C.P.E. Bach: Cello Concertos (CD review)

Truls Mork, cello; Bernard Labadie, Les Violons du Roy. Virgin Classics 50999 6944920 8.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), one of the many sons of Johann Sebastian Bach, was, along with his younger brother, Johann Christian, probably the most famous of the siblings and almost as prolific as his father. C.P.E. (named, incidentally, for Georg Philipp Telemann, his godfather) became one of the leaders of the Classical movement in eighteenth-century music, bridging the Baroque and Classical periods. His three cello concertos, which we get on this disc, were not necessarily among his most-popular works, but they do demonstrate his originality and invention.

C.P.E. composed the cello concertos between 1750 and 1753, and to this day there is some small dispute as to whether he originally wrote them for cello, flute, or keyboard. We'll set that debate aside for the moment and assume he wrote them for cello, possibly for one of the many Saturday-afternoon public concerts to which he often contributed pieces. Now, here's the thing: In the 1700's, hardly anybody wrote cello concertos. So the very fact that C.P.E. did so puts him a step ahead of his colleagues in terms of innovation. Even today there aren't very many recordings of them (usually, we get only the Cello Concerto in A major, Wq.172, the most popular of the three).

Frankly, this was the first time I can ever remember hearing C.P.E.'s cello concertos, so I haven't really got any other recording with which to make comparisons. Still, I can't imagine other performances surpassing this one by Norwegian cellist Truls Mork and the French-Canadian chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy, under the directorship of its founder, Bernard Labadie. Les Violons du Roy use modern instruments but follow period practices, so we get realizations that are most likely as close as possible to what the composer intended.

The album begins with the A major Concerto, the most well rounded of the three. It has a lively opening movement, perhaps the most sprightly and enterprising of all the music on the disc. Apparently, C.P.E. wanted to catch one's attention with it, in the manner of an overture. Pulsing rhythms and a wealth of dynamic contrasts grab and sustain the listener's interest throughout, with Mork's virtuosic playing well supported by the fourteen or so members of the accompanying ensemble. Then comes the slow, center movement, which is the polar opposite of the more exuberant preceding one. This Largo is actually fairly melancholy, almost funereal in tone. While one might call it introspective or contemplative, there is a note of gloom about it as well, with Monk making his instrument practically weep. And then in the closing Allegro it's back to the carefree attitude of the beginning section, although without quite the forward thrust.

The B flat major Concerto, Wq.171, is more elegant and stately than the robust 172.  It seems more Baroque in style, filled with fewer surprises. Yet it is still charming, its slow movement reflective and longing, its concluding movement peppy and energetic, almost Vivaldi-like. The program concludes with the A minor Concerto, Wq.170, the earliest of the concertos and also the most conventional. Nevertheless, Mork's interpretation--spirited, cultivated, and plaintive by turns--make the music quite moving, especially the pensive slow movement. Distinguished playing characterizes all three performances; they are well worth one's time.

The sound, recorded by Virgin in 2008 in Palais Montcalm, Quebec, in November, 2008, is somewhat forward, but pleasantly so, with the cello well integrated with the surrounding instruments. Like the performances, the sonics are lively, dynamic, and colorful, with a slightly reverberant effect adding to the realism. Although midrange clarity is perhaps not as transparent nor the ensemble's depth of field as extensive as one would like, the spaciousness of the acoustic and the spontaneity of the playing more than make up for it. The result is a vivid yet natural sound that properly complements the music.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa