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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa