Bach: Harpsichord Concertos

The Hanover Band, Andrew Arthur
Signum Records SIGCD764

When the first volume of Andrew Arthur’s harpsichord concertos with The Hanover Band (which I reviewed for the EMR in July 2022) was recorded, they also recorded the concertos that make up volume II. So the admirable acoustic of St Nicholas, Arundel and Trinity Hall’s excellent harpsichord by Andrew Garlick, built in 2009 (after a Jean-Claude Goujon of 1748), are common to both. A major key to the success of these recordings is the singing quality of this harpsichord in this acoustic under the fluid coaxing of Andrew Arthur’s touch.

This second volume begins with BWV 1050, which we know as the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, with its ground-breaking harpsichord ‘cadenza’, and brings the wonderful Rachel Brown into the ensemble to join Andrew Arthur and the string players of the Hanover Band, led by the spirited, agile and mellifluous playing of Theresa Caudle – this time properly acknowledged in her crucial role as the first violin. What makes these recordings so special is the natural balance between the instruments – harpsichord, woodwind and strings alike. This is particularly evident in the final concerto on the disc – BWV 1057, the version in F of the fourth Brandenburg, with two recorders (Rachel Brown and Rachel Becket) – where in this 1738 version the florid violin part of Brandenburg 4 is recast for the harpsichord and the amazing final fugal movement offers us every conceivable instrumental combination. There is so much to be learned, as always, by comparing closely Bach’s later versions with his earlier ones.

That kind of comparison is also offered by the other concertos. The Concerto in E (BWV 1053) draws each of its movements from one of Bach’s cantatas. The opening allegro is a version of the Sinfonia from Cantata 169 (1726) Gott soll allein, while 169.v, the aria Stirb in mir, Welt for alto, strings and obbligato organ is the model for the middle movement, a lyrical Siciliano. The last movement is adapted from the opening Sinfonia of BWV 49, another cantata from 1726. Were these instrumental sinfonias that Bach used instead of an opening chorus in a number of cantatas in the autumn of 1726 already in existence as concerto movements for a solo violin, like others that became harpsichord concertos in due course?

The intimate Concerto in F sharp minor is perhaps the biggest treat of all. The tempo in the first movement is moderate, and the alternation of pizzicato and arco in the string parts underlines the quest to discover where we are headed with the angular opening theme. The answer is to the second movement, where the magical Sinfonia for oboe and strings that opens Cantata 156, Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe appears in the unlikely key of A flat. Here again, the acoustics give the pizzicato accompaniment a surprisingly resonant bloom, capped by their final arco bar. Like the first movement, there are repeated echo effects within which the dialogue between the first violin and the harpsichord establishes their natural duetting relationship.

In this second volume, I have become more aware of the crucial part that the acoustics of St Nicholas, Arundel play in shaping the sound in these recordings. This is perhaps most evident in the slow movement of BWV 1050, where as well as the perfectly articulated overlapping threads of all three players, the expressive lift after the first quaver beats in bars 27 and 37 in the harpsichord gives this movement such finesse; and having a two-manual instrument that can revert to basso continuo mode helps articulate the structure as well. The acoustics help establish the tonality so splendidly in the opening of the last movement too. It begins with the violin playing a clear, rounded rhythmic entry that is mirrored by the bloom of the traverso, so that when the harpsichord (in two parts) joins them we are well prepared for the tutti, and ready to appreciate the subtlety of the bass line in those sections where the violone is silenced and the cello plays alone.

Enchanting too is the way every player contributes. Listen to the wonderful viola at bar 147 in this last movement – and in bars 181 ff, and the cello in 192 ff: this is real playing with each other. How lucky Andrew Arthur is to have such fine companions in making these wonderful recordings, where the harpsichord is never stridently soloistic but always the first among equals.

I shall enjoy returning to this recording for a long time. It is such responsive, unshowy but fluid, utterly musical playing. This is how to hear Bach, and you should get it at once.

David Stancliffe


Giovanni Bononcini: Cantate e Sonate

Aurata Fonte (Miho Kamiya soprano, Perikli Pite cello, Valeria Montanari harpsichord)
Tactus TC 670202

This CD presents six cantatas for soprano and basso continuo which have survived in manuscript in Modena, the city of birth of the composer Giovanni Bononcini. Bononcini’s accomplishments as a composer, particularly of operas, took him to Vienna and then London before returning to Vienna to retire on a pension. The sense of drama, which made his operatic efforts so widely appreciated, is also in evidence in his cantatas, and in these world premiere recordings soprano Miho Kamiya invests Bononcini’s cantatas with an engaging level of animation. Striking is Bononcini’s sense of melodic direction, a dynamic feature shared with the instrumental music which Aurata Fonte contribute to the programme – two harpsichord Divertimenti and a cello Sonata persuasively played by harpsichordist Valeria Montanari and cellist Perikli Pite. Both also make a sympathetically responsive contribution to the cantatas. Bononcini is a composer whose influence on the musical scenes in London and Vienna is probably underestimated, and the admiration of his contemporaries in Italy, as well as England and Austria, probably suggests that the bulk of his music which remains neglected, particularly perhaps the operas, deserves performance and reassessment. At any rate, these accomplished premiere recordings suggest that much fine Bononcini still awaits rediscovery.  

D. James Ross


Das ist meine Freude

Love Songs & Psalms
Georg Poplutz tenor, Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble, Arno Paduch
cpo 555 362-2

Tenor Georg Poplutz takes us on a highly enjoyable and instructive tour of sacred and secular songs from the 17th century, usefully juxtaposing familiar music by Monteverdi and Grandi with unfamiliar music by Johann Rosenmüller and Christoph Bernhard, and introducing a host of neglected masters including Benedetto Reggio, Nicolò Corradini, Nicholas Strungk and Thomas Selle. All of the German masters travelled to Italy, learning from the Italian models represented here, the exception being Thomas Selle, who as a pupil of Schütz learned the secrets of Italian music at second hand and with a German accent. The key figure on this CD is undoubtedly Rosenmüller, represented by three major works, clearly a focus of the ensemble, and a figure deserving still of much more attention than he gets. I mentioned at the start that we are in the hands of the solo tenor, Georg Poplutz, and fortunately he has a beautifully engaging voice perfect for this repertoire. He sidesteps effortlessly from secular song to psalm, from Rosenmüller to beautifully ornamented Monteverdi, and is the ideal advocate of this attractive repertoire. He is ably and sympathetically supported by a superb consort directed by cornettist Arno Paduch. This CD is a thorough delight and a revelation from its astutely selected repertoire, its thought-provoking juxtapositions, and its wonderfully persuasive performances.

D. James Ross


Early Neapolitan Cello Music: Greco, Francone

Matteo Malagoli cello, Irene De Ruvo harpsichord, Schola Gregoriana Scivias Ensemble, Milli Fullin
Brilliant Classics 96345

It is hard to remember a time, not that long ago, before Naples was recognised as the important focus it is now for Baroque music, and in particular as the cradle of early cello repertoire. Anyway, the stream of neglected Neapolitan composers just keeps coming, and the present disc offers music by two of them, roughly contemporaries, Rocco Greco and Gaetano Francone. The eleven Greco pieces are Diminutions for cello and continuo based on Gregorian chant, usefully reminding us that much of this early music for cello was intended to be played as part of church services, and that the church provided much of the financial support for this musical flowering. In this recording, each of Greco’s pieces is prefaced by the plainchant on which it is based, sung by the ladies voices of the Schola. The ten short passacaglias by Gaetono Francone were probably also intended for church use. I like the idea of the chant prefaces to the Greco Diminutions, although the singing is not always as polished as it might be, and the harmonic relationship between the chant and the instrumental pieces is often unnecessarily indirect – as the chant is not tied to a specific pitch, ought it not perhaps to have reflected more closely the key of the related diminutions? At any rate, the performances of the instrumental music on cello and organ are always convincing as are the Francone passacaglias, on cello and harpsichord – might the delineation of the passacaglia bass line have benefited from a sustaining bass instrument? As this music would almost certainly never have been performed en bloc, might it also perhaps be more evocative of the original performance practice as well as providing a more varied experience for the listener to have alternated the diminutions and the passacaglias in this programme? In any case, this CD provides yet another valuable insight into the rich world of Neapolitan Baroque music.

D. James Ross


Pegolotti: Trattenimenti Armonici, op. 1, 1698

Opera Qvinta
Tactus TC 661604

Tomaso Domenico Pegolotti was born and spent his life in the small town of Scandiano in Regio Emilia, famous mainly for parmesan cheese but also a notable centre for the arts. The twelve Trattenimenti Armonici printed in 1698 is an eclectic collection in a variety of musical forms and styles and making considerable demands on the solo violin, suggesting that Pegolotti was something of a virtuoso. The present recording presents the pieces in a variety of instrumentations using the group’s cello, theorbo, organ and clavicembalo, although the main focus is necessarily on the solo violin line, played by the group’s musical director Fabrizio Longo. Although the violin sound is occasionally a little pinched, and at the ends of some tracks we are aware of some background hiss, Longo plays with confidence and musicality, ornamenting appropriately and tastefully and finding the essence of these engaging pieces. As a result of his established position in his home town and his contacts with the wealthy local aristocracy, Pegolotti’s Trattenimenti were published as part of what was clearly envisaged as a cumulative body of printed work. Sadly, this project remained unrealised as the composer, who already divided his time between music and law, was increasingly lured by circumstances into the latter sphere. Local politics and the law may have benefited, but music undoubtedly lost a promising musician, who might have gone on to make a distinctive contribution to the melting pot of Italian music at this crucial time.

D. James Ross


Felice Giardini: 6 Sonatas for Flute & Harpsichord

ConSerto Musico
Brilliant Classics 95625

The delightfully named Felice Giardini has filled these sonatas for flute and continuo with the two aspects of his name, joy and gardens! Joyful in mood and making frequent reference to birdsong, these six pieces clearly demonstrate Giardini’s celebrated ability to inhabit the character of the instruments he was composing for. As a virtuoso violinist, Giardini spent much of his life on tour and specifically in the musical honeypot of 18th-century London, where he directed a number of important ensembles, while also finding time to compose and give solo concerts. ConSerto Musico employ both cello and bassoon to vary the texture of the continuo group, and this and a vivacious musicality help to bring this charming music vividly to life. Flautist Mario Foleno plays a copy by Martin Wenner of an original 18th-century flute by Carlo Palanco, which produces a rich and warm tone ideal for this sunlit repertoire. The CD concludes with a Minuet and Variations for keyboard by Giardini which allows harpsichordist Roberto Loreggian to step capably out from his continuo role to take his share of the spotlight.

D. James Ross


G. B. Sammartini: Six Viennese Sonatas

Oinos Baroque Trio
Dynamic CDS7959

These six sonatas, recorded here for the first time, were collected from a variety of sources for use at the Viennese Hofkapelle. Compared to the violin music of his Italian contemporaries, this music by Sammartini is relatively technically undemanding, although it demonstrates a pleasantly lyrical character which makes it constantly engaging. The composer’s long life spans a period of rapid musical development from the Baroque to the Classical period, and his music embodies aspects of both these styles. The Oinos Baroque Trio provide us with persuasive premiere recordings of all six works, although occasionally I feel a little more passion in the playing might have brought the music more convincingly off the page. The fact that these sonatas found their way to Vienna is probably more due to the fact that Sammartini was working in Milan which was at the time under Habsburg rule than to any intention of the composer or any active decision by the musicians of the Viennese Hofkapelle, but that this music subsequently had an influence on the development of Classical music in Vienna is undeniable. This is particularly noticeable in the sonatas in which the Oinos Trio choose a fortepiano as continuo instrument.

D. James Ross


Telemann: Twelve Fantasias for solo flute

Sami Junnonen
resonus RES10312

This current recording on a 24-carat Japanese muramatsu flute, must be sitting on a large pile of predecessors, by now possibly over 70? The other morning I was reading something from 2015, and listed were some 10 recordings, some on recorder, one arrangement for tuba! Despite the freshness, and newly minted recording status, some will already have landed upon favourite versions of these well-crafted works. Rachel Brown’s version of 2007 (Uppernote Recordings) was noteworthy, and came with a fine dissertation to boot! The impeccable dulcet tones of Claire Guimond’s version of these pieces on Analekta/Fleurs de Lys (FL 2 3080) have left their impressive mark, and this remains my absolute favourite, or at least a very high benchmark despite being from 1995.

As mentioned in this latter-mentioned recording, there’s an element of “Trompe l’oreille” (Trick of the Ear?) built into these works, which – though written for solo flute – give the impression of an echo, or second voice.

Sadly, some of these clever dynamics, and tricks of the ear, are swept aside for a more lesson-like approach as mere Solfeggi for competent flautists. The test here comes in No. 7 in D, with its Alla Francese, a most cleverly spun French ouverture, requiring the two-voice approach for effect! Oddly, I do often imagine a Japanese (hermit?) flautist reverberating through misty forests here!

The final work in G major is a mini tour de force of alternating movements, and if your ability falls short, then a bumpy ride can occur! With some push-me, pull-me turbulence… such are the clever virtuosic twists here, which some achieve better than others.

I have heard these works on flute, baroque flutes, recorder, and even bassoon, (though never tuba!) and can hear the registers and instruments that best suit, the bassoon was really rather good! Here, the lower and middle registers seem to sit comfortably, however, I found a slightly strident tone in the higher registers. That said, occasional flourishes made an impression.

I haven’t kept up with all the recordings in this expanding pile of approaches, yet this version must sit in the bottom 20 of perhaps almost 50+ ? Extrapolating from 2015, approximately ten (+ or -) a year!?, the figure could be as high as 90, and this new version – despite its expensive Japanese flute – will inevitably slip down the ratings! Benchmarks were set back in 1995!

David Bellinger


Uccellini: Violin Sonatas from Opp. 3-5

Noxwode, Conor Gricmanis violin/director
First Hand Records FHR125

This series of violin sonatas is fascinating for its contrasts of mood, flamboyantly rendered by the young violinist Conor Gricmanis. Each of an opening series of four is given an epithet in its title, suggestive of the spectrum of moods it should embrace. The series is introduced by “La Musica”, which as you might imagine, embraces them all. Subtle flicks and swirls and touches of portamento bring to life these relatively well-aired pieces, giving them a pinch of folky excitement without ever being made too “appliqué”. Coupled with episodes of lyricism, this makes for an imaginative journey through the 17th-century Italian avant-garde. The continuo make-up is varied between pieces and between sections to give real flavour to each of the desired moods: from the 16ft bass support in the opening providing an anchored grandeur, to delicate sections of transparently plucked theorbo. The occasional use of a tremulant stop on the organ creates mystery and wide space around, for example, the duet with Bojan Čičić (Gricmanis’ teacher).  “La Ebrea marinata” emerges from her morose “worse for wear” state into carefree dancing, lurching into triple and unexpected key changes, followed by a vaporous period of self-reflection, and a final heavy-footed exit. “La Luciminia contenta” is intimate and alluring, and undoubtedly content. “La Vittoria trionfante” is a singing contrast, but amongst such colourful company, perhaps Gricmanis could have allowed himself an articulation of the opening arpeggiated passages more suggestive of having succeeded in the field. As the disc progresses, we have “Shining Laura”, and even “The Lie”, which present further interpretive challenges! But these titles are intended to invite the performer to open up to new possibilities in performance, and this invitation is accepted in these performances. It is gratifying to hear a new player bringing freshness to a repertoire with which we might have felt familiar.

Stephen Cassidy


La Sorella mi fa fallare

[Music by] Marco Uccellini
Ensemble Ozio Regio
Seuletoile SE05

The booklet notes draw attention to the parallel creative firmament of science and music which characterised 17th-century Italy (with a long lead-up of course). This was the period of Galilei and a fascination with order, conceptual hierarchies, and exploration. The title of the disc is taken from an intriguing piece which embodies this preoccupation with formalism. The piece is based on the sol fa “translation” of its title into a melody – la sol re la mi fa fa la re – which repeats a good number of times throughout.

The Uccellini programme is punctuated with organ pieces by Pasquini and harpsichord solos by Battifieri, in a very well-conceived sequence. The opening organ toccata makes for a dramatic entry, with an enticing procession of promised cadences being wrong-footed by the pedal, so to speak. The expectation generated leads into a grand ensemble with bright trombone and a light and flighty cornett, with violin and cello. The natural balance between the parts is a remarkable piece of recording engineering, giving clarity and a realistic presence to all the parts. In one or two other pieces the trope of placing the cornett in its own acoustic, away from the strings, has proved tempting. Maybe this is intentional, but in a real performance, the physical proximity of the players creates the musical conversation. An acoustic separation is therefore subliminally interpreted as a lack of that conversation, which is of course very unfair to this marvellous playing. The cornett and violin tightly follow each other, and yet at the same time each has its own characteristics, which gives real interest. This is exemplified in the aforementioned “La Sorella…”, which is then followed by a cleverly chosen harpsichord piece by Battifieri, which has a remarkably similar mode and mood.

The instrumentation is varied in sympathy with each piece. The cool abstract sound of the tenor recorder in the fourth piece floats in its own circle of the Galilean heavens, looking down on the terrestrial strings. The performances overall are relatively gentle and abstract. The violin narratives are told in the flicker of a fireside rather than under the hard light of a stage. With appropriate symmetry, the programme ends with the full ensemble, rounding off this excellent performance.

Stephen Cassidy