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  42:4 (03-04 /2019)
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Reviewer: Jerry Dubins


Let me begin this review with a word about the album cover. Regietheater has finally reached into the domain of album cover art. Pictured is a woman standing on a stage, her back to us, facing a wall finger-painted a seasick, swirling grayish-green; and occupying the stage with her are a miniature chair and four ladders of varying heights. If that image suggests anything to you about the music on this disc, your powers of perception are far greater than mine.

That out of the way, I will say next that this general sort of program has been put together on disc before, which doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. What sort of program is it? One that purports to pair Bach concertos with Bach cantatas in which the composer cannibalized movements from one to feed the other. This program is different, though, in that each of these works does contain ingested parts from other of Bach’s works, but not specifically from those on this disc.

For example, the Sinfonia that opens the cantata Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht! (False world, I trust you not), BWV 52, is indeed a cannibalized movement, but its prey is the opening movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. The cantata, composed in 1726 for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, conflates verses from the Epistle to the Philippians—“our conversation is in heaven”—and Matthew about paying taxes—“Render unto Caesar”—which probably made more sense to Bach’s churchgoing Lutherans than it does to me. In any case, BWV 52 and the other cantata on this disc, Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke (I am content with my fortune), BWV 84, are both among Bach’s “solo” cantatas—i.e., only one vocalist, here a soprano, is cast in each of the arias and recitatives. There are no choruses, and the full choir participates only in the closing chorales. Any earlier work that may have contributed to BWV 84 either disappeared or never existed to begin with. In other words, this cantata may be wholly original. It was composed for Septuagesima Sunday, 1727, during Bach’s fourth year in Leipzig. Drawn partially from the Gospel of Matthew’s parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16), the cantata’s text teaches the Christian to be content with his share of good fortune, without envy of others who may seem more fortunate.

Now, what’s interesting here is that Wikipedia’s entry on BWV 84 surmises that the opening aria, “Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke,” is “reminiscent of the slow movement of an oboe concerto,” and follows up that speculation with a footnote, attributing it to Klaus Hofmann, who happens to be the program annotator for the Suzuki survey of Bach’s sacred cantatas on BIS. That footnote is then hyperlinked to Volume 41 of that series, which contains BWV 84. Scanning and searching the booklet online, I found 21 occurrences of the word “oboe” and zero for either the English “concerto” or German “Konzert.” In other words, at least insofar as the liner notes to Volume 41 of Suzuki’s Bach cantata cycle are concerned, Herr Hofmann cites no known or speculative oboe concerto as the source for any movement of BWV 84. Nor, for that matter, does the booklet note to the current Accent album suggest any connection between BWV 84 and a once extant oboe concerto or any other Bach composition.

When it comes to the two oboe concertos and the one for oboe d’amore on this release, trying to sort out what’s what can be fraught with even more uncertainty. It is generally accepted that all of Bach’s concertos for violin, oboe, and oboe d’amore ended up as concertos for one, two, or three harpsichords, when Bach transcribed and prepared them for performance by the Collegium Musicum, which he directed from 1729 to 1737. In every case, except for the Violin Concertos, BWV 1041–1043, which survive in their original scoring, the manuscripts are lost and have been reverse-engineered, if you will, from their harpsichord transcriptions back to their speculative original instrumentation.

That is the clear case for one of the concertos included on the present disc, BWV 1055R. Based on close analysis of the harpsichord version of this concerto, BWV 1055, scholars determined that the original instrument for this concerto was an oboe or oboe d’amore, and so it became the once lost, now found, Concerto for Oboe d’amore in A Major, BWV 1055R. The “R” in these concertos stands for “Reconstructed,” though, in the case of this concerto, I think “Reconstituted” might be more accurate since the rescoring from harpsichord back to its speculated oboe d’amore original didn’t even undergo a key change, as most of the other “reconstructions” did.

In other cases, we’re dealing with concertos Bach never wrote as concertos, per se, which were made up out of movements from other Bach works. So, here we have the reverse of a cantata that borrows a movement from a pre-existing concerto. Instead, we have a concerto created out of one or more movements from a pre-existing cantata and/or other compositions. Such is the case with the Oboe Concerto in G Minor, BWV 1056R, which was reconstructed from its harpsichord twin, the Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1056. Here, there is a key change up a whole step, presumably to accommodate what was at the time the oboe’s keywork and finger holes. However, whatever instrument the concerto may originally have been written for—assuming it was not an original harpsichord concerto to begin with—the slow movement of this concerto was taken from the opening Sinfonia of the Cantata, Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe (I am standing with one foot in the grave), BWV 156, composed in 1729 for the third Sunday after Epiphany. That movement features an intensely beautiful solo melody for the oboe, which is probably why it was believed that all three movements of the harpsichord version originally came from a lost oboe concerto.

But there’s a “chicken or egg” question here. The harpsichord version of this concerto is dated 1738. It’s one of Bach’s last harpsichord concertos, apparently produced the year after he had relinquished leadership of the Collegium Musicum. However, since everyone now seems to agree that the F-Minor Harpsichord Concerto is a transcription of a lost oboe concerto, the question is when was the original oboe concerto composed? We can’t answer that if it’s lost, but if it was written sometime after 1729, then obviously it stole its slow movement from the Sinfonia of the Cantata, BWV 156. But what if the lost oboe concerto was composed before 1729? Then it would have to be the Cantata, BWV 156, that stole its Sinfonia from the concerto. If that’s a bit of a brain twister for you, consider this. Whichever of the two came first, Bach may have appropriated the slow movement from another work altogether, and one not of his own making. I would direct you to listen to the opening movement of Telemann’s Concerto in G Major for Flute or Oboe, TWV 51:G2.

When it comes to the Concerto in C Major, BWV 1061, I’m afraid that album note author Peter Wollny didn’t get it quite right. He states that BWV 1061 was initially composed as a harpsichord duo—i.e., two harpsichords unaccompanied. He got the sequence of things right, but not the BWV numbers. According to the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, BWV 1061 is the Concerto in C Major for Two Harpsichords and Strings that Bach expanded from the original harpsichord duo, which is numbered BWV 1061a. Either way, there is no evidence that this work was transcribed from a now lost work for oboe or any other instrument. BWV 1061a and its fleshing out into an orchestrated concerto, BWV 1060, are original harpsichord works by Bach.

The version heard on this disc, to which I’ve appended a “W” to the BWV number in the headnote, is a realization by Tim Willis for oboe, violin, viola da gamba, bassoon, and continuo, not of the orchestrated concerto, BWV 1060, but of the two-harpsichord duo, BWV 1061a. I’m not aware that anyone has done this before. The oboe as the lead solo instrument works well enough, but the one instrument to a part ensemble sounds a bit odd to me in Willis’s scoring. It doesn’t sound like the sort of scoring Bach would have used, but then I’m so accustomed to hearing this piece in its familiar two-harpsichord concerto format that anything else would take some getting used to.

When it comes to the playing of oboist Xenia Löffler and the playing of Collegium 1704 under the direction of Václav Luks, I have nothing but the highest praise. This has to be one of the best disciplined and most tonally lustrous-sounding period instrument bands I’ve heard. And except for the above-described Willis arrangement, in the cantatas and two other concertos, the ensemble is made up of approximately two-dozen players, give or take one or two, depending on what instrumentation each piece calls for. From booklet photos of Löffler and her oboe, I can tell you that she plays a Baroque instrument with only two or three keys and a number of finger holes for producing the required notes.

In a 32:4 review of Luks leading Collegium 1704 in a disc of concertos by Albicastro, I described the ensemble as well-behaved and highly cultivated, and their album of Mysliveček violin concertos with violinist Leila Schayegh received a rave review from me in 42:1. I note, too, that Luks and his Collegium have recorded almost a dozen albums, half of which have been devoted to Biber, Monteverdi, and Zelenka, and the other half to lesser-known Baroque composers. This, as far as I can tell, however, is their first foray, on record at least, into Bach. This much I will say, based on their playing of the Sinfonia in the Cantata, BWV 52, which is the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, I would love to hear this group in a recording of the complete Brandenburg Concertos. The choral contingent, Collegium Vocale 1704, has little to do here, singing for a total of 53 and 54 seconds, respectively in the concluding chorales of the two cantatas. Soprano Anna Prohaska dispatches her arias and recitatives in style and good voice.

Admittedly, this is a bit of an unusual makeup of works for a Bach album, but the performances can recommend it.

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