Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Ottavio Dantone at St John’s Smith Square – Bach: A Family Affair

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Symphony in C, Wq182/3
Johann Sebastian Bach
Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV1052
Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach
Symphony in D minor, WfvI/3
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach
Harpsichord Concerto in F minor
C. P. E. Bach
Symphony in B minor, Wq182/5

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Ottavio Dantone (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 30 October, 2016
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Ottavio DantonePhotograph: ©Walter CapelliIn celebrating music of the Bach Family, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment displayed the very best of ‘period’ style. Ottavio Dantone conducted the Symphonies and directed the Concertos from the harpsichord. Crispness of rhythm was a notable feature, the OAE strikingly precise in its chording. These attributes were a great asset in the two Sinfonias by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788). Wq 182/3’s fierce dynamic contrasts challenged the listener from the outset and they were stressed with great vigour. As throughout the evening, the music was supported by the essential harpsichord continuo but in the driving outer movements of all the works the instrument, placed in a far corner with the sounding-board facing across the OAE, was barely audible. The only benefit was a touch of added richness to chords in slow movements.

The harpsichord for the Concertos was quite another matter and the tonal variation that Dantone was able to impart to the substantial D-minor piece of family-father Johann Sebastian (1685-1750) was masterly. In the many solos he placed subtle emphasis on significant chords sufficiently to shape the melodies without imposing the romantic phrasing sometimes heard when pianists perform Baroque music. Dantone’s view of the hushed central Adagio engendered an atmosphere of cool beauty.

Johann Christoph Friedrich (1732-1795) is a less-familiar figure in the Bach lineage and many of his compositions have been lost. There is a useful catalogue prepared by Hans-Dieter Wohlfarth but beware confusion because it is uses Wfv for identification which could lead to the misconception that it represents W. F. rather than J. C. F. who was born a generation later than his half-brother. His birth was in the same year as Haydn’s but J. C. F.’s Symphony retains a Baroque conception – even to the indeterminate ending of the first movement which leaves the ear eagerly awaiting the first note of the Andante amoroso – the one movement that anticipates the soulfulness of later music of this nature. The more relaxed but bright Finale provided another exhibition of the OAE’s remarkable precision.

Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784) the oldest of Johann Sebastian’s sons was represented by his dramatic F-minor Concerto, which has been attributed to either C. P. E. or to J. C. Bach. Dantone has the opinion that its “moody nature” makes clear that the style represents W. F., and it is certainly fiercely dramatic, the forcefulness of the opening sounds remarkably like the start of a C. P. E. Symphony. It could be argued that the flurries of notes in the fast movements make even greater demands on the harpsichordist than the daunting requirements of J. S.’s D-minor.

Finally, back to C. P. E. for another dramatic Symphony, the highlight being the Finale with rapid switches of phrases and remarkable impact, so much so that Dantone played it again.

It was an excellent and illuminating idea to represent members of the Bach Family although I’d have liked something by Johann Christian. There were no wind instruments to vary the texture and nearly all the works are in a minor key yet were appropriately dissimilar; there was lightness to the concert and the OAE’s playing was immaculate.

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