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Review: The Italian Bach in Vienna DVD

V-1

Italian Bach In Vienna
Il Giardino Armonico plays Bach in Vienna

1. J.S. Bach: Concerto for two keyboards in C major, BWV 1061 [18:37]
2. C.P.E. Bach: Symphony in G major, Wq 182-1 []
3. A. Vivaldi: Violin Concerto in D minor ‘per Pisendel’, RV 242 []
4. J.S. Bach: Concerto for three keyboards in D minor, BWV 1063 [15:04]

Giovanni Antonini

Il Giardino Armonico

Katia & Marielle Labèque (Fortepianos) [1, 4]; Ottavio Dantone (Harpsichord) [4]; Enrico Onofri (Violin) [3]

TDK DV-BACON / EuroArts

Apr 24, 2000.

DVD / TT: 73:00

Recorded at the Musikverein, Vienna, Austria.
Buy this album at: Amazon.com | Amazon.com

Kirk McElhearn wrote (April 14, 2002):
This eclectic performance brings together a wide variety of music from three different composers. Il Giardino Armonico is a very interesting ensemble with a great deal of energy and spirit, and their Bach recordings, along with those of other composers, have shown them to be one of the boldest ensembles playing baroque music in recent years. This performance, recorded in the attractive Musikverein in Vienna, combines the elder Bach, his most famous son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Antonio Vivaldi in an evening of attractive music.

One of the unique elements of this performance is the use of fortepianos for Bach¹s keyboard concertos. This instrument, which Bach undoubtedly knew, and probably owned, is rarely played with his music, yet the sound it offers is far more interesting than a modern piano. In the C major concerto, the fortepianos give a unique charm to the music and combine well with the small ensemble. But the Labeque sisters sound hesitant and almost unfamiliar with the music, and it lacks the vigour one hopes to hear. Nevertheless, the sound is so enjoyable that one can ignore the lack of passion and focus on the beauty of the music and the excellent energy coming from the ensemble, especially in the final Fuga Vivace of this work.

Even bolder, and somewhat strange, is the choice of adding a harpsichord to the D minor concerto. This gives two fortepianos and one harpsichord, and the balance among the instruments is way off. This is a shame, because Ottavio Dantone is an excellent harpsichordist (who recently recorded a brilliant Well-Tempered Clavier), and his contribution is all but drowned out. The Labeque sisters both seem much more impassioned in this work though, and give it far more energy than the first concerto. Perhaps they feel more at home with the virtuoso runs along the keyboard that this concerto holds; they clearly seem to be getting into the music. The final movement of this concerto is full of energy, and one wishes this buzz had been present throughout the performance.

The symphony by CPE Bach gives the ensemble a chance to show off its talents as a group. This work sounds excellent with such a small group playing it - Il Giardino Armonico is at its largest in this performance with 13 musicians. The lively opining and closing movements are played almost in an Italianate style, with a great deal of energy and changes of dynamics. The slower middle movement is a subtle painting of themes that rebound across the ensemble with delicate nuances.

Violinist Enrico Onofri, who plays with the same kind of energy as his compatriot Fabio Biondi, brilliantly performs the Vivaldi violin concerto. This is one of those Vivaldi concertos clearly written for a virtuoso, with rapid arpeggios, and runs all the way along the neck of the violin, including, in the opening allegro, a section at the very highest possible notes. This is an excellent performance, and shows a virtuoso violinist in complete control of very demanding music.

There is an additional documentary called Saving of the Bach’s Manuscripts (come on, that title could have been better translated) about how some of Bach¹s manuscripts are being restored in Germany. This brief documentary is interesting, though short.

While this DVD is entitled Italian Bach, its most interesting work is certainly the Vivaldi. The Bach is fine, but lacks the energy and passion that is needed. All in all, this is an enjoyable performance, in spite of its drawbacks, and represents a fine evening of music.

 

Feedback to the Review

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 14, 2002):
Kirk McElhearn stated:
< This instrument, which Bach undoubtedly knew, and probably owned, is rarely played with his music, yet the sound it offers is far more interesting than a modern piano. >
Where does this myth about Bach owning or probably owning a fortepiano originate? Is this stated in the notes to this DVD or in one of the special sections that are usually added to a DVD? With all the specific details given concerning all items of value (even candlesticks, brass coffee pot, names of books, etc.) in Bach's possession at the time of his death, there would certainly have been some mention of such an instrument. But there is nothing indicated. And since this instrument appeared more toward the very end of Bach's life than at any time prior to it, I simply can not understand why this myth continues to reappear. It is well documented that he tried out a fortepiano in Potsdam where he made his famous visit to appear before Frederick the Great, but beyond that, how does Bach become the probable owner of a fortepiano?

Charles Francis wrote (April 15, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] Would Bach not have had the option of passing on items directly to family members as gifts? The clothes inventory, for example, appears incomplete. Did Bach's library consist exclusively of religious books or were these the ones nobody wanted to take? Might he not have owned a copy of Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum?

Charles Terry's writes in 'Bach a Biography', 1928:
"The Inventory clearly is not complete. Bach's wardrobe surely contained more than three coats, eleven shirts, and a pair of shoe buckles! His household furniture must have included other articles than are here set down. Not a single score of his own compositions, nor any of his laborious transcripts of other composers, are named. His library, too, improbably consisted exclusively of theological works ... The inventory, in fact, discloses only that part of Bach's estate admitted to distribution after particular claims on it had been sifted and satisfied. T he two eldest sons, Friedemann and Carl Philipp, declaring their father's scores their personal property, withdrew them from the general estate. Their youngest half-brother, Johann Christian, as successfully asserted his ownership of three claviers, a present, he declared, from his father before he died. His mother, Hesemann and Altnikol bore him out in the assertion, and though the children of the first family were dubious, the claim was admitted. Bach's portrait of his father is not included, and it is obvious that many other articles were omitted."

So I think its difficult to sustain the claim that the inventory contains all the specific details given concerning all items of value in Bach's possession at the time of his death.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 15, 2002):
Kirk McElhearn wrote:
< ITALIAN BACH IN VIENNA
One of the unique elements of this performance is the use of fortepianos for
Bach’s keyboard concertos. This instrument, which Bach undoubtedly knew, and probably owned, is rarely played with his music, yet the sound it offers is far more interesting than a modern piano. In the C major concerto, the fortepianos give a unique charm to the music and combine well with the small ensemble. But the Labeque sisters sound hesitant and almost unfamiliar with the music, and lacks the vigour one hopes to hear. (...) >
Sure it's not just the Labeques being terrified of fortepiano? It does take a different technique and can't be learned in a matter of weeks. I don't know how much they've studied it, maybe they have. But it's hard to imagine them (since they have such big, splashy tendencies on modern piano) scaling themselves to approach the fortepiano to best effect. The vigour only comes from treating a fortepiano on its own terms, not in treating it like a delicate little miniature piano: crisp articulation more than muscle.

< Even bolder, and somewhat strange, is the choice of adding a harpsichord to the D minor concerto. This gives two fortepianos and one harpsichord, and the balance among the instruments is way off. This is a shame, because Ottavio Dantone is an excellent harpsichordist (who recently recorded a brilliant Well-Tempered Clavier), and his contribution is all but drowned out. (...) >
I wonder if this is just a disparity of miking. A harpsichord is not quieter than a fortepiano. Last night I was playing two fortepianos: an original 1798 Broadwood square, and a modern reproduction of a Stein (Viennese action)...getting ready for a concert on the Broadwood. The Stein, when played mezzo forte, has about the same
volume as my harpsichord. It can go louder in fortissimo and quieter in pianissimo, but the median volume is about the same as harpsichord. The Broadwood is noticeably quieter, somewhere in the middle between harpsichord and clavichord. Everything I could produce on the Broadwood, fortissimo, with the lid all the way opwn, was still quieter than my harpsichord...and it's not a particularly loud harpsichord, just a single 8-foot set of strings where the fortepiano has two or three.

Tom Hens wrote (April 15, 2002):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Where does this myth about Bach owning or probably owning a fortepiano originate? >
I've been wondering that too. I've seen it popping up in various different places recently, including on this list, and its origin seems to be hard to track down. It's a fairly new development, as far as I can tell, but maybe someone can correct me on that.

A few months back there was a poster on alt.music.j-s-bach who claimed to have "evidence" for this claim. When I asked for clarification he claimed that there was a description in "Bach's will" of a Silbermann fortepiano (when I asked if he could quote the bit of the "will" he meant, since there is definitely no such instrument listed in the detailed inventory of the estate, he didn't reply any further), and that there was a "friend of the Bach family" who offered a Silbermann piano for sale in 1763. When I asked what the name of this friend was, and what this factoid (if true, he didn't mention any source) had to do with whether or not Bach ever owned one of these instruments, he didn't reply any further.

I don't know if he is the ultimate source of this myth, but George Stauffer in his notes to Murray Perahia's recording of Bach's harpsichord concertos apparently came up with the strange notion that a newspaper announcement from 1733 for a concert by Bach's Collegium Musicum, announcing it would include a new harpsichord "the like of which hasn't been heard here [in Leipzig] before" actually referred to a fortepiano. He doesn't offer any further evidence in those notes to support this odd interpretation (which he's smart enough to couch in the hypothetical).

BTW, what kind of fortepiano do the Labeque sisters play? The only kind Bach could conceivably have owned would be one of the early Gottfried Silbermann instruments, of which only three survive, none of them in playable condition. And based on what I've heard of recordings using copies, they're not louder than a harpsichord, let alone capable of "drowning it out". Of course, with spot mikes, and these days apparently even contact mikes, anything is possible in a recording.

< It is well documented that he tried out a fortepiano in Potsdam where he made his famous visit to appear before Frederick the Great, but beyond that, how does Bach become the probable owner of a fortepiano? >
There is also one other documented link of Bach with the fortepiano: a receipt from 1749, signed by Bach himself, showing he sold a Silbermann piano to a Count Branitzky from Bialystok, in his capacity as the Leipzig sales agent for Silbermann's instruments. So we know that he had no objection to making some extra money by selling them. Of course, we don't know whether that instrument was ever even in Leipzig, or instead was shipped from Silbermann's workshop in Berlin to Bialystok directly.

Jim Morrison wrote (April 15, 2002):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Where does this myth about Bach owning or probably owning a fortepiano originate? >
I must be reading something wrong in the New Bach reader, a work I rarely look into, because letter 262, page 239 of my paperback edtion, looks to be evidence of Bach selling a forte piano.

The letter has the editorial heading "Bach sells a fortepiano"

And then goes on

"262. Bach's receipt for his payment...That to me, the undersigned, the paymen of 115 rthl... for an instrument called Piano et Forte..."

So what is this, if not evidence that Bach not only owned, but sold a fortepiano? (did he not like the instrument?)

Kirk McElhearn wrote (April 15, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] I have read it in many publications, one recently (Paul Badura-Skoda's Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard. that said something about a Klavier listed in his inventory after his death. Since it was not specified, said the author, it may have been a fortepiano.

Malcolm Boyd, in the Bach Companion, says "Frederick the Great possessed some, which Bach played on his Berlin visit in 1747. The three-part Ricercar from the Musical Offering is arguably the only music that Bach conceived with the sound and touch of the piano in mind..."

No, the notes to the DVD said nothing about it.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (April 15, 2002):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Sure it's not just the Labeques being terrified of fortepiano? It does take a different technique and can't be learned in a matter of weeks. I don't know how much they've studied it, maybe they have. But it's hard to imagine them (since they have such big, splashy tendencies on modern piano) scaling themselves to approach the fortepiano to best effect. The vigour only comes from treating a fortepiano on its own terms, not in treating it like a delicate little miniature piano: crisp articulation more than muscle. >
This is certainly possible. They looked uncomfortable as they played.

< I wonder if this is just a disparity of miking. A harpsichord is not quieter than a fortepiano. Last night I was playing two fortepianos: an original 1798 Broadwood square, and a modern reproduction of a Stein (Viennese action)...getting ready for a concert on the Broadwood. The Stein, when played mezzo forte, has about the same volume as my harpsichord. It can go louder in fortissimo and quieter in pianissimo, but the median volume is about the same as harpsichord. The Broadwood is noticeably quieter, somewhere in the middle between harpsichord and clavichord. Everything I could produce on the Broadwood, fortissimo, with the lid all the way opwn, was still quieter than my harpsichord...and it's not a particularly loud harpsichord, just a single 8-foot set of strings where the fortepiano has two or three. >
The harpsichord was right next to the fortepianos, and was miked in a similar way (mikes were stuck on the frame near the soundboards of all three). No, I think the sisters were hammering away, and the harpsichord was just not a loud instrument. There is a solo section for it in the final movement, and it was very soft.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (April 15, 2002):
Tom Hens wrote:
< BTW, what kind of fortepiano do the Labeque sisters play? The only kind Bach could conceivably have owned would be one of the early Gottfried Silbermann instruments, of which only three survive, none of them in playable condition. And based on what I've heard of recordings using copies, they'not louder than a harpsichord, let alone capable of "drowning it out". Of course, with spot mikes, and these days apparently even contact mikes, anything is possible in a recording. >
There were no notes specifying the instruments. Perhaps they were just louder in the mix...

Jim Morrison wrote (April 15, 2002):
[To Tom Hens] Concerning the Bach Fortepiano issue you wrote:

< There is also one other documented link of Bach with the fortepiano: a receipt from 1749, signed by Bach himself, showing he sold a Silbermann piano to a Count Branitzky from Bialystok, >
I'm with you up to hear but the rest is where I'm not following

< in his capacity as the Leipzig sales agent for Silbermann's instruments. >
My question is, are we sure that he was acting as a sale's agent when he sold that fortepiano. The New Bach Reader, as far as I can tell, doesn't give evidence of this. And while Wolff in his recent bio asserts the claim with a suspiciously qualifying "apparently on commission," I didn't see any hard evidence for it there either. How do we know Bach sold such instruments?

See page 412 of the paperback edition of the Wolff bio on this issue.

But also see page 444 where we learn that Bach only signed this document. He did not write it. The rest was written by his son Friederich. I guess we must also have
evidence that Bach's sons helped him with his business in selling other people's pianos. Do we? I haven't read this bio, by the way, merely picked my way through pieces of it at moments like this.

Once again, what evidence to we have for believing this receipt is not for Bach's personal business affairs? Why do we accept the claim that the fortepiano was not his? Seems a little bit counter-intuitive to me. This late in his life, 1749, Bach is acting as a piano salesman? I guess it could be true, but it's a bit odd, no?

But really, I know hardly anything on the subject and know probably less than most on this list about Bach's life, and would appreciate any
help clearing this up.

PS: The note doesn't say that the instrument was specifically a Silbermann. It only says "and instrument called a "Piano et Forte."

Charles Francis wrote (April 15, 2002):
Kirk McElhearn wrote to Thomas Braatz:
< I have read it in many publications, one recently (Paul Badura-Skoda's Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard. that said something about a Klavier listed in his inventory after his death. Since it was not specified, said the author, it may have been a fortepiano. >
Lest there be any doubt over Bach's usage of the term 'Clavier', one may note that Bach's dedication to the Musical Offering includes the following: "With awesome pleasure I still remember the very special Royal Grace when some time ago, during my visit in Potsdam, Your Majesty's Self deigned to play to me a theme for a fugue upon the clavier, and at the same time charged me most graciously to carry it out in Your Majesty's Most August Presence". Compare this with the report in the 'Spenersche Zeitung, Berlin, May 11, 1747, which clearly indicates that the instrument in question was "the so-called Forte and Piano". Moreover, this information is independently corroborated by Forkel's account. In conclusion, Bach's usage of the term 'Clavier' on this occasion is consistent with modern German usage.

Charles Francis wrote (April 15, 2002):
[To Jim Morrison] Moreover, if you look at the price it was sold for in relation to instrument prices at the time, then this suggests it was sold second hand! One can then speculate as to whether the 'agent' was in fact the original owner :-)

Tom Hens wrote (April 15, 2002):
Jim Morrison wrote:
< in his capacity as the Leipzig sales agent for Silbermann's instruments. My question is, are we sure that he was acting as a sale's agent when he sold that fortepiano. >
No, you are right, that is not a known fact, it is a reasonable supposition. I ought to have added "probably" or worded it differently altogether.

< The New Bach Reader, as far as I can tell, doesn't give evidence of this. And while Wolff in his recent bio asserts the claim with a suspiciously qualifying "apparently on commission," I didn't see any hard evidence for it there either. How do we know Bach sold such instruments? >
We have this receipt showing he was involved in selling at least one, and we know he cooperated with Silbermann in other ways. We also know that to make money he sold books on music and sheet music, that he rented out musical instruments, and that he had a great many paying pupils. Given all that, and how fragmentary the surviving record about this side of Bach's activities is, it seems a reasonable assumption that this sale probably wasn't a unique event. Why would he have been selling books and music from other people he knew, but not instruments?

And even if he didn't do this regularly, if someone came to him saying "Mr. Bach, I know you're in contact with Mr. Silbermann of Berlin and I'd like to buy one of those newfangled Forte e Piano instruments of his, could you arrange this?", do you think he would have said no to the opportunity of making a commission on a very high sales price?

All of this was nothing special, such "sidelines" (which weren't seen as sidelines at all) were normal practice for musicians of the time. Bach definitely couldn't have maintained his family on only his salary as Cantor. Even Händel when he was a very wealthy and established composer in London continued selling music from the front room of his own home. There were also no easy ways of making sure one got paid over long distances, or of making sure one got the goods one had payed for, unless one was in personal contact with someone one trusted. Selling through a "network of trust" of intermediaries located in different places was standard practice, not just for musical instruments but for other expensive items as well. And of course those intermediaries rightly expected a commission, they didn't do it because they thought it was fun.

Of course, it is not impossible that this receipt is for a Silbermann piano Bach had bought for himself and then decided to sell again (which wouldn't exactly suggest a great liking for the instrument), but the wording of the receipt doesn't suggest that. If it had been Bach's own property, he could have handed it over to the Mr. Valentin who acted for Branitzky when he brought the money, but the receipt says that the instrument "nach Bialastock soll geliefert werden" (my emphasis), which to me suggests that Bach was merely acting as an intermediary, since the delivery date of the instrument is put in the indeterminate future, and the instrument is to be sent to Bialastock, not handed over to Valentin. If it had been in Leipzig with Bach, why wouldn't Valentin have arranged for transport himself right away? And given the price of these instruments and how few of them he made (compare the 115 thaler pricetag with the 50 to 30 thalers that most of the harpsichords Bach owned were valued at, except for one which was worth 80, and that the most expensive Stainer violin he owned was worth only 8 thalers), I doubt Silbermann built them except to order when he was sure of being paid.

< But also see page 444 where we learn that Bach only signed this document. He did not write it. The rest was written by his son Friederich. I guess we must also have evidence that Bach's sons helped him with his business in selling other people's pianos. Do we? >
Of course we have tons of evidence that not only his sons, but all his family members helped out in all aspects of his "business", copying and performing music, handling correspondence (we know his nephew Johann Elias acted as his secretary for a number of years because copies of letters he wrote survive, but there must have been other people doing a similar job before and after him), and later, when some of his sons had moved out, selling the music their father published where they lived, just as he sold the music in Leipzig they and some of his pupils published. Again, that was normal practice. Bach's family wasn't like a nuclear family of today, one should think of it more as an osmall family business, where everyone was expected to chip in from an early age, and nobody ever really retired unless decrepitude forced them to. Bach wasn't just sitting there writing music and performing cantatas, he was an active businessman who had to make money to support a large family.

< Once again, what evidence to we have for believing this receipt is not for Bach's personal business affairs? Why do we accept the claim that the fortepiano was not his? Seems a little bit counter-intuitive to me. This late in his life, 1749, Bach is acting as a piano salesman? >
Why not? We have evidence that in 1748 he was renting out harpsichords. He was selling books and music until the end of his life, and advertising for it in the papers. Why would he suddenly have stopped? Bach never retired, nobody did in those days. And unless he was clairvoyant, he didn't know that 1749 would turn out to be "this late in his life".

 

Keyboard Concertos:
Reviews:
More Bach from Murray Perahia | Harpsichord concertos played on 2, 3, and 4 Organs | Bach on two harpsichords by Raskin, Milani | Bach(s) on two keyboards delivered by Hogwood and Rousset | Bach Harpsichord with Pinnock | Review: The Italian Bach in Vienna DVD

Ottavio Dantone: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Review: WTC By Ottavio Dantone | Review: The Italian Bach in Vienna DVD

Katia & Marielle Labèque: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Review: The Italian Bach in Vienna DVD

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