The 50 greatest Bach recordings – part 4

Gramophone Fri 30th September 2016

Our traversal of the greatest Bach recordings continues, from the Goldberg Variations to the Cantatas...

Bach

All of the reviews below were originally published in Gramophone, the world's leading classical music magazine. To find out more about subscribing, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

Goldberg Variations

Pierre Hantaï hpd

(Naive, 1994 rec)

One of the first things to strike the listener in this new recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations is the fine quality of Bruce Kennedy's copy of an early eighteenth-century instrument by the Berlin craftsman, Michael Mietke. Its character, furthermore, is admirably captured by the effectively resonant recorded sound, a shade too close for some ears, perhaps, but not for me.

The soloist, Pierre Hantai, is a member of a talented French musical family who studied first with Arthur Haas, then with Gustav Leonhardt. His approach to the Goldbergs is tremendously spirited and energetic but also disciplined. What I like most of all about this playing, though, is that Hantai clearly finds the music great fun to perform. Some players have been too inclined to make heavy weather over this piece and I have sometimes been driven to despair by the seriousness with which the wonderfully unbuttoned Quodlibet (Var 30) is despatched. Hantai makes each and every one of the canons a piece of entertainment while in no sense glossing over Bach's consummate formal mastery. Other movements, such as Var 7 (gigue) and Var 11, effervesce with energy and good humour. Yes, this is certainly the spirit which I like to prevail in my Goldberg Variations. But, as I say, Hantai is careful to avoid anything in the nature of superficiality. Not for a moment is the listener given the impression that his view of the music is merely skin deep. Indeed, there is a marked concentration of thought in canons such as that at the fourth interval (Var 12). Elsewhere, I found Hantai's feeling for the fantasy and poetry of Bach's music effective and well placed (such as in Var 13).

Little more need be said except that Hantai has taken note of Bach's autograph corrections to the text published in Nuremberg in 1741 or 1742 by Balthasar Schmid. Invigorating, virtuosic playing of this kind deserves to win friends, and my recommendation is that, whether or not you already possess one or more recordings of the Goldbergs, you make a firm commitment to add this one to your library. The Ouverture (Var 16), the Quodlibet and much else here have an irresistible esprit, a happy conjunction of heart and mind. Another triumph for an enterprising label. Nicholas Anderson (April 1994)

 

Goldberg Variations 

Glenn Gould pf 

(Sony, 1981 rec)

This truly astonishing performance was recorded in 1981, 26 years after Gould's legendary 1955 disc. Gould was not in the habit of re-recording but a growing unease with that earlier performance made him turn once again to a timeless masterpiece and try, via a radically altered outlook, for a more definitive account. By his own admission he had, during those intervening years, discovered 'slowness' or a meditative quality far removed from flashing fingers and pianistic glory. And it is this 'autumnal repose' that adds such a deeply imaginative dimension to Gould's unimpeded clarity and pin-point definition. The Aria is now mesmerically slow. The tremulous confidences of Variation 13 in the 1955 performance give way to something more forthright, more trenchantly and determinedly voiced, while Var. 19's previously light and dancing measures are humorously slow and precise. Variation 21 is painted in the boldest of oils, so to speak, and most importantly of all, Landowska's 'black pearl' (Var. 25) is far less romantically susceptible than before, has an almost confrontational assurance. The Aria's return, too, is overwhelming in its profound sense of solace and resolution.

Personally, I wouldn't want to be without either of Gould's recordings yet I have to say that the second is surely the finest. The recording is superb and how remarkable that what are arguably Gould's two greatest records should be his first and his last.' Bryce Morrison (August 1993)

 

Goldberg Variations 

Igor Levit pf

(Sony Classical)

Igor Levit’s late Beethoven sonatas (11/13) and Bach Partitas (10/14) on Sony Classical have already made bold declarations of his pianistic and artistic prowess. Now he confirms his appetite for the big entrance with three monuments to variation form, each rooted in its own century, yet all united by the harnessing of maximum variety, maximum discipline.

Levit will be stuck for some years to come with the epithets ‘young’ and ‘Russian-born, German-trained/domiciled’. But the instant he touches the piano such information becomes irrelevant. Certainly he can muster all the athleticism, velocity and finesse of a competition winner ready to burst on to the international scene. But like the rarest of that breed – a Perahia, say – his playing already has a far-seeing quality that raises him to the status of the thinking virtuoso. There is, if you care to rationalise, a Russian depth of sound and eloquence of phrasing, tempered by Germanic intellectual grasp. There is also a sense of exulting in technical prowess and energy. But not once in the course of these three themes and 99 variations did I feel that such qualities were being self-consciously underlined. Levit’s musical personality is as integrated and mature as his technique. And both of these are placed at the service of the music’s glory rather than his own.

Levit’s Goldberg Variations range themselves more naturally alongside the patrician intelligence of a Perahia than with the sui generis extremes of a Glenn Gould. At times Perahia’s imagination in repeats arguably betokens a fraction more wisdom. But such fine nuances only emerge in the dutiful process of comparison, rather than in the wholly absorbing experience of Levit traversing another musical peak. Top-notch recording quality, too. If a finer piano recording comes my way this year I shall be delighted, but frankly also astonished. David Fanning (November 2015)

 

Italian Concerto. Partitas, etc

Walter Gieseking pf

Naxos

A famous response to Gieseking’s playing as being “like Monet in Giverny” was made with reference to his legendary Debussy performances. Yet although Gieseking’s phenomenal aural sensitivity earned him a unique reputation in French piano music, his repertoire was all-embracing. This included the concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov and, in 1930, he gave a New York recital entirely devoted to contemporary music. All the more reason then to celebrate Naxos’s release of Gieseking’s Bach and Beethoven in recordings dating from 1931-40, made when this unique artist was at the height of his career.

Here you will search in vain for the sort of muddles or confusions that would sometimes plague his performances (evidence of his proud boast that he did little practice). His Bach has a peerless lightness, grace and natural beauty, the reverse of Teutonic earnestness and heaviness. The Andante from the Italian Concerto, a tirelessly ornamented aria, is given with an enviable poise and lucidity while in the Gigue from the First Partita his playing is, again, the opposite of a more familiar cold-hearted virtuosity, making you regret that there are only excerpts from this exquisite masterpiece. In the Fifth Partita (given complete) Gieseking shows the most subtle virtuosity and is no less convincing in the Sixth Partita’s more strenuous and concentrated demands.

Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata is given without first- or last-movement repeats and is taken, in those outer movements, at such a pace that there are occasional dangers that the music’s character is whisked out of existence (the finale is, after all, marked allegretto). For encores there are Beethoven’s E flat Bagatelle from Op 33 and the Bach-Hess Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring where Gieseking plays with admirable restraint while not quite equalling Dame Myra’s own inimitable poise. Bryce Morrison (January 2010)

 

The Art of Fugue

Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf

(DG)

This is Bach-playing to listen to every day, fresh, spry and well modulated. If spirituality is to be found in The Art of Fugue, Aimard seems to say, it will not be through slow tempi, dynamic extremes or the quasi-religious trappings arrayed by the likes of Sokolov, Kocsis, Koroliov and Nikolaieva. The tripping, French swagger of Contrapuncti 2 and 6 and the smart Italian cut of No 9 fit neatly under the fingers. Freedom is found within the interplay of voices rather than any fancy phrasing: in fact the mirror fugues and canons are so unfussily done that you’d never guess without a score to hand how much a single musician can look and sound like Mr Messy while playing them.

This is not to imply dryness or inflexibility on Aimard’s part. He follows Tovey in finding No 3 to be “one of Bach’s most beautiful pieces of quiet chromatic slow music”, after which the extraordinary cadences of No 4 (actually the final completed movement) are necessarily pedalled and clipped, even chirpy: the envoi of a true Kapellmeister. The great unfinished fugue is especially fascinating, gradually accumulating kinesis until the surge of B-A-C-H pulls us towards its unattained apotheosis with the force of the Severn Bore. Applied with more plain-spoken authority, such emphatic strength of wrist and will rather chews up the Tenth’s preludial bars and the expansive, chorale-fantasia conclusion of the Fifth, though with equal force one senses that, in this case, they had to be so. Perhaps no pianist since Charles Rosen has so persuasively demonstrated that this contrapuntal encyclopedia is to be heard as well as read. Peter Quantrill (March 2008)

 

The Art of Fugue

Fretwork

(Harmonia Mundi)

Did Bach really leave ‘Contrapunctus 14’ of The Art of Fugue unfinished? Two scholars think otherwise. Christoph Wolff argues that the composer ‘planned to stop where he did’. And Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, believes that ‘the fugue is imposing enough to be a plausible climax’. The Keller Quartet, playing modern instruments, are indeed imposing, but the marking alla breve indicates a need for more vitality – which Fretwork offer. 

The wide variation here exemplifies the absence of tempo directions for the 20 pieces that comprise this work. Performers are expected to relate speed to time signatures without other guidance; and Fretwork’s judgements are difficult to fault. Turn to the ‘Canon alla Duodecima’, or alternatively ‘Contrapunctus 9’, where the required swift pulse does not preclude expressive articulation; and then to ‘Contrapunctus 10’, where four-in-a-bar is reflected in a slower pace that also allows more space for a keener, but not overt, subjective response. Indeed, throughout their idiomatically phrased, impressively cohesive and clean-textured exploration of the work, these thoughtful musicians don’t italicise anything. 

In sum, the Keller are extrovert in their emotional involvement, whereas Fretwork opt for a quieter, controlled intensity that perhaps needs extended listening to be fully appreciated. The recording certainly won’t stand in your way. It is expertly balanced, the acoustic of The Maltings, Snape harnessed to give both ambience and intimacy. Producer/engineer Nicholas Parker has done Fretwork proud. Bach, too. Though The Art of Fugue is usually considered a composition for keyboard, the timbre of strings, especially viols played and reproduced this way, does give the music another dimension. Nalen Anthoni (December 2002)

 

Sacred Cantatas

Bach Collegium Japan / Masaaki Suzuki

(BIS)

While John Eliot Gardiner performed his near-complete Bach sacred cantata ‘pilgrimage’ in the course of the great millennial year in 50 contrasting locations, Masaaki Suzuki’s 18-year journey has been a gradually unfolding musical voyage (a chronological rather than seasonal progression) and in the singular, luminous hallmark acoustic of the Shoin Women’s University Chapel in Kobe. Comparisons of two exceptional Bach projects are largely rendered odious by the fact that Gardiner’s work largely represents a repository of recorded concerts while Suzuki’s has been a considered, slow-burn studio project. If the early critical rhetoric of Vol 1 (Cantatas Nos 4, 150 and 196 – 6/96) was one of astonishment that a Japanese choir could sing such perfect German or that Japanese instrumentalists could comprehend ‘style’ so effortlessly, it soon became apparent that the world is smaller than we think and that Suzuki’s subtle and embedded understanding of Bach was yielding an important set of new recorded ‘texts’ in a global musical language. No complete series can deliver equal inspiration in every volume but Suzuki and BCJ have created an indelible mark on Bach’s recorded vocal landscape. The best is as good as anyone anywhere – and the whole, of the six complete cantata sets, probably the most consistent. Jonathan Freeman‑Attwood (December 2013)

 

Sacred Cantatas

Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner

(SDG)

One of the most staggering achievements – in terms of ambition, execution, presentation and cultural significance – emerged from the millennial project by the Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists and Sir John Eliot Gardiner to perform all of Bach’s sacred cantatas during the course of a single year. The performances, which were recorded during the tour, started to emerge on disc in 2005 and the first volume secured Gramophone’s Recording of the Year; the entire project was given a Special Achievement Award in 2011. Now all 56 CDs have been gathered together in an elegant black box. As well as a slim booklet of essays and a complete listing by both CD contents and BWV number, there’s a CDR that contains Gardiner’s excellent notes as well as the texts and translations of all the cantatas. Steve McCurry’s extraordinarily vivid photographs still adorn each sleeve to great effect. But it is the impact of this music that makes it such an achievement: Bach squares up to the highs and lows of mankind, and our baser motives and higher aspirations are engaged with in a musical language that transcends the passing of time. If ever part of a major composer’s work needed rediscovering it’s the Bach cantatas – we really know too few of them. James Jolly (January 2014)

 

Sacred Cantatas

Vienna Concentus Musicus/ Nikolaus Harnoncourt; Leonhardt Consort / Gustav Leonhardt

(Warner Classics)

In the 19 years since its inception, this cycle of all of Bach 's sacred cantatas in 45 volumes and on 83 discs has enriched the catalogue incalculably. Beside the more glamorous projects that have captured the attention in the sphere of period performance, the work of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt and their colleagues in Amsterdam and Vienna has progressed steadily and with consummate musicianship. Each volume in this monumental project offers rich rewards and bears witness not only to Bach's unparalleled genius but to the remarkable consistency and imagination of the many performers who have contributed to it over the years. It is a series that was started long before cycles and integrales became the fashion and it stands to outlive many of the cycles that have come and gone during the last two decades. James Jolly (October 1990)

 

Cantatas Nos 82 and 199

Emma Kirkby sop Katharina Artken ob Freiburg Baroque Orchestra / Gottfried von der Goltz vn

(Carus)

One of the world’s brightest Baroque ensembles performing with one of the world’s most admired Baroque sopranos sounds an enticing proposition‚ and so it should. What is more‚ the solo cantatas on offer here are two of Bach’s most moving: Ich habe genug‚ that serene contemplation of the afterlife; and Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut‚ a relatively early work with a text which moves from the wallowing self­pity of the sinnner to joyful relief in God’s mercy. Each contains music of great humanity and beauty‚ and each‚ too‚ contains an aria of aching breadth and nobility – the justly celebrated ‘Schlummert ein’ in the case of Ich habe genug‚ and in Mein Herze the humble but assured supplication of ‘Tief gebückt’. This aria alone ought to make the cantata a more familiar one‚ but there is plenty more to recommend it‚ including a grief­laden first aria with obbligato oboe‚ a dignified chorale with obbligato cello‚ and recitatives whose expressiveness is enhanced by stoical string accompaniment. Both could have been written for Emma Kirkby‚ who‚ thrillingly virtuosic though she can be‚ is perhaps at her best in this kind of long­breathed‚ melodically sublime music in which sheer beauty of vocal sound counts for so much. Not that technique does not come into it‚ and Kirkby’s allows her to shape vibrato­less long notes and phrases with utter security and ravishing vocal quality‚ with only the occasional high note sounding slightly pinched. Above all‚ however‚ her intelligence and unfailing attention to text are a lesson to all; in ‘Schlummert ein’‚ the way her voice subsides almost to nothing‚ retreating into the orchestral texture at ‘fallet sanft’ (fall asleep)‚ is entrancing.

The support of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is total‚ combining tightness of ensemble with such flexibility and sensitivity to the job of accompaniment that you really feel they are ‘playing the words’. The obbligato contributions of flautist Karl Kaiser and oboist Katharina Arfken‚ furthermore‚ are outstandingly musical. And if that were not enough‚ the Freiburgers also give one of the most satisfyingly thoroughbred accounts of the Violin and Oboe Concerto that I have heard. Add a recorded sound which perfectly combines bloom‚ clarity and internal balance‚ and you have a CD to treasure. Lindsay Kemp (November 2001)

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