The German label CPO, consistently dedicated to underappreciated music, has brought along many recordings of unfamiliar works ranging in status from central to the literature to wholly unworthy of revival. One of the most distinguished, and consequential, projects that CPO has undertaken is its recording of the complete Symphonies Concertantes of Johann Christian Bach as performed by the Hanover Band under Anthony Halstead. Recorded at Rosslyn Hill Chapel in Hampstead between 1995 and 2001, this series was originally released in the form of six single discs. CPO in 2007 has decided to "box it up," adding considerable convenience, especially to those who had difficulty locating some of the single discs in this series. Sometimes listeners complain that beyond the "big three" -- Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven -- they simply cannot distinguish one classical-era composer from another. Johann Christian Bach's cycle of Symphonies Concertante distinguishes him from his contemporaries almost more than any of the other musical genres he put his hand to.
The symphonie concertante is a French form that evolved in Paris around 1750 essentially replacing the then outdated Baroque concerto grosso; composers active in the genre were overwhelmingly French. Usually parsed out in three movements -- though Bach sometimes uses two -- the Symphonie Concertante is very close to the form of multiple concerto in that at least two or more soloists are featured in addition to the orchestra. Bach used as many as nine soloists, essentially adding an orchestra to the orchestra -- that his final symphonies are composed for multiple orchestras is, under the circumstances, not so difficult to comprehend. The symphonie concertante is different from the concerto in that the soloists advance melodic material and participate in moving along the development schemes, functioning as in a symphony, rather than performing a single, showy musical part in the manner of a concerto. The symphonie concertante was most popular at a time when public concerts were becoming all the rage and it was advantageous to get as many star soloists out in front of the band as possible. It was all but dead by 1820, killed by the advent of touring virtuosi who always preferred to fly solo, not to mention the rise of the "cult of the individual" arriving in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars.
Bach composed at least 15 symphonie concertante, which places him roughly third in the overall output in the genre after Giuseppe Maria Cambini (82!) and Carl Stamitz (38). They were composed in two batches; one for the Concerts Spirituel in Paris, the home of the symphonie concertante, boasting an orchestra led by the great violinist Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and the other for the Bach/Abel concerts in London, of which Bach himself was co-leader. All 15 are included here, in addition to two symphonie concertante whose authenticity has been questioned, solo concertos for violin and piano, and an alternate movement for a flute concerto discovered after the Hanover Band recorded Bach's works in that genre. While the form may be French, Bach's style is Italo-German, informed by his studies with Padre Martini, his brother Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, and with his father. Bach's Symphonie Concertante, with their multiples of instruments talking back and forth over short stretches of music, maintain a kind of stylistic universality even as the instrumental timbres are constantly shifting around. The effect is often kaleidoscopic and adds considerable depth and dimension to Bach's tightly constructed music and its hard-won subtleties.
Some of the best early music soloists in England participated in the recordings on this set -- Lisa and Pavlo Beznosiuk, Rachel Brown, Anthony Robson, Rodolfo Richter, and Utako Ikeda are just some of the name performers listed in the small type. However, it is Bach's music that wins the day on CPO's Johann Christian Bach: Complete Symphonies Concertantes.