Bach: Harpsichord Concertos BWV1052–1058

Andreas Staier, Freiburger Barockorchester
109:07 (2 CDs)
harmonia mundi HMC 902181.82

Andreas Staier plays all seven single harpsichord concerti on these 2 CDs with members of the admirable Freiburger Barockorchester directed by Petra Müllejans, mostly playing 3.3.2.2.1, with two flauti dolci in BWV1057, the F major transcription of the Fourth Brandenburg (BWV1049). They are recorded quite close which would show up any slight lapses, so either they play as perfectly as it sounds or the editors have done a splendid job: there is a whole page in the liner notes on exactly how they have achieved the sound. Staier plays an instrument by Sidey and Boi (Paris 2004) after Hieronÿmus Albrecht Hess, Hamburg 1734 – why can we not have similar details about the string players’ instruments? – and the autograph parts for BWV1055 – the only ones to survive – provide an additional figured continuo line, and so they perform it here and in the resounding BWV1058.

There is continuing debate about the sources of these concerti, admirably discussed by Peter Wollny in the liner notes. Two of them exist in versions for solo violin and orchestra. Elsewhere, the first two movements from BWV1052 appear in Cantata 146 and the last as a sinfonia in 188, where the organ plays the obbligato part. Two movements of BWV 1053 figure in Cantata 169, the first as the opening sinfonia and the second as an alto aria, and the last movement becomes the opening sinfonia in Cantata 49. At one time it was thought that BWV 1055 might have originated in a concerto for oboe d’amore, though this seems less likely now. What we do have is a complete autograph score of all seven concerti in this form that can be dated to 1738/9.

The playing is bright, crisp and clean and, without feeling in any way mechanical, is less idiorhythmic than Koopman’s 1990 version. The harpsichord never overbalances the instruments, even when they are reduced in numbers for BWV1053, and when he is playing continuo, Staier is admirably discreet, as he should be. There are no fussy changes of registration, but use is made of the two manuals in, for example, the extended cadenza in BWV 1052/3. In BWV 1053, Peter Wollny comments on ‘the filigree polyphonic technique’ and the intimate interchange between instruments that leads the performers to play this E major concerto with one-to-a-part strings, and hearing it makes me wonder what they would all sound like performed that way – and possibly at 392Hz as well, like John Butt’s persuasively argued Brandenburgs. BWV 1058, a version of the A minor violin concerto is very convincing at its lower G minor pitch, but with its extra continuo keyboard the weight of the full string band certainly feels justified.

CD 2 opens with BWV 1054, a version of the E major violin concerto BWV 1042, which probably dates from Cöthen; again it is transposed down (into D major), and the second manual is used effectively in the opening movement. Staier plays the last movement of the A major concerto (BWV 1055) as a brisk minuet – it’s a wholly delightful performance and like the second movement displays the splendid tuning of the band: this is really classy. Was the F minor concerto (BWV 1056) also a downward transcription of an earlier version in G minor? The slow movement is the opening sinfonia in cantata 156, where the solo part above the strings (here pizzicato until the last bar) is given to the oboe. Some of the right hand figuration in the opening movement reminds me of the oboe d’amore passagework in the opening movement of Cantata 36. BWV 1057 sounds comfortable (as it should) on the recorders, and at times a fourth voice is added to the solo group. I admired this ensemble work greatly, and the fugal final movement is especially exhilarating.

I hope people will enjoy these performances as much as I did – and will continue to. This is as near as it comes to superlative playing from all concerned, and that coupled with exceptional recording and editing makes this a very fine version. I recommend it unreservedly.

David Stancliffe

David did say that he would like to give more than five stars for the quality of the recorded sound!