C. P. E. Bach: Cello Concertos

Nicolas Altstaedt, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
64:37
Hyperion CDA68112
H432, 436, 439 (Wq 170-172)

C. P. E. Bach’s three concertos for cello and strings date from the early 1750s, existing also in versions for harpsichord and flute. Between them they represent fine examples of the variants to be found in Bach’s highly distinctive style, the A minor dominated by the nervous intensity and fragmentary writing typical of Sturm und Drang, the B flat a more relaxed work that comes closer to Rococo sentiment. The most original of the trio is the A major, with its central Largo con sordini, mesto  (sad) that, as Richard Wigmore observes in an excellent note, might be seen as the epitome of the impassioned Empfindsamkeit  style associated with Bach and North German colleagues such as the Benda brothers.

Nicolas Altstaedt is a German-French cellist who has come very much to the fore in recent years both as a modern and period instrument performer. The first thing to say about his performances here is that they are as technically near-flawless as it is possible to come and that the solo playing throughout owns to a rich tonal beauty evoking a bewitching sensuality. If that sounds like sufficient to entice you, then you probably need read no further.

The overriding objectives of both Sturm und Drang  and Empfindsamkeit  – in both their literary and music forms – was to stir the deepest of passions and, in the case of the latter, profoundly touch the heart. Both are open to sentimentality of the modern variety and it is here that my own reservations about the present performances have their roots. Too often I have an uncomfortable impression that they are skating too close to the surface. Yes, Arcangelo’s strings dig into the notes with trenchant vigour and, yes, yearning themes yearn, but awakening the passions or potentially inducing the tears of ladies? Perhaps not. We can take that remarkable central movement of the A major Concerto to provide a clear example that illustrates the point. Here the sighing, longing unison theme sets out too slowly for an 18th-century Largo, tempting Altstaedt and Cohen into a self-conscious interpretation that in its overuse of such imposed effects as portamento loses much of its spontaneity. Interestingly, an earlier version of this concerto I have to hand by Alison McGillivray and the English Concert (harmonia mundi, 2006) takes the movement only marginally faster, but achieves an inner intensity that is for me lacking in the present performance.

A further example of Altstaedt’s self-indulgence that might be cited is his heavily-underscored direct quote of ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (from the St John Passion) in the cadenza of opening movement of the A minor Concerto on the grounds that it bears a resemblance to the cello’s opening theme. Well, so it might, but it’s not that close and the equally vague resemblance of the opening theme of the B-flat Concerto to ‘Where‘er you walk’ does not receive similar treatment. As suggested above, many will be unconcerned by these caveats, choosing instead simply to relish the ravishing beauty of the playing. There are certainly many passages and moments when I can do that, but overall the CD left me less engaged than I felt I should have been.

Brian Robins