Déjà Review: this review was first published in October 2003 and the recording is still available.

Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782)
Complete Opera Overtures
The Hanover Band/Anthony Halstead
rec. 1994-2000, Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, UK
cpo 999 963-2 [3 CDs: 177]

It is conventional criticism to commence a review of such a boxed set by saying that these pieces are individually enjoyable but you would not want to listen to them all at once. Well, wrong … I would, and did. These are completely engrossing works and Anthony Halstead’s marvellous players have caused me to spend several hours exploring this and related repertoire.

The brief biographical note duplicated in each of the three booklets (these CDs were previously available separately and were recorded over several years) tell a rather sad tale of yet another famous and successful composer destined to die young, in debt, and unmourned by a hard-hearted public. That he was a close friend of none other than Mozart for twenty years of his short life draws the parallel still closer. It is too easy to see the post J.S.Bach period as one consisting of a gap followed by Haydn and Mozart. In fact the sons of Bach included several very fine musicians indeed; Johann Christian is one, with the other most significant being Carl Philipp Emanuel. These two have only to be heard to alert the listener to their importance. Sons of Bach they may have been, but clones they were not. Johann Christian is urbane, skilled and blessed with an almost Mozartian grace. Carl Philipp Emanuel is emotional and (within context) wild to the point of eccentricity (“full of forbidden dissonances”, “all very disturbing”, says one contemporary review). Since both were prolific composers, the journey through the present set and subsequently through everything else I could find in my collection provided many a pleasurable hour. Had I decided to carry on with the non-Bachs too I might never have got round to writing this review.

If all that leads the reader to believe I liked this big set of Overtures then he or she is correct. In contrast to the brief biography mentioned above, the notes by Ernest Warburton (CD1 and 2) and Andreas Friesenhagen (CD3) on each opera overture are extensive and very informative. Apart from summarising plots they also talk of the performance history of these mostly very successful operas. The notes also detail why some of the overtures turned into symphonies with or without changes. Recycling was in full swing throughout the Baroque and Classical periods. It is almost comical to imagine what the modern school of originality-or-bust would have made of such wholesale reuse of material (not always by its original owner!).

The Hanover Band are working through Johann Christian’s entire orchestral output for CPO. By contrast Carl Philipp Emanuel is less well served but I note the enterprising BIS is starting work on a similar “authentic instruments” exploration with the Bach Collegium of Japan though that has yet to reach the “disturbing” symphonies. Each of J.C.’s Overtures is a three movement Sinfonia in the Italian Style, generally simply Allegro, Andante, Allegro. The overture functioned as a prelude to the evening’s entertainment and not as a preview of the main tunes of the opera, as it was to become later, so taking them out of context is completely viable. On the surface one might expect both the remarkable Hanover Band and your unremarkable reviewer to get bored with so much fast-slow-fast early classical stuff. But as is the case with Vivaldi and Corelli from an earlier time, these do not pall. If I were to pick out something to tickle the listener’s fancy it would be the very last track in the box, CD3 Track 24, the Tambourin from the Ballet Music to Amadis des Gaules, a total charmer of a piece. One listen and you are lost. Mention must be made finally of the excellent and mysterious chorus and vocal soloists in this Ballet. I say mysterious because they rate no mention anywhere. It might be the musicians in the Hanover band singing along, but I doubt it. We should be told.

Dave Billinge

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Cantata a tre voci
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Symphony in D major Op.18 No.1
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Amadis des Gaules: Overture and Ballet Music