Harmonia Mundi's C.P.E. Bach: 4 Orchestra-Symphonies -- Cello Concerto in A Major features august British period ensemble the English Concert under the direction of its maestro di capella Andrew Manze in the four "Orchestra-Symphonies" from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach that Wotquenne catalogs as "Wq. 183." To add variance and excitement to this program, the English Concert's regular first cellist, Alison McGillivray, steps forward to take the solo spot in C.P.E.'s Cello Concerto in A major, Wq. 172, a work that predates the others by more than two decades. For Bach "son number two" writing symphonies was certainly a case of an old dog learning a new trick; his youngest brother Johann Christian Bach had already been composing them for a decade. C.P.E. Bach's symphonies are willfully eccentric, laden with bizarre effects and almost jazzy in their rhythmic intensity. For symphonies that just a generation ago belonged to the vast corpus of eighteenth century orchestral music that no one seemed to know or care about, they are swiftly gaining ground in terms of performances and recordings.
Overall, the Wq. 183 symphonies are performed very well here -- Manze makes the most of the stubborn repeated note contrasted against the wickedly syncopated subject that characterizes the Allegro di molto of the Orchestra-Symphony No. 1 in D major, an idea so far out it seems almost postmodern. Nevertheless, these performances are shaped by a conductor, rather than performed by a conductor-less group (which is also possible), and in some ears these interpretations may not appear "perfect" in the smallest details. There seems to be a problem maintaining a consistent tempo in the Allegro di molto of the Orchestra-Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, and one assumes that this must be the way Manze wants it, because if it were the result of a less than satisfying performance, then Harmonia Mundi wouldn't have used this recording. The English Concert is a little at disadvantage in two of these symphonies, Nos. 2 and 3, as a practically definitive version of each was recorded by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin only about a decade before and issued, likewise, on Harmonia Mundi. Given a choice between the two, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin wins out by a slim margin, as its readings are just that much more energetic, forceful, and intense than the English Concert. Yet this is not taking into account the remaining symphonies and this disc's secret weapon, namely the cello concerto performed by Alison McGillivray, which is incredible, particularly in the Largo con sordini, mesto movement, taken with great care and played beautifully by McGillivray. Hopefully your friends won't think that you're turning into a C.P.E. Bach freak by owning both the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin recording of his symphonies and this one by the English Concert. Perhaps in time the regard in which these symphonies are held will change to the extent that such will seem no more unusual than to retain more than one recording of some of Haydn's symphonies in one's library. In any event, if one wants to be in on the twisted glory that typifies Wq. 183, C.P.E. Bach: 4 Orchestra-Symphonies -- Cello Concerto in A Major is a terrific option to have, even if the front cover illustration seems at odds with the music inside.