Harpsichord berlin ADX11211

Berlin Harpsichord Concertos
Christoph Nichelmann (1717-1762)Concerto in D minor
Carl Heinrich Graun (c1704/05-1759)Concerto in D (GraunWV:XIII:72)
Christoph Schaffrath (c1710-1763)Concerto in C minor (CSWV:C:11)
Ernst Wilhelm Wolf (1735-1792)Concerto in B flat
Philippe Grisvard (harpsichord)
Ensemble Diderot
rec. 2023, Gustav-Mahler-Auditorium, Toblach, Italy
Reviewed as a stereo 24/96 download from Percius
Audax ADX11211 [78]

Johann Sebastian Bach was the first composer to write concertos for a keyboard instrument and an instrumental ensemble. The first specimen is the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, in whose first movement the harpsichord has a long and virtuosic cadenza. At about the same time as Bach composed his harpsichord concertos – or, rather, adapted them from earlier works for different instruments and performed them in Zimmermann’s coffee house – Handel composed and improvised his organ concertos in London. Bach and Handel turned out to be the founders of a genre that would conquer Europe and resulted in the masterpieces by Mozart, Beethoven and many others thereafter.

Among the composers of the mid-18th century, Bach’s sons contributed to the genre of the keyboard concerto. The eldest, Wilhelm Friedemann, left seven concertos, his younger brother Carl Philipp Emanuel nearly fifty, plus some sonatinas. Then there are the concertos by Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian. They all had inherited their father’s skills at the keyboard. However, they were not the only composers who wrote concertos for keyboard and orchestra. Whereas their concertos are regularly performed and available on disc, the works by many of their contemporaries are largely unknown. The disc under review includes four concertos by composers from Berlin (except one), which all appear on disc for the first time.

Three of them were in one way or another connected to Frederick the Great. That does not mean that their concertos were performed at his court. It is likely that they – or at least some of them – were performed in Berlin, at the Freitagsakademie, a series of concerts founded by Johann Gottlieb Janitsch. This may well be a justification for the line-up in these one instrument per part recordings.

The best-known of the four composers is undoubtedly Carl Heinrich Graun. He and his brother Johann Gottlieb were in the service of Frederick, the latter especially in the field of instrumental music, the former mainly for the composition of vocal works, in particular, operas. Often it is not clear which of the two is the composer of a piece as they signed them just with ‘Graun’. It is assumed that most instrumental works are from the pen of Johann Gottlieb, but according to Peter Wollny in his liner-notes, there can be little doubt that the Concerto in D is from the pen of Carl Heinrich. Johann Gottlieb was a violinist, and otherwise no keyboard concertos from his pen are known. The concerto is a specimen of the galant idiom. In the solos the harpsichordist is sometimes on his own, but often also accompanied by the strings. The expression which was considered so important at the time, is demonstrated in the middle movement, with the marking adagio. Especially here, the keyboard is given space to spin longer lines, without the participation of the strings. In all three movements there is quite some imitation between keyboard and strings. In typical galant fashion, the main thematic material is in the right hand, whereas the left is largely reduced to accompaniment.

Christoph Schaffrath is a composer who has received quite some interest in recent years. In 1734 he entered the service of Frederick the Great, who was still Crown Prince at that time. Frederick started his own chapel in Ruppin, which moved to Rheinsberg in 1736. With Frederick’s accession to the throne in 1740, Schaffrath became harpsichordist in his chapel, but in 1741 he entered the service of Frederick’s sister Anna Amalia. It seems that Schaffrath left Frederick’s court, as his name does not appear in a list of musicians of the chapel from 1754. Anna Amalia’s taste in music was rather conservative. She preferred the traditional German contrapuntal style over the modern fashion of her days which gave prominence to melody. Ernst Ludwig Gerber, a writer of a lexicon on music, wrote that Schaffrath was “one of our most worthy contrapuntalists”. That comes well to the fore in the Concerto in C minor, whose first movement opens with a fugal ritornello. The slow movement is especially interesting as it comes with written-out embellishments by Schaffrath himself, which Philippe Grisvard has followed in his recording.

Christoph Nichelmann was a pupil at the Thomasschule in Leipzig under Bach, studied later composition and keyboard with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, but then moved to Hamburg to learn more about opera. In 1739 he moved to Berlin, where he studied with Quantz and Carl Heinrich Graun. In some treatises he emphasised the importance of melody, which makes him an exponent of the new galant style. He became one of the two harpsichordists of Frederick the Great. His colleague was Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, with whom he had a difficult relationship. In 1755 he requested to be dismissed. Despite their rivalries, the Concerto in D minor shows strong similarities with Bach’s concertos; two copies attribute this concerto to the latter. It is a specimen of the Sturm und Drang; the harpsichord solos are often and suddenly interrupted by interventions of the strings, mostly played forte.

The exception in the programme is Ernst Wilhelm Wolf, as he was not connected to Berlin. He was born in Grossenbehringen in Thuringia and attended the Gymnasien in Eisenach and Gotha. At an early age he came under the spell of the music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Carl Heinrich Graun. He went on to study at Jena University, where he became the director of the Collegium Musicum. There he composed his first works. Next, he spent some time in Leipzig and Naumburg, and from 1761 until his death he was in the service of the court in Weimar, first as Konzertmeister, then as organist and from 1772 as Kapellmeister. He was in close contact with some of the leading figures in German cultural life, such as Goethe, Herder and Von Seckendorf. He was also close friends with CPE Bach. As a composer he was held in high esteem. It is telling that Frederick the Great invited him to enter his service (which he turned down) and his friends urged him to apply for the post of musical director of Hamburg, after the death of CPE Bach (which he did not). The Concerto in B flat is one of around 25 keyboard concertos he composed, most of which are lost. The influence of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is obvious, but not in the same way as in Nichelmann’s concerto; Wolf’s concerto is more reminiscent of Bach’s later works, pointing in the direction of the classical style.

This recording shows that there is still much to discover in the period between the Baroque and the classical era. Both Nichelmann and Wolf, for instance, have left a considerable œuvre of keyboard music which is hardly known. The concertos on this disc give a good idea of the keyboard style at that time. Philippe Grisvard opted for a harpsichord rather than a fortepiano. That seems the right decision; the fortepiano was known, but had not fully established itself when these concertos were written. He plays a copy of a Mietke harpsichord. Michael Mietke was an important harpsichord maker, and after his death two of his sons were active as such. Mietke instruments may well have been around in Berlin in the mid-18th century. Grisvard has already earned a name as a brilliant keyboard player, especially as a member of the Ensemble Diderot. Here, he can be admired as a soloist, and his performances of the solo parts are imaginative – for instance, in his ornamentation. The expressive style of the mid-18th century comes especially to the fore in the slow movements, of which Grasvard gives a sensitive interpretation. The cooperation between him and the ensemble is immaculate. The strings perfectly realize the dynamic contrasts, which are very important in these works.

Given the quality of these concertos and the performances, and the fact that all four concertos are here recorded for the first time, this issue merits a special recommendation.

Johan van Veen

Buying this recording via a link below generates revenue for MWI, which helps the site remain free

Presto Music