Bach & Sons: Piano Concertos (CD review)
The concept behind the album Bach & Sons is to present similar music from two generations of Bachs, Johann Sebastian the father and Carl Philippe Emanuel and Johann Christian, two of his sons. The idea is not only to entertain with wonderful music but to point up the differences in musical styles from the late Baroque to early Classical periods. German pianist Sebastian Knauer, English conductor Sir Roger Norrington, and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra are more than happy to demonstrate these musical changes in four works by the family of composers. It doesn't hurt, either, that the disc shows off Maestro Norrington's credentials as the new principal conductor of the Zurich ensemble, bringing with him a firm grasp of period style and performance.
The program starts with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), a work that began life as a violin concerto, which Bach then turned into a harpsichord concerto, and which Knauer here plays on piano. Knauer and Norringotn are clearly of a single mind about the interpretation, producing a recording of great vitality and increasing joy. Knauer's virtuosity is always on display (did Bach himself play as well, one wonders), yet it never overpowers the music.
Next up comes the Piano Concerto in E major, Wq. 14 (1744), a work by Carl Philippe Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), J.S.'s son. A generation had passed and we see the music has grown and matured considerably, specifically in the use of a slightly larger ensemble, more dynamic contrasts, and more-sophisticated phrasing. C.P.E. Bach's piece simply sounds more modern, the piano exhibiting greater subtlety in its solo passages, and the whole work evoking a smoother, more harmonic tone than that of the father.
Then, perhaps to point up these differences further, Knauer and company go back to Bach the elder for J.S.'s Piano Concerto No. 2 in E major, BWV 1053. This time Bach reused one of his organ concertos to remodel into the harpsichord concerto we get here on the piano. Of course, Bach added a good deal more elaboration to the solo piano part, which Knauer seems pleased to demonstrate.
The program concludes with the Piano Concerto in E-flat major, Op. 7, No. 5 (1770) by the youngest Bach son, Johann Christian (1735-1782). Here we find a greater rapport between soloist and orchestra and fewer interludes between solo and orchestral parts than in the back-and-forth arrangements we hear from the father. There is also a greater dependence on thematic development within each movement, so with J.C. we're moving closer to Haydn and Mozart territory. Again, Knauer and Norrington show their affinity for the music and the style and offer up a silky smooth yet sparkling reading, the final movement particularly intoxicating.
Recorded in 2011 in Zurich, ZKO-Haus, the sound is clean and well balanced, with the piano up front and personal. The relatively small group of players appears not too widely spread out behind the soloist, so it's not an especially spectacular recording, just a fairly natural one. Clarity is fine and definition solid, an appropriately proportioned resonance giving the music a lifelike feeling. It's all quite beautiful, actually, the recording and the music.
That's one grim-looking picture of Mr. Knauer on the cover, though.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.