The Bach Dynasty

Les Talens Lyriques / Christophe Rousset (Ambroisie/Naïve AM125)

Release Date: February 2008 3.5 stars

The Bach DynastyThis disc is never going to make us reassess the musical hierarchy of the Bach family: Johann Sebastian stands at the head of the whole German classical canon so there's little chance of him being usurped by his composer sons. However, Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques do at least demonstrate to us the ample musical talents of two of the great composer's offspring, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788) and Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784).

Of the four works performed here, two are by C. P. E. Bach: the Cello Concerto in A major Wq172 and the Symphony in C major Wq182/3. The symphony was one of six composed in 1773 for a commission by the same Baron von Swieten who would be patron to Mozart and librettist (for The Seasons) to Haydn. It's perhaps surprising, then, that the symphony, at a time when Haydn and Mozart were developing the genre in terms of size and complexity, has just three brief movements that add up to less than ten minutes in length. The concerto, on the other hand, was composed some twenty years earlier and has a central Largo almost as long as the whole symphony.

The disc's professed aim of throwing light on the compositional achievements of these composers means that some explanation would have been useful. One can only guess that it is tied in with the Bach sons' positions at the time in Hamburg (C. P. E.) and Berlin (W. F.), therefore geographically removed from the developments of Viennese Classicism. Whatever the case, it's evidence of an anomaly that has without doubt defined our reception of both composers' work.

Nevertheless, these are enjoyable works, the cello concerto in particular. Played with limpid, easy technical command and a beautiful tone by Atsushi Sakaï, it has to be the highlight of the disc. Interestingly, it was conceived in several different versions, appearing first as a concerto for harpsichord before being arranged for flute as well as cello. This perhaps explains why a fair amount of the cello's line is almost accompanying the orchestra; the vigorous figurations in the first movement can easily be imagined in the hands of a harpsichordist. Not the exquisite Largo, though, which sounds tailor-made for the cello; Sakaï sings out movingly in its lyrical, aria-like first section. 

The symphony also gives us evidence of Carl Phillipp Emanuel's lively musical imagination, as well as the virtuosity of Rousset's hand-picked band. The brief opening Allegro assai alternates between furious passage-work in the violins and bold unison statements for the whole orchestra. There are only brief snatches of contrapuntal writing. A sudden plunge into dissonance announces the arrival of the lyrical Adagio which, despite a run-of-the-mill melodic line, is spiced up by further fruity harmonic writing. The Allegretto finale similarly shows flashes of originality within the confines of a rather conventional musical language.

The longest work on the disc is Wilhelm Friedeman's Flute Concerto, which sits rather uncomfortably on the fence, vacillating between the Baroque and the Classical. It has little of the contrapuntal rigour of the former or the burgeoning expressiveness of the latter and lacks the feeling of experimentation that makes the works of his younger brother so interesting. That said, one could hardly imagine a more persuasive performance and Joecelyn Daubigney produces a delightfully airy, mellow sound as the soloist.

Bach père is represented, at the start of the disc, with his modest Harpsichord Concerto in D minor BWV 1059. This gives Rousset, who makes a lively contribution on the keyboard throughout the disc, a chance to enjoy the limelight and he plays it with his customary skill and vigour.

By Hugo Shirley