C.P.E. Bach
Cello concertos

Nicolas Altstaedt, Arcangelo.

C.P.E. Bach: Cello Concertos, Nicolas Altstaedt, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen, cond. Hyperion

As our attention spans continue to shrink, there’s no better time to bond with the quicksilver music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. A new album of concertos for cello and string orchestra, energetically performed by soloist Nicolas Altstaedt and the British ensemble Arcangelo, flaunts the composer’s sparkling melodies, zigzagging rhythms and shifting moods. It’s also impossible not to love.

The second surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach, C.P.E. was born in 1714, learned music from his father and, fresh from college, landed a job as keyboardist for Frederick the Great in Berlin, where he stayed for nearly 30 years. In 1768, he finally left Berlin for Hamburg, succeeding Telemann as director of the city’s church music.

Scholars say Bach was an amiable guy, witty with words and an enthusiastic improviser. It all pours out in these three concertos, which, despite following the standard fast-slow-fast, three-movement formula, keep us guessing at what’s around every corner.

The final movement of the B-flat major concerto is like a joyride with a tipsy driver. After the deceptively smooth opening measures, it’s all musical whiplash with brakes slamming, sudden accelerations and collisions with disorienting harmonies.

In the A minor concerto, strings rocket out of the gate with dizzying energy. There’s an abrupt inhale for the cello’s lyrical entrance, but the orchestra insists on interrupting. For the final Allegro, a twitching figure gets volleyed about amid blasts of dissonance — the aural equivalent of wearing orange socks with red slacks.

Alstaedt plays without vibrato. His tone is handsomely svelte, slightly nasal and often as smooth as hazelnut gelato. That’s not to say he can’t dig into Bach’s virtuosic passages with élan. In the B-flat major’s concerto’s Allegretto, Altstaedt trades expressive elegance with frenetic bowing, as if furiously scraping an old house, flakes of paint flying everywhere. For unique coloration, try the Largo from the A major concerto where, playing in a high register, Altstaedt’s instrument takes on the character of a ramshackle squeezebox. Cellist Anner Bylsma may “sing” more in his recording, but the atmospheric effects that the conductor Jonathan Cohen conjures here — muted strings sighing in anguish — are breathtakingly cinematic.

The music’s raw emotions and restless energy deliver both a soundtrack for overstimulated lives and a glimpse of one of the 18th-century’s most cutting-edge composers.

— Tom Huizenga

Officium Sancti Miniatis
dall’Antifonario Arcivescovile de Firenze

Coro Viri Galilaei, Ensemble San Felice.



Officium Sancti Miniatis (Florence, Arcivescovado, s.c.), Coro Viri Galilaei, Ensemble San Felice. Bongiovanni.

The music we call Gregorian chant was not a monolithic, unified repertory. Melodies and texts varied widely from place to place, century to century. The only way to appreciate this is to study medieval manuscripts, where individual differences are manifested, especially in the feasts of local saints. This beautiful new recording on the Bongiovanni label offers one such unusual selection, a rare set of chants for the Divine Office in honor of St. Minias, a third-century martyr whose relics are venerated at the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte overlooking Florence. For those seeking to lower their blood pressure during an overheated election season, this calming music is a balm.

Giovanni Alpigiano edited the musical source, a 12th-century antiphoner used in Florence Cathedral and now in the collection of the city’s archiepiscopal archive. I happen to be familiar with it because of research conducted for the CANTUS Project during my graduate school studies, a manuscript containing several rare or unique offices for unusual Italian saints. This recording by two Florentine chant choirs, the Coro Viri Galilaei and Ensemble San Felice, does not attempt to re-create these medieval prayer services in their complete form. Although lessons drawn from the saint’s vita are inserted between the matins responsories, minor prayers and versicles are omitted, as are all but the first couple of verses of psalms and canticles. The focus is on the chants found in the manuscript, although the recording does not include some of them, such as the alternate invitatory and a string of extra antiphons at the end of Lauds.

The Coro Viri Galilaei sings most of the pieces, and the women, who sing the chants of the first nocturn of Matins, have an especially pretty, meditative sound. The smaller Ensemble San Felice sings the third nocturn, with a tone slightly more refined than the men of the Coro Viri Galilaei, greater in number, who sing the second nocturn. In any case, with this sort of liturgical music, some roughness around the edges of the voices only adds to the appeal, as in some of the solo contributions. The two directors, Enzo Ventroni and Federico Bardazzi, prefer a free-flowing style of chant performance rather than trying to retrofit later metric patterns onto this music notated without rhythmic durations. The sound, recorded in a place called the Villa Calloria, has a long acoustic ring similar to what you would hear in a church of stone.

— Charles T. Downey