Recording Bach's Violin Concertos

Kati DebretzeniFri 15th November 2019

Kati Debretzeni introduces her new recording of Bach's violin concertos with the English Baroque Soloists and Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Recording a CD of some of your favourite music with colleagues and friends you have been playing with for half your life is a momentous occasion. I have played with the English Baroque Soloists since 1997, and have lead the orchestra since the year 2000. That was the year of the unforgettable Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, when alongside the Monteverdi Choir we performed all  of JS Bach’s church cantatas in the most wonderful churches of Europe. In the intervening years the orchestra kept performing some of those cantatas, as well as re-recording the B Minor Mass and the Passions. Thus, when the opportunity arose to record Bach's violin concertos with the group, my first thought was a programme mirroring in some way the many journeys with Johann Sebastian I have been fortunate to be part of. 

The A minor and E major concertos (BWV1041-1042) were an obvious choice, the two ‘bona fide’ pieces Bach gifted to violinists in this genre. I have performed them countless times over the years, yet recording them gave a chance to re-examine various aspects: tempi, character, articulation, harmonic structure, phrase-lengths in the accompanying orchestral parts (always out of the ordinary, especially in the beginning of the A minor!) – the building-blocks in need of special attention when meeting an old friend. 

However, research maintains that more than just two of Bach’s concertos were written with the violin in mind: the monumental D minor harpsichord concerto BWV1052 was for long seen as Bach’s re-arrangement of a now-lost original for the violin. In addition, many violinists have recently ‘appropriated’ a number of other harpsichord concerti, basing the idea on Bach’s own reverse arrangements of both the A minor and E major violin concerti for harpsichord. 

Thus, I attempted to complement these two pieces with another two ‘borrowed’ from the harpsichord repertoire, choosing them mindful of the years the English Baroque Soloists have spent performing and recording Bach’s church music. 

The musical material of the D minor harpsichord concerto appears (with the organ as solo/obbligato instrument) In Cantata BWV146 (‘Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal’), providing the opportunity of reflecting on the text Bach’s choral texture weaves so poignantly around the solo instrument. A ready source of inspiration, not to mention the humility any musician feels when reflecting upon a piece that is equally complete and overwhelming with or without four choral lines ...

The last piece chosen was the Harpsichord Concerto in E major, BWV1053. The reason for this was similar: all three movements appear in church cantatas, and the lilting Siciliano second movement in particular provides with an incredibly touching vocal line and text to delve into. This concerto might have been originally conceived with another instrument in mind (reconstructions exist for oboe, oboe d’amore and viola), but it fits the violin beautifully. The main challenge of the arrangement was constructing a workable basso continuo line for the orchestral parts, as in the harpsichord version the left hand often fills that role alone, in a virtuosic fashion, not suited to the bowed basses. Fortunately in the cantata versions the obbligato organ’s left hand material is entirely doubled by the continuo, thus providing choices to be made. 

The recording days in the wonderful acoustic of St Jude’s-on-the-Hill in London felt like a conversation between good friends who have long been speaking a common language. Hopefully the listeners will derive as much joy from listening to the fruits of our labours as we felt engaging with these masterpieces. 

Kati Debretzeni's new recording of Bach's Violin Concertos with the English Baroque Soloists and Sir John Eliot Gardiner is out now. For further information, please visit: monteverdi.co.uk

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