Germany JCF Bach, CPE Bach, JS Bach, Johann Christoph Bach: Albrecht Mayer (oboe, oboe d’amore, English horn), Berliner Barock Solisten, Gottfried von der Goltz (violin, director). Kammermusiksaal, Berlin, 11.12.2023. (MB)
Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach – Sinfonia in D minor, WFV 1/3
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (arr. Albrecht Mayer and Matthias Spindler) – Oboe Concerto in G major (after harpsichord concerto, Wq 9)
Johann Sebastian Bach – Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major, BWV 1048 (early version)
Johann Christoph Bach (arr. Spindler) – Lamento: Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte
CPE Bach – Symphony in E-flat major for strings, Wq 122/2
JS Bach – Oboe d’amore concerto in A major, BWV 1055R
It is always time for Bach, likewise for the Bach family, but some times seem still more so than others. Advent is surely one of them, and this Advent seems all the more necessary than ever as a source of hope and light when sorely needed. Here, members of the Berlin Philharmonic, in their guise as the Berliner Barock Solisten, led by violinist Gottfried von der Goltz, were joined by their Philharmonic colleague, oboist Albrecht Mayer, in a programme of music by Johann Sebastian, two of his sons, and his first cousin once removed, Johann Christoph, described in Sebastian’s 1735 genealogy as ‘ein profonder Componist’.
First, a fine curtain-raiser: a Sinfonia in D minor by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, JS Bach’s fifth son and only three years old when his father (we think) compiled that genealogy. This short three-movement symphony probably stood closest to CPE Bach of Bach’s other sons, though without his radicalism/mannerism (delete according to taste). It nonetheless offered invention and the occasional surprise, in more-or-less Sturm und Drang mode. In the opening Allegro, the ensemble offered cultivated, dramatic playing which, as elsewhere in the programme, rightly saw no need for mere ‘effects’. Committed, communicative musicianship, which recognised and demonstrated both the importance and joy of listening to one another, was enough. The slow movement, Andante amoroso was announced in veiled, somewhat astringent intimacy, taking its leave from the director’s muting of his instrument. Its aria-like unfolding also suggested an organ piece; indeed, Goltz’s violin tone had something of a viola da gamba stop to it. Vigour and dynamism characterised a finale that was conceived and felt as such.
Emanuel Bach’s G major harpsichord concerto was here arranged for oboe. If there were times when I was not entirely convinced, they were rare, and one can hardly blame an oboist for wanting to expand his instrument’s repertoire. From the outset, contrasts and mood swings made the composer’s identity clear, though a rare instance of tentative string entry might have had me wonder. Mayer clearly relished the language and the twists and turns of this first movement, as did the ensemble, the physicality of whose playing had one feel in the best sense bows and rosin flying from their bows. This went ‘down’ all the way to the violone/double bass, Ulrich Wolff’s playing as nimble and expressive as that of anyone else. Another aria-like second movement followed, Mayer splendidly long-breathed, strings varying vibrato for expressive rather than dogmatic reasons. I found the harpsichord registration (a lute stop, I think) distracting, even irritating, but could see others in the audience responding more positively. Dramatic string interjections prior to the cadenza would surely have impressed Gluck. Likewise, in the finale, gestures told, whilst always forming part of a larger picture. Bright, incisive, string playing was matched by Mayer’s perky despatch of his part. It was a fine dialogue, enjoyable and nourishing in equal measure.
The Third Brandenburg Concerto was given by three violins, three violas, two cellos, one double bass, and harpsichord continuo. Polished and lively, the first movement was a model of chamber-scale performance, wondrous transparency ensuring one could feel the import of every contrapuntal line and its direction. Whatever the virtues of his sons’ music – and they are great – Sebastian Bach cannot help but put them in the shade, his music once again proving so satisfying, engrossing, and yes, inspiring. All contributed equally, listening as keenly as they communicated. A rich harpsichord lead-in from Raphael Alpermann to ‘those’ two chords navigated passage to the finale. This I found a little too hard driven, however impressive the playing, but it met with an enthusiastic reception. As a surprise ‘encore’, we were given the Sinfonia to ‘Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis’, BWV 21. One of Bach’s most extraordinary most memorable, and indeed most extraordinarily memorable cantata movements, it showed Mayer and Goltz in truly harmonious dialogue, violone pizzicato, bowed cellos, and the rest adding not only harmony and texture, but a glimpse of an entire theology. It flowed like tears, fermatas intelligible and meaningful to all, the drama leaping out as if from the aural equivalent of a stained-glass window.
Johann Christoph Bach’s grave Lamento, arranged by Matthias Spindler, for English horn rather than contralto solo, against strings and continuo, was very much what it ‘said on the tin’, even before Mayer’s entry. Again, the keenness of unfolding dialogue between Mayer and Goltz (later, others too) was touching. Venetian antecedents were apparent, yet so was a more ‘German’ sense of melodic development. I could not help but think the loss of words here withheld from us a key to understanding; without that, the piece felt a little long, though it remained a rare and welcome opportunity to hear it.
Emanuel Bach’s E-flat String Symphony came next, continuing and developing earlier tendencies of characterful performances which trusted the score without need for weird, ‘early musicke’ fetishisation, whether of instrument, articulation, ‘rhetoric’, or anything else. Alert, clear, directed, the first movement’s nerviness, present without exaggeration, was carried through into the Andante minuet: a splendid surprise, all the more so for eschewing current fashions to take such music far too fast. Here, there was plenty of space for neurotic detail, and it was all the better to swing too. The players may have been relatively few in number, but they knew how to fill a hall with music (as much a matter of conception as of tone or mere volume). Catchy and disorienting, the finale proved just the thing both in its concentration and in the fascination of its plot-twists.
And so, once more to Sebastian Bach, for the final piece, the (reasonably) well-known ‘return’ of the A major Harpsichord Concerto BWV 1055 to a putative oboe d’amore original. Whether an ‘authentic’ version or not – who cares? – the sheer ‘rightness’ of the music ‘itself’ brooked no dissent. Once again, the satisfaction of its construction, vertical and horizontal in perfect, productive balance in a way never surpassed and rarely matched, left one in no doubt as to the identity of the greatest Bach. That was partly, of course, a matter of the performance too: enlightened, surely, from whatever ideological standpoint (or none). Solo phrasing was so excellent one did not notice it. Tempi were just right, as was the sensitivity of dynamic shading, perhaps especially revealing in the Larghetto. An ebullient, even declamatory finale, as catchy as any Brandenburg Concerto, was taken quickly, without ever feeling rushed. As an encore, we heard Mayer and the ensemble in ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Handel’s Rinaldo: a nice touch, not only permitting Kristin von der Goltz a wonderful cello solo leading us back from the ‘B’ section, but also lightly reminding us that Bach’s path to greatness is not the only one, tempting though it may be to think so when under his spell. Handel may look ‘less’ than Bach, but he can hold his own, and did here.