by Swiatkiewicz might have been lost with larger forces, too.

The packaging hints that we may get more from these musicians and I will eagerly await to see what’s next. They question in their liner notes the need for another Bach concerto recording, as did I, pulling the plastic away from the CD. However, after auditioning these tracks, I applaud the innovative vein that feeds their performance. And I am with them in the belief that we need to keep re-inventing. My only want on repeated listens was more bass. I know adding an extra octave in some of Bach’s concertos creates some unwanted parallels, but I simply missed that lower octave outside of BWV 1052. I don’t think having another player doubling the bass line would have prevented the musicians for exploring the inventive components of their interpretation.  I assuage this want of mine by closing my eyes and imagining the bass player was sick, unable to join the Leipzig capellmeister that evening at the coffeehaus.

With coffee or without, warmly recommended!

—Sebastian Herrera

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