Johan Sebastian Bach
CD Stock Number: Harmonia Mundi HMU 907283.84
This important release is cause for celebration for anyone interested in the music of J. S. Bach and in authentically scaled baroque performance. The musicians, whom I think of affectionately as the Harmonia Mundi All-stars, can add feathers to their collective caps -- heck, given the stunning results heard here, make that ostrich plumes!
These two CDs comprise Bach's seven solo concertos for harpsichord, published as BWV 1052-1058, with a bonus of the "Triple" Concerto BWV 1044. In his erudite notes, soloist Richard Egarr suggests that the latter piece is probably not completely the work of the elder Bach, and theorizes the later involvement of his sons. No matter -- whatever its provenance, it is most enjoyable, and deserves presentation alongside its authenticated cousins. The seven solo concertos are compact -- ranging in length from about nine minutes (BWV 1056, in F minor) to just over 23 minutes (BWV 1052, in D minor). They are by turns genial and fierce, simple and sophisticated in mood, and bursting with melodic and harmonic creativity. All are constructed along the three-movement fast-slow-fast structure so commonly found in concertos from the 19th and 20th centuries. Egarr notes that these concertos also decisively liberated the harpsichord from its continuo role and elevated it to solo status. He suggests that they in fact served as a primary template for subsequent keyboard concertos.
We also find here wonderful examples of Bach's brilliance in reinventing his own work. Both BWV 1057 In Fmajor and BWV 1058 in G minor elicited double takes on first hearing -- I knew that music, but not in that form... After banging my head against the wall for a while, I finally realized that they were the fraternal twins of, respectively, the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto and the Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041. Listening to those pairs of compositions alternately proved not only pleasurable but also instructive, illuminating for me new perceptions about Bach's compositional methodology.
These concertos receive far fewer public performances than their musical quality would warrant, and after listening to this collection it's not hard to understand why. Large halls and large ensembles of modern instruments would simply overwhelm the solo harpsichord. I have vocationally heard performances with the solo part transcribed for piano, and those were certainly enjoyable. But such performances -- and for that matter, many of the more "authentic" recorded versions of these works still give unnatural prominence to the solo part. The harpsichord may have been liberated from the continuo, but in these concertos it properly assumes a concertante role -- a peer among equals. With no more than ten musicians playing at any one time (including director Manze -- no baton here), Bach's counterpoint and melodic part writing emerge with glorious clarity.
The by now expectable fine work of the Harmonia Mundi recording team headed by producer Robina G. Young yields a perfectly appropriate acoustic. There is just a slight touch of reverberation for warmth, and the somewhat distant miking keeps the relationship of harpsichord and tutti in perfect proportion. I typically urge the listener to concentrate on one work at a time in sets like this, but so far I am unable to follow my own advice. So seductive is the listening experience here that once a CD begins, I am stuck in place for its duration. Sweet agony.
We have here a rare nexus of scholarship, virtuosity, exuberance, taste and sonic brilliance. This set unequivocally makes a case for the harpsichord concertos as worthy peers of the Brandenburgs, and I expect it will long reign as the definitive recorded statement on them . Bravo to all concerned!