The 50 greatest JS Bach recordings (2019 update)

Gramophone Thu 16th May 2019

Complete with the original Gramophone reviews of 50 of the finest JS Bach recordings available, plus a playlist on Apple Music

Following the overwhelming popularity of our lists of the 50 greatest Mozart recordings and 50 greatest Beethoven recordings, we are proud to present 50 of the finest recordings of JS Bach's music. Included here are Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month and Editor's Choice discs from the likes of Glenn Gould, Gustav Leonhardt, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Angela Hewitt, Igor Levit, and many more. The list is organised by genre, beginning with orchestral works, then moving though chamber, instrumental and vocal. We have also included, where possible, the complete original Gramophone reviews, which are drawn from Gramophone's Reviews Database of more than 40,000 reviews. To find out more about subscribing to this unique and endlessly fascinating resource, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe. Any list of great Bach recordings is, of course, going to be subjective, but we hope that this list will give a helpful guide to those embarking on their first excursions into Bach's music, as well as those looking to add to already expansive record collections. Enjoy!

Keyboard Concertos Nos 1, 2 & 4

ASMF / Murray Perahia pf

(Sony)

Soloist-conducted piano concertos can sometimes mean compromise, even chaos…but not in this case. Indeed, the playing of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Murray Perahia is even sprightlier than on a rival EMI recording of the same repertoire where Sir Neville Marriner conducts and Andrei Gavrilov plays the keyboard part. As soloist, Perahia is his usual stylish, discreet and pianistically refined self. He takes the D minor Concerto’s opening at a fair lick, a hot-foot sprinter embellishing the line with taste and affecting a little ritardando at 3'21 (just as the mood momentarily brightens) à la Edwin Fischer.

Elsewhere, he is very much his own man, intensifying his tone for rising sequences (at around 5'06) or softening it to the most rarefied murmur (as from 4'54 into the third movement). His command of colour is as striking here as it was on his recent CD of the Goldberg Variations (Sony Classical, 12/00), especially in the Adagio, which approaches cantorial heights of intensity. When it comes to the treacherous chordal cadenza at 6'11 into the finale, Perahia keeps up the momentum without either flagging or straining his tone.

As for the E major and A major Concertos, elegance is more of the essence than fire, but there too Perahia delivers. He has a way of accenting without jabbing the keys, tracing counterpoint while keeping the top line well to the fore. And how nice to hear the warming tone of a theorbo (bass lute) in the E major Concerto’s central Siciliano, a beautiful performance, more ornamental than cantorial, in keeping with the more decorative nature of the music. Tracks 6 and 7 (the E major’s finale and the A major’s opening Allegro) provide cheering examples of Perahia’s buoyant way with Bach’s faster music.

Rivals are plentiful, but credible contenders at this level of interpretation are rare. Andrei Gavrilov ‘out-Goulds’ Gould with his dry staccatissimo, and Gould himself was a good deal livelier in concert than on his rather sober commercial recording under Leonard Bernstein. Sviatoslav Richter plays with incredible control while keeping every note alive, but some might find his manner too austere. And while Edwin Fischer is consistently spontaneous, he is rather less elegant than Perahia – and his version of the A major Concerto sounds to me as if it’s ‘Busonified’ (or something very similar). Andras Schiff, like Perahia, commands a wide range of colours, though the binding force of Perahia’s concentration – always a boon in his latest recordings – leaves the stronger impression. The carefully balanced Sony recordings keep the sound frame tight and lively. All in all, this counts as yet another exceptional Bach-Perahia release. Rob Cowan (May 2001)

 

Keyboard Concertos 

Angela Hewitt pf Australian Chamber Orchestra / Richard Tognetti

(Hyperion)

These are not entirely modern-instrument performances. Angela Hewitt includes, as she says, ‘a harpsichord in its traditional role as continuo’. Combining old and new isn’t unusual because in the early years of period performing practices, the likes of Thurston Dart, Raymond Leppard and George Malcolm married a harpsichord to modern strings and wind. What’s unusual here is the melding of two different types of keyboard, one sharply transient, the other ductile; and just how their functions dovetail with one another may be heard in the slow movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No 5. Hewitt also adds a cello to the continuo while contributing notes inégales, appogiature and other embellishments to her own line. The result is a potent artistic synergy between the musicians.

Hewitt doesn’t slavishly follow a formula, though. In the Adagio of No 1 and the Adagio e piano sempre of No 3 (where she is most intense because both remind her of Passion music), she omits the keyboard’s bass notes for the exposition of the theme but only in No 1 does she play them for its return at the end. In these instances, in the Andante of No 7 and elsewhere, she also varies the prominence of her left hand to give the ripieno string bass a strong presence too, while delineating the right hand melody most feelingly.

Interpretative decisions are intelligently applied; and Hewitt is at her best in the slow movements, all of which are played with the finest sensibility. If a more sinewy approach to a few of the outer movements might not have come amiss, her ability to gauge the critical notes of phrases so as to maintain an elastically accented rhythm offers ample compensation; and the consummate Australian Chamber Orchestra is with her every step of the way. The flute is placed backward in BWV1044 but otherwise recorded balance and sound ensure unimpeded concentration on the performances. Small changes in level between some works are easily adjusted.

Albert Schweitzer denounced the seven keyboard concertos as arrangements ‘often made with quite incredible haste and carelessness’. They are nothing of the sort. Bach took a lot of care over their reworking; and Hewitt and Co do likewise over their re-creation. A superb pair of discs. Nalen Anthoni (September 2005)

 

Violin Concertos

Isabelle Faust, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

(Harmonia Mundi)

That Isabelle Faust and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin have let this Bach violin concertos album run to nearly 2 hours of music suggests a relish of their task that is mirrored triumphantly in the resultant music-making. Their choice of repertoire, too, feels driven by a desire to celebrate Bach’s life with the violin rather than document it. If they had wanted to be pedantically completist about it, we would have the Fifth Brandenburg and the Triple Concerto; instead we get the three known violin concertos plus the three most convincing reconstructions from harpsichord concertos, supplemented by a reconstruction of the putative early violin version of the B minor Flute Suite, and all neatly interspersed with arrangements of two of the organ sonatas and a clutch of cantata sinfonias (including the rarely heard, trumpet-and-drum-laden BWV1045, a violin concerto movement of some flashiness).

Everything here is energy, though the exuberance is of the grounded kind that never gets out of hand. Tempos are brisk; but while there’s certainly not much risk of listeners thinking any of them too slow, neither does any one of them sound too fast, at least not the way they are performed here. Faust’s playing is technically brilliant, yet always at the service of the music, and everywhere enlivened by a richly varied repertoire of interpretative details, from spontaneous twiddle-ornaments to little tempo-tugs or deftly elongated notes within a phrase. From her 1658 Stainer she produces a sound that is period-instrument clean (even at times a little wiry), but can summon warmth of tone and tonal strength when she wants. And together she and this superb orchestra show exemplary contrapuntal clarity while also outlining the music’s architecture through glinting dynamic changes or compelling long-range crescendos and diminuendos. A word should go, too, to Xenia Löffler, whose liquid-gold oboe-playing is a perfect foil for Faust’s busy violin in BWV1060 and a perfect match for its aching beauty of the Sinfonia from Cantata No 21. In short, without being tempted to eccentricity, these performances reveal keen musical minds constantly at work.

The deeper delight of it all is that you can encounter subtle new aspects in the familiar works – the E major Concerto intimate, even a little withdrawn, the slow movement of the A minor given a lightly pulsing, march-like momentum – and real revelations in the lesser-known ones. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the reconstructed concertos sound so convincing (especially the D minor), the trio sonatas go at a thrilling lick that surely no organ could keep up with and the sinfonias simply gleam. This is a hugely enjoyable celebration of Bach – himself a violinist – which conjures not so much the strict contrapuntal and formal genius as the joyous spirit of the living man. Lindsay Kemp (April 2019)

 

Violin Concertos

Alina Ibragimova vn Arcangelo / Jonathan Cohen

(Hyperion)

In all likelihood, Bach composed 20 or more violin concertos, mainly at Weimar and Cöthen, and yet tantalisingly we are left with only two works for a single soloist – more often than not joined at the hip with the celebrated ‘Double’. The fashion these days is to return to Bach’s own transcriptions for keyboard as a repository for some speculative reworkings, and this approach inspires Alina Ibragimova’s varied, committed and poised readings of five solo concertos.

Defining the landscape is Jonathan Cohen’s elegant and spontaneously coloured palette summoned from Arcangelo, heard so startlingly in a fine Mass in B minor (11/14) and now redeployed to provide a sensuous ‘period’ accompaniment to Ibragimova’s style-aware modern playing. How far we have come in blurring the boundaries of previously polarised Baroque performing traditions.

If Ibragimova is occasionally caught between two stools in whether (or not) to follow her instincts, the best performances are brazenly alive, responsive and unselfconscious, underpinned by the soft-grained luxuriance of the lute continuo (note the assuaging sweet-and-sour hues of the slow movements of both the A minor and E major concertos, BWV1041 & 42) and a highly modulated use of dynamics.

The most problematic ‘transcription’ here is the A major (BWV1055), a work that has confounded scholars as to its true provenance, not least owing to its low register and figuration that seems almost deliberately unidiomatic. A somewhat hearty, even bullish, onslaught by Ibragimova rather misses the point in the opening movement – even if the clear springs of intrinsic radiance are, however, restored later in the work. If the strumming lute can seem a touch overbearing, the ‘Frenchified’ turns, manners and whims bring a delectable quality throughout.

The E major Concerto is triumphantly joyous, and we can also admire the thoughtful conceits of the G minor (BWV1056), despite a few awkward corners in intonation; the sublimely succinct slow movement reveals Ibragimova’s vibrato as an expressive tool of considerable discernment. Yet it’s the soloist’s unerring focus and resolute direction which see her flying through the D minor Concerto (BWV1052) with magnificent bravura. Her tendency to push the tempo contributes to the fireworks in the outer movements: an admirable riposte to the tyranny of the metronome! This is an outstanding and distinctive addition to a catalogue bursting at the seams. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (November 2015)

 

Brandenburg Concerto No 5. Concerto for Flute, Violin, Harpsichord. Italian Concerto

Jaime Martin fl Kenneth Sillitoe vn Jakob Lindberg theorbo ASMF / Murray Perahia

(Sony)

The spirit of Prades and Marlboro is here revisited, with Murray Perahia first among equals and the whole production infused with a sense of spontaneous musical interplay. To take just one telling example, go to 3'42" into the first movement of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, where Perahia cues a breathtaking diminuendo then boldly builds towards the recapitulated opening theme. The sense of engagement is infectious. Then there’s the cadenza, subtly reminiscent of Alfred Cortot in its bell-like voicing, elegance and, just prior to the orchestra’s return, cumulative excitement. 

There are, in a sense, two Perahias at work here: the first a non-percussive front-man whose evenly deployed runs are a joy, unlike some who more approximate a hard stick being drawn past iron railings. And then there’s the keyboard poet within the orchestra, who even when playing mezzoforte or piano manages to project a full tone (witness his presence in the tutti afterBrandenburg No 5’s cadenza). The presence of a theorbo helps flavour the two concerto slow movements, the Triple Concerto especially where the impression of ‘leaning together’ is very pronounced. Superb solo playing, too, flautist Jaime Martin producing a memorably plangent tone. 

As on previous Perahia Bach concerto recordings, the overriding impression is of intelligence, sensitivity and drama tempered by humility – Bach’s and Perahia’s. The Italian Concerto begs the by-now familiar question as to how one pair of hands can command so many simultaneous dynamic grades without sounding strained or self-conscious. The outer movements are colourful but never prettified, the principal melody of the central Andante like a memory of classic bel canto. And yet Perahia’s Bach has plenty going on: you attend to one layer of counterpoint, then return for another and so on, discovering something new each time. Even when judged in relation to other top-ranking piano recordings of Bach (among the most recent, Goode, Hewitt, Schiff and Anderszewski) this CD strikes me as exceptional. The recorded sound is full and forward. Rob Cowan (December 2003)

 

Brandenburg Concertos Nos 1-6

Concerto Italiano / Rinaldo Alessandrini

(Naive)

How do you embark on a new addition to the vast pile of Brandenburg Concerto recordings? Do you go for a radical interpretation set to make people jump, laugh or recoil in surprise? Or do you perform them more or less as other good performers have but just try to do it better? Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano have gone for the latter approach and succeeded brilliantly. There is perhaps no Baroque group around today that can do the simple and obvious things to such exciting effect.

This is not to say that their Brandenburgs have no distinguishing features – just that, where they do, they spring from eminent good sense, as, for instance, in No 3 when the two central link chords come attached to a harpsichord flourish which has arisen directly from the first movement’s final chord; or the abrupt ending of No 2; or any number of places where an inner part is brought out with the help of a generously drawn legato so that you are left wondering why you never noticed it before.

Indeed, clarity of texture is one of this recording’s most glorious virtues, offering a view of the contrapuntal wonders of the music that has not always been available. This is particularly striking in the potentially murky, homogeneous textures of Nos 3 and 6; but the other, more colourfully scored concertos are just as lucidly done – a triumph of the balancer’s art, obviously, but surely just as much a result of clear-headed thinking on the part of the performers. Equally enlivening is a tight attention to articulative detail and tasteful ornamentation which keeps the music bouyant and forward-moving at all times.

Technically, things are not always perfect: the horn players struggle sometimes to keep up in No 1 and the solo trumpet part in No 2 is a bit harum-scarum. But the performances are so joyous and fresh that, in their straightforward but deeply musical way, they are the most invigorating newcomers to the Brandenburg fold since Musica Antiqua Köln’s provocative recording of the mid-1980s. Right now I can’t stop playing these discs.

Bonuses come in the form of the Sinfonia to Cantata 174 (a version of the first movement of Concerto No 3 to which lusty oboes and horns have been added) and a curious ‘patch take’ of the shorter, swirling first version of the harpsichord cadenza to No 5 (which I suppose you could edit in yourself if you happen to have the equipment). There is also a pleasingly unhyperbolic DVD of the sessions including interviews with Alessandrini. Lindsay Kemp (November 2005)

 

Brandenburg Concertos Nos 1-6

European Brandenburg Ensemble / Trevor Pinnock

(Avie)

When Trevor Pinnock first recorded the Brandenburgs with the English Concert for DG Archiv in 1982, period performances of these works were relatively rare; today they abound, and it has become harder to make a mark in music that does not readily admit a wide range of interpretations. Not that Pinnock need worry about that at this point in his career. This new recording, made with an ensemble hand-picked for the job, is a 60th-birthday present to himself, and is just what such a project should be: talented musicians relishing each other’s company in music of truly inspiring greatness.

Unsurprisingly, it reflects the increased playing standards of 25 years of period-instrument growth. Only Pinnock himself remains from that first line-up, and while the players then were a high-class team (Simon Standage, Lisa Beznosiuk and Michael Laird among them), the players of the European Brandenburg Ensemble include some of the finest of today’s Baroque chamber players, and there is a relaxed expertise about their performances which seems to allow them to communicate directly and without technical or ideological hindrance. A hint of over-exuberant thickness in the texture of Concerto No 1 is perhaps a reflection of this, but elsewhere it is good to hear playing from the likes of violinist Kati Debretzeni, flautist Katy Bircher and the excellent David Blackadder on trumpet that is bold and confident without straying into coarseness. The clarity achieved in Nos 4, 5 and 6 also has a more natural air than the “studio-y” balance of the Archiv set, no doubt helped by the decision to use a violone at pitch rather than the more usual octave below. The pensive violin improvisation which links the two movements of No 3 is surely a miscalculation, feeling like more of a hold-up than it need be; more lastingly refreshing to my ears were the subtle relaxations of tension in the first movement of No 6, these days so often given the hard-drive treatment.

This is not a Brandenburg set that sets out to score points, and all that is needed from us is to sit back and enjoy its relaxed, celebratory spirit. Lindsay Kemp (March 2008)

 

Brandenburg Concertos

Dunedin Consort / John Butt

(Linn)

Expertly stylish recordings of the six concertos Bach presented in neat copy to the Margrave of Brandenburg in March 1721 are two-a-penny but the Dunedin Consort offer more substantial style and bona fide expertise than most. John Butt’s essay is an accessible commentary, narrated with a friendly authority that bespeaks his extensive academic and performing experience. Several choices reveal sincere reflection about how Bach might have expected such concertos to be played during his years of service at Cöthen, such as the use of low ‘Cammerton’ pitch (A=392) and Werkmeister III temperament, and a decision to tune the viola da gamba and violone grosso to ‘Chorton’ (ie up a third) in order to better exploit the sonorities of open strings. None of those principles would be quite so valuable if the music-making wasn’t charismatic and refreshing. About half of the revolving team of 20 have participated in high-profile recordings before but the Dunedin players forge their own identity and capture what Butt praises as ‘carefree, joyous and spontaneous works’.

The pair of horns and three oboes in the opening of Concerto No 1 offer unforced conversational sparkle and the French-style fourth movement is an eloquent courtly dance (particularly the poignant trio for oboes and bassoon and compassionate strings in the Polacca). In Concerto No 2 the concertante quartet of David Blackadder (trumpet), Pamela Thorby (recorder), Alexandra Bellamy (oboe) and Cecilia Bernardini (violin) play with an airy fluidity, with graceful natural trumpet leaving room for recorder and oboe in the limelight. The nine-part strings in the dazzling finale of Concerto No 3 (which Butt takes at quite a lick) suggest the extravagant flair of Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico. The final Presto of Concerto No 4 is just one example of Bernardini’s articulate bowing and relaxed phrasing in rapid passages, and cellist Jonathan Manson and harpsichordist Butt provide continuo with characterful joie de vivre. Butt plays a modern replica of a large Mietke harpsichord like one purchased by the Cöthen court in 1719 and his flexible performance of Bach’s cadenza in Concerto No 5 has a rare extemporised atmosphere of exuberant fun; the amusement of the orchestra is almost tangible in the closing ritornello. In contrast, the lower strings convey sublime melancholy in the Adagio ma non tanto of Concerto No 6. Not withstanding the distinguished Brandenburg discography, this set is nothing short of sensational. David Vickers (Awards issue 2013)

 

Orchestral Suites

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra / Petra Mullejans, Gottfried von der Goltz

(Harmonia Mundi)

Over the years, we’ve come to expect outstanding performances from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and this issue certainly does not disappoint. The four Orchestral Suites are supremely life-affirming music, fully realised here with playing that emphasises rhythmic vitality and poise, as well as giving inspiring expression to Bach’s wonderful melodic lines. There are some exceptional individual contributions: brilliant violin-playing in the Overture of the Third Suite, a beautifully matched trio of oboes and bassoon enlivening many moments in the First Suite and, in the Second Suite, Karl Kaiser’s immaculate flute-playing, with spectacular, stylish embellishments to the repeated sections.

The tempi are often quite brisk but never excessively fast and the orchestra’s internal balance is especially good; in the two D major Suites, the trumpets uninhibitedly promote a festive atmosphere but are sensitive enough to allow other instruments to take the lead when their parts are more important. You may not agree with the Freiburgers’ refusal to over-dot in the overtures but you’ll have to agree that, through persuasive phrasing, they perform these sections entirely convincingly. Indeed, conviction shows on every track of the set. This is music-making to lift the spirits. Duncan Druce (Awards issue 2012)

 

Trio Sonatas

Brook Street Band

(Avie)

As Brook Street Band founder and cellist Tatty Theo says in her booklet-notes, the band’s reason for recording yet another arrangement of Bach’s six trio sonatas for organ has been for “the sheer pleasure of playing this wonderful music, and the wish to share it”. And it shows, with unaffected performances of remarkable freshness and vitality. Bach took the Italian trio sonata and “organ-ised” it, assigning the two melodic lines to one manual apiece and the bass to the pedal. Theo’s arrangements “reassign” the melodic lines to the violins and the bass to cello and harpsichord continuo; harpsichordist Carolyn Gibley is careful, too, not to obscure Bach’s writing with her right hand.

The BSB’s approach combines the clarity of London Baroque with the elegance of the Purcell Quartet while hinting at the colour of the Palladian Ensemble, which employs recorders and plucked strings as well as violin and gamba on its excellent disc of arrangements of Bach sonatas and chorales. But the exuberance is all BSB’s own. Theo’s bass is clear and firm throughout, providing a centre of gravity for violinists Rachel Harris and Farran Scott to really dance. This is as apparent in the fast major-key movements such as BWV529’s opening Allegro and dramatic minor-key movements such as the Vivace from BWV526 as it is in the slower, which, like the Largo of BWV526, tend towards the quicker side without sacrificing delicacy or gravitas. The variety of string articulation together with Gibley’s discrete harmonisations further serve both to enliven and to elucidate Bach’s musical arguments. Superb. William Yeoman (January 2011)

 

Flute Sonatas

Ashley Solomon fl Terence Charlston hpd

(Channel Classics)

This is an impressive and enjoyable CD that easily bears repeated listening – certainly I’ve played it many times already, and not just for reviewing purposes. There is a soothing quality to the baroque flute, and its gentle, slightly reedy tone is captured very well on this disc from Channel Classics. It is closely recorded in a church acoustic to give a brilliant tone with added depth. Today’s makers of the baroque flute are producing highly refined instruments, exemplified here by the Rod Cameron copy of a Denner, which has a strong, even tone and good balance of register, allowing highly accomplished performers like Ashley Solomon complete technical freedom.

This recording is not merely music therapy, however, but a genuine musical experience. His performance of the unaccompanied A minor Partita, for example, is nothing short of commanding: the control in articulation and breathing allows the phrasing to be flexible and unfussy. Indeed, it is the directness of his interpretations that is so telling; there is almost none of that slightly coy rubato that some other flautists use to disguise the need to breathe. Rather, Solomon ensures that the phrases are neither choppy nor fragmented. He has an excellent sense of the longer line and the harmonic pull beneath Bach’s wonderfully melodic writing. The faster movements are perhaps the most successful, full of buoyancy and energy without seeming rushed or pushed. Try the second movement of the E minor Sonata, for example, or that of the C major. Slow movements are far from inexpressive, but again refreshingly direct: he never wallows (a good example is the introductory movement of the E major Sonata). Solomon is well partnered by Terence Charlston on a rich-toned Ruckers-copy harpsichord. Even if you already have a version of Bach’s flute works on CD, I can strongly recommend this version, which makes an equally good first-time buy. Prepare to be uplifted. Tess Knighton (May 2001)

 

Lute works

Stephan Schmidt gtr

(Naive)

Whether or not the description of these as ‘lute’ works is justified has long been a matter for debate, and in their annotation Stephan Schmidt and Claude Chauvel inevitably fail to resolve the matter, though they lean more in the direction of ‘yes’ than any lutenist I know. In a sense it matters little, for the works have been performed and recorded on a variety of other plucked-string instruments – harpsichord and lute-harpsichord as well as guitar – in exemplary fashion. The ‘standard’ six-string guitar is a baritone instrument, but its lowest register is not extended enough to avoid the need for compromises; accordingly guitars with more strings (the extra ones at the bass end) have been in use for over 30 years. Goran Sollscher’s Deutsche Grammophon recordings on an 11-string alto guitar (10/84 and 1/89) remain as fresh as they were then.

Now Stephan Schmidt, using 10 strings, sets a new benchmark with this magnificent set. The extra four strings give firmer bass and more resonant bass lines, as did Sollscher’s five, and free the player’s left hand from the restriction of having to hold many of them down. Schmidt’s touch is happily light in the galanteries and in the Loure of BWV1006a, but there is gravity in the unhurried sarabandes – such variations apply not only to pace but to spirit, too. He knows when to embellish (which he does with elegance) and when not; the profound simplicity of the Sarabande of BWV995 calls for no gilding of its lily and Schmidt gives it that respect. His rubato ‘bends’ a little more than Sollscher’s and he is less conservative in his approach to embellishment – but attitudes to such matters have eased during the last one-and-a-half decades. If there is a better version of these works on any kind of guitar in terms of content and recording quality I have yet to hear it. John Duarte (November 2000)

 

Complete Sonatas for Violin and Obbligato Harpsichord

Rachel Podger vn Jonathan Manson va da gamba Trevor Pinnock hpd

(Channel Classics)

Another recording of Bach’s violin sonatas, and at last one that really hits the spot. Rachel Podger has already attracted much praise for her recordings of the solo violin music, but is heard here to even better advantage in the Six Sonatas for Violin and Obbligato Harpsichord, BWV1014-19, for which she is joined by Trevor Pinnock (of whose English Concert she is now the leader). The two make a fine match. Both are uncomplicated, utterly instinctive musicians with a sure technical command and sound stylistic sense, and in works as robust and complete as these, that is most of the battle already won. But this is also music of great poetry, and, without straining unduly to make their points, Podger and Pinnock bring this out superbly; Pinnock’s harpsichord is gently resonant and softly voiced, and Podger coaxes a lyrical flexibility out of her violin, its singing qualities enhanced thanks to a restrained but tellingly sweetening use of vibrato – one which also enables her to play more consistently and blessedly in tune than almost any other baroque fiddler currently in business.

It is difficult to single out details of this recording for comment; there just seems to be such a tremendous feeling of overall ‘rightness’ to it. Maybe the finale of Sonata No 2 seems rather frantic and the wonderful Adagio ma non tanto of No 3 a touch lumpy, but there really is not much else to criticise. And there are true gems to be enjoyed in the opening movement of BWV1014, where the violin makes an almost imperceptible initial entry, or the warm embrace of BWV1017’s Adagio, or practically any of the sparkling fast movements, played with invigorating rhythmic drive and clarity, into which Podger’s elegant but firmly controlled, willowy bowing tosses myriad subtle impulses and articulations.

This recording’s most recent period rival, that of Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr, shows a typical wealth of new ideas and inspired moves but is less satisfying as a whole, and suffers from some intonationally hairy moments and a less precisely pointed sound. Both recordings include the two Sonatas for Violin and Continuo, BWV1021 and 1023 (for which Podger and Pinnock are joined by a discreet and sympathetic Jonathan Manson on viola da gamba), but Manze and Egarr’s inclusion of the dubious BWV1024 is not echoed here; instead we get two of the three versions of BWV1019 whole, with the glorious extra movement required to make up the remaining version added at the end. The only period recording to touch Podger and Pinnock for technical assurance is that of Fabio Biondi and Rinaldo Alessandrini, but in both sound and interpretation it is heavy-handed compared with the spontaneous musicianship and airy texture on display here, and rather meanly it gives the six obbligato sonatas only.

In truth, all the recent recordings of these sonatas have had their merits. But this natural beauty – two discs for the price of one – is, quite simply, the best yet. Lindsay Kemp (February 2001)

 

Cello Suites

Pablo Casals vc

(Warner Classics)

Young music-lovers today may find it difficult to believe that, 50 years ago, major works by Bach were considered to be of such specialized appeal that recordings could be obtained only in a limited ''Society'' edition. The cello suites had never been recorded until Fred Gaisberg, after protracted efforts, finally persuaded Casals to play them for HMV: Nos 2 and 3 in London in November 1936, the rest in Paris in July 1938 and July 1939. Casals had hesitated for 35 years before committing to disc these works – long regarded as unplayable, and never performed in their entirety – which he had discovered at the age of 13 and worked on for 12 years before playing them to an astonished public. To do so he had had to evolve new techniques and, intellectually, to delve deeply into the character and inner structure of the music. He stressed the dance basis of the movements; and his vitality, rhythmic flexibility (to clarify the shape of phrases) and tonal nuance, and the vigour and variety of his bowing, still leap from the discs to impress the listener.

From the profound contemplative quality of the G major Sarabande or the C minor Allemande to the zest of the C major Bourree, the breadth and grandeur of the D minor Suite's Prelude and the gravity of its Sarabande, the lightness of the E flat Allemande and Bourrees or the C minor Gavotte, the raptness of the C minor Sarabande, and the lucidity of thought behind the elaborate D major Allemande, these performances remain the classic yardstick by which all later ones must be judged.
The digitally remastered transfers from the original 78s, yielding an astonishingly clean ambience to the cello, represent another technical triumph for Keith Hardwick; but listeners with acute ears will notice that the Courante of the E flat Suite and the Gavotte of the C minor were recorded at a slightly sharper pitch than the movements preceding them. Lionel Salter (March 1989)

 

Cello Suites

Pierre Fournier vc

(DG)

Of all the great cellists I have heard playing Bach's six Cello Suites, BWV1007-12, either in the concert hall or in recordings of various kinds, Pierre Fournier came closer to the heart of the music, as I understand it, than almost any other. He made these recordings for Archiv between 1961 and 1963 since when they have seldom been out of the catalogue. Readers who prefer the charisma and extrovert flourishes of Tortelier (EMI), the penetrating though sometimes unstylish gestures of Casals (EMI References), or the brilliant but too often superficial readings of Schiff (EMI) and Maisky (DG) may be hard to win over to these concentrated, personally unassuming interpretations by Fournier.

Fournier seems to me to have possessed all the virtues of his fellow cellists without yielding to any of their self-indulgences; irrelevant personal idiosyncrasies are never allowed to intrude these finely sustained performances. He could be brilliant in execution – his technique was second to none, as he proves throughout this set – profound in utterance, aristocratic in poise and wonderfully coherent in his understanding of Bach's articulation and phrases. We need look no further than the Prelude of the First Suite in G major to find the supreme artistry which characterizes each and every moment of these performances. To be sure, there are very occasionally notes which fail to reach their centre but they are few and far between and certainly Fournier's intonation compares favourably with that of some of his virtuoso companions. Fournier's rubato is held tightly in rein and when he does apply it it is in the interests of enlivening aspects of Bach's formal writing. Thus it is in the Preludes, where the music requires rhythmic freedom if it is not to be relegated to the ranks of mere study material, that Fournier demonstrates his intuition and fine sense of style most forcefully; the Preludes to the First and Third Suites provide good examples. Fournier can sparkle too, as he does in many of the faster dance-orientated movements such as courantes, gavottes, bourrees and so on; in the sarabandes, on the other hand, he invariably strikes a note of grandeur coupled with a concentration amounting at times – as in the sarabandes of Suites Nos. 2 and 3 – almost to abstraction.

Above all, Fournier's Bach playing is crowned with an eloquence, a lyricism and a grasp both of the formal and stylistic content of the music which will not easily be matched. Curiously, perhaps, it is the baroque cellist, Anner Bylsma on RCA who often provides close parallels with Fournier. Bylsma's tempos tend to be faster than those of Fournier – that, after all has been a trend in baroque music over the past 20 years or so – but his conception of the music shares ground with that of Fournier. All things considered, it is hardly surprising that these readings seem as fresh and as valid today as they did 25 or more years ago. Out and out purists, poor devils, may not be able to adjust to modern pitch, modern instrument and, in the case of Suites Nos 5 and 6, the wrong instrument, but if that is so they are deserving more of compassion than censure. Fine recorded sound and strongly commended on virtually all counts. Nicholas Anderson (March 1989)

 

Cello Suites

Steven Isserlis vc

(Hyperion)

For Isserlis the Suites suggest a meditative cycle on the life of Christ, rather like Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. He points out that this is “a personal feeling, not a theory”, but it has to be said that once you know that he is thinking of the Agony in the Garden during the darkly questioning Second Suite (the five stark chords towards the end of the Prélude representing the wounds of Christ), the Crucifixion in the wearily troubled Fifth or the Resurrection in the joyous Sixth, it adds immense power and interest to his performances.

But then, this is also the most wonderful cello-playing, surely among the most consistently beautiful to have been heard in this demanding music, as well as the most musically alert and vivid. Not everyone will like the brisk tempi (though the Allemandes, for instance, gain in architectural coherence), but few will fail to be charmed by Isserlis’s sweetly singing tone, his perfectly voiced chords and superb control of articulation and dynamic – the way the final chord of the First Prélude dies away is spellbinding. There are so many other delights: the subtle comings and goings of the Third Prélude, the nobly poised Fifth Allemande, the swaggering climax that is the Sixth Gigue – I cannot mention them all. Suffice to say that Isserlis’s Bach is a major entrant into an already highly distinguished field, and a disc many will want to return to again and again. Lindsay Kemp (July 2007)

 

Cello Suites

David Watkin vc

(Resonus)

As with so much mainstream repertoire, the catalogue is so full of recordings – good and bad – that there often has to be some form of abstract justification to qualify any further additions. David Watkin’s profound musicianship, though, is more than enough to accelerate this recording of Bach’s Cello Suites to the top of the tiny league of ‘definitive’ recordings, beyond the infinitesimal care of Ditta Rohmann (Hungaroton, 5/14, 11/14), the meticulous intellectualism of Anner Bylsma (Sony, 7/81, 1/93) or even the refined warmth of the benchmark Fournier performances (Archiv, 3/89): all encapsulate the vital elements of these works but none succeeds completely in covering them all.

Watkin plays the first five suites on a cello by Francesco Ruggieri – a luthier contemporary of Bach’s whose instruments are famed for their warmth of tone – and the sixth on a rare five-string cello by the Amati brothers of the same period. But the extraordinarily resonant sound he makes is probably less to do with the instruments than with the playing itself, which is warm, expansive, generous and friendly. That is not to say that this performance is not of the highest level intellectually and technically: it is, and largely because of its appreciation of these suites as not just dances but discourses almost verbal in their directness. It is as if all the work that Watkin has ever done on these pieces has been absorbed absolutely and then reproduced in a performance that is able to be completely original in its voice at the same time as never producing a phrase that jars in its unsubtlety, or presents an ego that overarches the music.

That generosity of artistry directly results in some movements that are not only opened up to the listener as the masterworks they are but as paeans of heart-cracking joy. If you only buy this disc for the Prelude of the C major Suite, for exactly that reason, it will be money well spent. Caroline Gill (June 2015)

 

Solo Violin Sonatas & Partitas

Rachel Podger vn

(Channel Classics)

As a matter of tactics disregarding the printed order of the works, this second disc opens in the most effective way with a joyous performance of the ever-invigorating E major Preludio. At once we can recognize Podger's splendid rhythmic and tonal vitality (not merely Bach's marked terraced dynamics but pulsatingly alive gradations within phrases), her extremely subtle accentuations and harmonic awareness (note her change of colour at the move from E to C sharp major in bar 33), are all within total technical assurances. The Gavotte en Rondeau is buoyantly dance-like, and in the most natural way she elaborates its final statement (her stylish ornamentation throughout the Partita is utterly convincing). She takes the Giga at a restrained pace that allows of all kinds of tiny rhythmic nuances. Only a rather cut-up performance (for my taste) of the Loure stops this being one of the most enjoyable E major Partitas I can remember.

In the sonatas she shows other sterling qualities. She preserves the shape in the A minor Grave's ornate tangle of notes; she judges to a nicety the balance of the melodic line against the plodding accompanimental quavers of the Andante; she imbues the C major's Adagio with a hauntingly poetic musing atmosphere, and her lucid part-playing of its Fuga could scarcely be bettered. In the Fuga of the A minor Sonata, however, she unexpectedly allows herself considerable rhythmic freedom in order to point the structure. The final track is a stunning performance of the C major's closing Allegro assai which would bring any audience to its feet. This disc is a natural for my Critic's Choice of the year. Lionel Salter (December 1999)

 

Solo Violin Sonatas & Partitas 

Monica Huggett vn

(Erato)

With these impressive performances (on her beautiful-toned Amati) of the Solo Sonatas and Partitas Monica Huggett sweeps other baroque interpretations off the board. She nails her colours firmly to the mast in her printed introductory note (which follows an uncommonly perceptive and informative commentary on the music by Mark Audus): her aim, she says, is a characteristically bright and sweet seventeenth-century timbre, and she declares herself less interested in the virtuoso aspect of the music, more in the “interior spirituality of the sonatas and the gracious elegance of the partitas”. That certainly does not imply any absence of virtuosity: there have been few recordings of these pillars of the repertoire so impeccable in intonation and so free from any tonal roughness.

Her rhythmic flexibility (very marked in the Chaconne) may upset some traditionalists, but it gives her readings a thoughtfully spontaneous air, and is always applied to clarify the phrasing. The B minor Corrente and D minor Allemande, for example, become more expressive through this subtle phrasing, and her G minor Presto and E major Prelude are not merely mechanically fluent. She is adept at balancing the interplay of internal parts and at preserving continuity of line (as in the D minor Sarabande) and rhythmic flow despite the irruption of chords: only in places in the gigantic C major Fugue did I feel this under strain and at the start of the B minor Bourree lost. There is a lively bounce in her D minor Courante and E major Gigue, and she is splendidly neat in the double of the B minor Courante and in the C major’s finale. For the most part she is very sparing with embellishments, decorating ritornellos of the E major Gavotte and the first half (only) of the D minor Sarabande, but then suddenly becomes lavish in the repeats of the A minor Allegro. Monica Huggett’s musicianly readings are very rewarding and are warmly to be recommended. Lionel Salter (January 1998)

 

English Suites Nos 1, 3 & 5

Piotr Anderszewski pf

(Warner Classics)

This is a glorious disc. Simply glorious. Anderszewski and Bach have long been congenial bedfellows and the Pole’s playing here is compelling on many different levels. To start with, there’s the sense of sharing the sheer physical thrill of Bach’s keyboard-writing. This is particularly evident in faster movements such as the fierce and brilliant fugal Gigue that concludes the Third Suite, or, in the E minor Fifth Suite, the extended fugal Prelude and the outer sections of its Passepied I. Common to all is a sense of being fleet but never breathless, with time enough for textures to tell.

At every turn you get the sense of Bach flexing his compositional muscles in these early keyboard suites. There is of course nothing innately ‘English’ about them and the origin of their title is shrouded in mystery, though Bach’s earliest biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel speculated that it reflected the nationality of the suites’ (unknown) dedicatee. As with the keyboard partitas (of which Anderszewski so memorably recorded the First, Third and Sixth for Virgin Classics back in 2001 – 1/03), there’s a sense of Bach demonstrating just how much variety he could introduce into a suite built around the common elements of Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue. In Anderszewski’s hands the First, Third and Fifth very much occupy their own worlds in terms of mood. Thus there’s a palpable delight in the rhythmically ungainly theme from which the Gigue of the First Suite is fashioned and Anderszewski’s way with Bach’s counterpoint is at once strong-jawed and supple. We’re always aware of the re entry of a fugue subject, for instance, as it peeks through the texture in different registers or reappears stood on its head, yet it’s never exaggerated as is sometimes the tendency with less imaginative pianists.

And how Anderszewski can dance – at least at the keyboard – in a movement such as the Prelude of the Third Suite, urged into life through subtle dynamics, voicings, articulation and judicious ornamentation. A very different kind of dance reveals itself in the Gavotte II of the Third Suite, a musette in which he takes a more impish view than many, the sonorous drone effect contrasting delightfully with the tripping upper lines. The way he has considered the touch and dynamic of every phrase means that these are readings that constantly impress with fresh details each time you hear them.

Even the most apparently unassuming numbers, such as the Second Bourrée of the First Suite or the Passepied II of the Fifth, gain a sense of intrigue as he re examines them from every angle, again bringing multifarious shadings to the music. And it all flows effortlessly – though I’m sure the journey has been anything but that. Highlights abound: in the murmuring Courante of the Third Suite, the Pole’s reactivity leaves Maria João Pires sounding a touch unsubtle – which is really saying something. This is followed by one of the most extraordinary readings of the Sarabande I’ve ever heard. While Pires revels in its echoing harmonies, Anderszewski draws you daringly into his own world, as Bach’s initially grandiose sonorities become more and more withdrawn. This whispered intimacy extends into his insertion of an ornamented version of this movement, entitled ‘Les agréments de la même Sarabande’, which proves a masterclass in audacious ornamentation, yet never overburdening Bach’s melodic lines. In fact the effect here is truly meditative. Fittingly, there is a long silence before the limpid Gavotte.

Are there any caveats? Some might find the basic pulse of the First and Fifth Sarabandes perhaps too slow. To me they work precisely because he teases so much out of each line. They have a Gouldian intensity that draws you ineluctably in without any of the Canadian’s wilfulness.

You can be in no doubt of the thought that has gone into this enterprise, from Anderszewski’s ordering of the courantes of the First Suite, which he explains in the booklet, to the programming of the suites themselves, opening the disc with the Third rather than the more quizzical First. And at every turn, he harnesses the possibilities of the piano in the service of Bach; the result is a clear labour of love, and one in which he shines new light on old music to mesmerising effect, all of which is captured by a warmly sympathetic recording and an engaging booklet-note by Mark Audus.

Anderszewski’s CDs are all too infrequent, so let’s cherish this one. Harriet Smith (February 2015)

 

French Suites

Murray Perahia pf

(DG)

Recent research shows that, though divorce rates are falling in the UK, there’s an upward trend among the over-50s. The theory is that now we’re longer lived, we’re less inclined to settle for familiar domesticity when we could be off sailing the seven seas. That might account for Murray Perahia – 70 next April – calling time on Sony Classical after an apparently happy marriage of 43 years. So here he is setting off for pastures new with DG; and, honeymoon period or not, the fit looks good with this, his first recording of Bach’s French Suites, pieces that have been in his concert repertoire for decades.

In the booklet interview Perahia reveals that his first encounter with Bach in concert was as a teenager when he heard Pablo Casals conducting the St Matthew Passion at Carnegie Hall. Perahia and Casals, though temperamentally very different, have in common a sense of bringing across Bach the man rather than Bach the god. And that’s particularly pertinent in the French Suites, the most approachable – though no less inspiring or perfectly conceived – of Bach’s keyboard suites.

As we expect from Perahia, everything sounds natural and inevitable. Ego doesn’t come into it: rather, he acts as a conduit between composer and audience with a purity that few can emulate (I’m put in mind of Goode, Brendel and the new boy on the block, Levit). Ah yes, ‘intellectual’ pianists, I hear you mutter. But to describe any of these figures as merely ‘intellectual’ would be to miss out the huge humanity of their playing.

Take the opening Allemande of the Fourth Suite: in Perahia’s hands it’s a sinuous, conversational affair and the way he colours the lines as Bach reaches into the upper register is done with enormous subtlety. Or sample the Sarabande of the same suite, simultaneously intimate yet with true gravity. He brings out the left hand’s largely stepwise motion to a nicety – sometimes reassuring, sometimes questioning.

Perahia is not an artist who takes Bach to extremes: he doesn’t intervene in the way that Maria João Pires or Piotr Anderszewski can do to such mesmerising effect. Take the gigues, for instance. Some take the buoyant Gigue of the Fifth Suite at a more headlong pace, yet Perahia’s feels just so: the rhythms are bright and springy, full of energy without freneticism, and joy is palpable in every note. Or that of the Second Suite, which again sounds completely inevitable, even when he spices it, on its repeats, with dazzlingly daring ornamentation that underlines the inherent dissonances within Bach’s counterpoint. Compared to this, Peter Hill seems a touch staid, Ekaterina Derzhavina somewhat terse, though Pires’s utterly forlorn interpretation is compelling in an entirely different way.

Perahia’s ornamentation could fill the review on its own, for he’s happy to take risks, yet they never sound like risks, so firmly are they sewn into the musical cloth. Sample what he does with the Fifth Suite’s bustling Bourrée, glistening and playful. Or the Anglaise of Suite No 3, which is more unbuttoned in Perahia’s hands than in Angela Hewitt’s precisely imagined account. Preference will come down to personal taste.

With some artists, you have a sense that their personality comes across most strongly in the main structural movements of the French Suites – the opening allemandes, pivotal sarabandes and closing gigues. But one of the delights of this set is what Perahia does with the in-between movements. The Air in the Second Suite, for instance, which succeeds a Sarabande as full of pathos as any reading, twinkles with an easy playfulness; or the Loure of the Fifth, its dotted rhythms rendered with such poetry, Perahia’s ornamentation generous yet never overbearing. Or take the pair of Gavottes from the Fourth Suite, the first purposefully busy, the second a moto perpetuo of sinew and determination, but both having – that word again – a real sense of joy.

Perahia’s pacing is unerring throughout, and even if you tend to favour this movement slower, that one faster, the sense of narrative that he brings to these suites as a whole is utterly persuasive. Again, examples are manifold, but to take just one, try the Courante of the Sixth Suite, its streams of semiquavers and interplay between the hands a thing of delight. At the double bar, before the section repeat and before embarking on the second section, we get the slightest of hesitations, Perahia pausing just long enough to let the music breathe. It’s as if we exhale with him. All this would count for little were we not able to hear him in such beautifully immediate sound. So we should also pay tribute to Perahia’s longtime producer Andreas Neubronner, engineer Martin Nagorni and king among piano whisperers, technician Ulrich Gerhartz.

I’ve only had this recording for five days but I predict a long and happy future in its company. Harriet Smith (November 2016)

 

Inventions. Sinfonias

Till Fellner pf

(ECM New Series)

While Bach may have conceived his Inventions and Sinfonias as teaching pieces, Till Fellner’s intelligent and characterful pianism consistently embraces the music behind the method book. Varied articulations and well conceived scaling of dynamics imbue the pianist’s natural propensity for generating singing lines with shapely expression. Cogent examples of this include the E major Invention’s subtle off-beat accentuations between the hands, the C major’s unpressured dialogues, the D minor’s incisive vitality, and the F major Sinfonia’s easy bounce and gentle spring. The often protracted D minor Sinfonia retains its melodic poignancy at Fellner’s headlong pace, although his tapered phrasing of the F minor Sinfonia’s theme grows predictable with each repetition.

Purists may also take issue with the tonal haze and mist resulting from Fellner’s liberal pedalling in the E major Sinfonia or, in the G major French Suite, the pianist’s soft-grained Allemande and Loure. However, the Sarabande’s simple eloquence plus the crisply pointed Bourrée and Gigue more than compensate. All told, the Inventions and Sinfonias in Fellner’s hands rank alongside the catalogue’s strongest piano versions (including Gould, Schiff, Koroliov, Hewitt and Peter Serkin), and benefit from ECM’s superior, state-of-the-art engineering. Jed Distler (September 2009)

 

Organ Works

Masaaki Suzuki org

(BIS)

Of all the current doyens of modern Bach performance, Masaaki Suzuki knows no limits to his explorations. This is a dazzling recital (from a musician better known as a director-harpsichordist) discerningly assembled and held aloft by three great pillars: the ubiquitous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565; the Pièce d’orgue, BWV572, with Bach whisking the French 17th century from under its own nose; and, to conclude, the great Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV548 (the Wedge). If one’s reflexive default at the prospect of an organ recording – even an exquisitely curated Bach one – is one of dispassionate or nonchalant resistance, this recording is as likely to turn ears as any made.

Along the way, in a deftly balanced presentation of strikingly contrasting essays, Suzuki offers beautifully turned, reflective and buoyant readings of sui generis ‘concert’ works. The Pastorale, with its exquisite musette-like opening, whose subsequent C major movement trips along in a manner organists seem universally reluctant to pursue, is simply a pearl. Each of the four movements is sweetly devotional in nature, skilfully preparing the way for the highly distilled and contemplative variations on the chorale ‘O Gott, du frommer Gott’. The seasoned reflective qualities of Suzuki, heard to such memorable effect in his complete cantatas series, are reawakened in the stunningly voiced combinations of sounds from the Schnitger/Hinz in the Martinikerk in Groningen – one of Holland’s finest Baroque organs, restored to its former glory by Jürgen Ahrend during the 1970s and ’80s.

Unusual here, also, is how an emphatically non-organ-playing reviewer can effortlessly alight on the kinds of malleable Bachian conceits enjoyed habitually in the composer’s concertos, keyboard suites and vocal works. Great instrument aside, this is largely down to the judicious alchemy of Suzuki’s perception of how architecture and local colour can collide to mesmerising effect. The Fugue from the above-mentioned D minor is a case in point: the glistening parallel motion over the pedal at 3'20", often a bloated gesture, enticingly holds back to set up the rich-textured gravitas that follows. Inexorable momentum here is born of fervent authority, a virtuosity of combined effects without gratuitous excess.

The Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch’, written late in Bach’s life as a condition of membership of Lorenz Mitzler’s Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences (hence the work’s proliferation of contrapuntal wizardry), can often leave the listener cold. Perhaps not surprisingly, Stravinsky was beguiled by the possibility of its intertwining lines in his inventive homage of 1956, with its supra-polyphonic interpolations. Suzuki’s performance will persuade you that Bach’s unsurpassed technique never obfuscates the essence of the chorale; its Christmas provenance is fragrantly atmospheric. The close, with its ingeniously compressed lines and the composer’s outrageous sign-off, literally spelling his name (B is B flat and H is B natural), is celebrated in some style by Suzuki.

But it’s the gripping drama and involvement in the large-scale works that remind one of Karl Richter in his most durable organ-playing legacy on Archiv from the 1960s (funnily enough, until recently, only available in Japan). Richter’s captivating direction and intensity, complete with an almost hypnotic abandon, is a touch more measured in Suzuki’s hands but no less effectively communicated.

The E minor Prelude and Fugue is the greatest tour de force here, and arguably Bach’s most ambitious single creation on the organ. Truly symphonic in grandeur, the work is harnessed impressively by this exceptionally experienced Bachian. Granite-like blocks of intensely chiselled harmonic progressions starting at 2'38" and building to the last at 5'48" are studiously laid down, as if for posterity, and yet there’s an underlying immediacy and restlessness in Suzuki’s rhetoric which leads to thrillingly choppy waters in the Fugue. Only Samuil Feinberg’s arrangement on the piano has lifted this piece completely out of its safe organ istic sphere – but I think it now has a partner in grandeur, flair and emotional risk. And it’s on the organ. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (October 2015)

 

Partitas

Igor Levit pf

(Sony Classical)

‘When in trouble, play Bach’ – wise advice from Edwin Fischer to a pupil. He was making an observation to a fellow performer about Bach’s restorative and reorienting powers; no doubt, but perhaps alerting all of us to the inspiring breath we can draw from the fertility and humanity of a composer whose imagination and ‘habit of perfection’ (John Eliot Gardiner’s phrase) drove him to discover in music just about everything. For the keyboard player, an engagement with Bach is a constant from childhood, and it becomes essential to daily life. For Beethoven, for Mozart in his maturity and for Chopin, it was the same. ‘Practise some Bach for me,’ Chopin used to say to his departing pupils as they went through the door. Yet no music is more demanding to realise in sound, nor quicker to reveal inadequacies of perception.

Which brings me to Igor Levit – and not a moment too soon, you may think. The distinction of this set of the Partitas, following his Sony debut recording of the last five Beethoven sonatas (11/13), will establish him in the minds of many, I’m sure, as a major artist. He played those sonatas as though he had lived with late Beethoven a long time and had perceived and understood everything. His versions of the six Bach Partitas show a comparable address and maturity. Above all, they are fresh and joyous.

How demanding they are. On the title-page of the collected edition of 1731, brought out as his Op 1 and a self-publishing job, Bach said he had composed them ‘for music lovers, to delight their senses’. They soon made a great noise in the musical world but earned him, too, a reputation for their technical difficulty: as if, as a contemporary put it, the composer had expected ‘what he alone could do on the keyboard’. An early player of them, said to have been accomplished, described them as ‘making me seem like a beginner each time’.

Complex music – but not complicated. Levit’s achievement is to miss nothing of their scope and variety as compositions while conveying what it is that makes each one a unity, not an anthology, demanding to be performed complete. Where other practitioners offer regular accents and a perhaps over-cautious traversal, tethered to the notes, Levit never fails to project a commanding overview – an aerial perspective, almost – in addition to the detail of phrasing and articulations and the nooks and crannies of melodic lines. Only the most gifted interpreters manage both. It energises his performances and makes them seem to inhabit a state of grace. And it contributes to our enjoyment in another way, drawing us on as we listen and keeping us curious as to what lies around the next corner. A first impression might be of quicker tempi than usual and of a fleetness that challenges us to keep up. Yet one quickly registers that nothing, in fact, is rushed or driven too hard – not a phrase or a paragraph, nor even (most important) the execution of an ornament.

I like very much Levit’s ornaments and embellishments in general. They are always a living feature of the line, arising from within, not stuck on from without. In addition they show awareness of performance practice and what may be appropriate in each instance, with decoration added to ‘second times’ discreetly and with an air of spontaneity, and never to excess. Levit has a sure judgment of when to leave well alone, as CPE Bach advised when discussing this aspect of his father’s music. The majestic Sarabande of No 1 in B flat (disc 1, tr 4) gets a minimum of graces in its repeats – barely noticeable indeed. But there needs to be some if ‘second time through’ is to have any sense; otherwise why do it?

The playing of the Gigues in the Partitas – and the final Capriccio in No 2 in C minor – invite the performer’s virtuosity as a welcome guest to the feast. Levit doesn’t disappoint. Bach developed these movements to make thrilling conclusions, just as he had made the opening of each work something imposing and unexpected. That was possibly his most original contribution to the suite of his time: there’s a Praeludium in No 1, a three-part Sinfonia in No 2, a French Overture in No 4 (the D major), a Praeambulum in No 5 and a grand Toccata and Fugue in No 6 (E minor). They help to make each partita announce itself as something ambitious and a unity, not just a succession of dances. With Levit, if you start at the beginning, you go on to the end; no question. Bach mediates between the French and the Italian styles in the course of the six works, and Levit doesn’t miss a trick. Finally, let me praise his cantabile playing (a singing style), which Bach extolled to his students as a constant aim.

Harpsichord or piano? Forget it. Or rather, let us have both. If on the piano, however, which isn’t a second-best, I incline to those exponents who are not apologetic about their instrument and at the same time show awareness, relish even, of what the best harpsichordists have achieved, from Gustav Leonhardt to Andreas Staier (I mention two exceptional players who have made complete sets). As to other pianists, I would cite Richard Goode, on a par with Murray Perahia; maybe András Schiff as well. Levit’s version has added to the discography of this inexhaustible music with distinction and I believe it will run and run. There’s nothing about him in the booklet – as if to say, it’s not about me, the music is enough. But if you haven’t come across him before I can report that he’s of Russian-German descent (shades of Sviatoslav Richter) and is 27 this year. I wonder what he’ll do next. Stephen Plaistow (October 2014)

 

Partitas, BWV825–30

Trevor Pinnock hpd

(Hänssler Classic)

Hanssler’s eclectic approach to its ongoing complete Bach series is either one of its greatest strengths or one of its strongest irritations, depending on how you look at it. Is offering the English Suites on the piano and the Partitas on the harpsichord a commendably broad-church approach or just haphazard? The massive Bachakademie edition (of which this is Volume 115) is not a project noticeably concerned with period instruments, yet here they have persuaded Trevor Pinnock, founder of one of the world’s first and finest baroque orchestras, the English Concert, to return to the recording studio as a solo harpsichordist for the first time in many years.

Well bravo to them. The evidence of these discs is that Pinnock’s absence from the new release lists has been far too long. From the opening bars of the First Partita’s leisurely Praeludium, it is clear that this is a master harpsichordist, a player whose seemingly effortless command of his instrument allows him to express his innate musicianship without any need for overstatement or gratuitous point-making. There is nothing laboured or studied about his performances of these demanding works; his faultless finger technique allows him not only to step with confidence through a virtuoso minefield such as the Gigue of the Fifth Suite (his are the tightest trills I have heard), but perhaps, more important, to make a gently flowing legato the starting-point of his interpretation. It is an approach that could run the risk of being boring were it not that Pinnock’s ability to place every note precisely and sensitively – helped by an instrument (or is it the recording?) which takes the edge off each note’s attack – makes it come across as wonderfully natural and unaffected. Bach, after all, can do the rest.

Tempos, too, have a sense of rightness about them; the slightly excitable Pinnock of old has now become a fine and subtle judge of forward motion, shown to greatest advantage perhaps in his perfect reading of the giant Allemande from the Fourth Partita, a piece so hard to steer between the hasty and the leaden. And he can sparkle when he needs to; try out the fizzing Corrente of the Sixth Partita.

These are performances of enormous distinction, then, and it is a pleasure to welcome Pinnock back after such an absence. Let’s hope that he will soon catch up lost ground and record more of his instrument’s mainstream repertoire. Lindsay Kemp (August 2000)

 

Toccata in C minor, etc

Martha Argerich pf

(DG)

The reissue of Martha Argerich’s recordings, their reappearance in this or that format, testifies to the unique and enduring nature of her magisterial temperament and musicianship. This Bach recital, first issued in 1980, reissued in DG’s Galleria series and partially celebrated (the C minor Partita) in Philips’s Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century, is now revived on DG’s The Originals. Admirers will of course have heard Argerich in the Second Partita, on the wing, so to speak, in a superlative live performance dating from 1978-79 (and with the Bouree from the Second English Suite for an encore) on EMI. Yet even they will surely admit that these slightly later studio recordings carry an extraordinary authority and panache.
Argerich’s attack in the C minor Toccata could hardly be bolder or more incisive, a classic instance of virtuosity all the more clear and potent for being so firmly but never rigidly controlled. Here, as elsewhere, her discipline is no less remarkable than her unflagging brio and relish of Bach’s glory. Again, in the Second Partita, her playing is quite without those excesses or mannerisms that too often pass for authenticity, and at 2'14'' in the Andante immediately following the Sinfonie she is expressive yet clear and precise, her following Allegro a marvel of high-speed yet always musical bravura. True, some may question her way with the Courante from the Second English Suite, finding it hard-driven, even overbearing, yet Argerich’s eloquence in the following sublime Sarabande creates its own hypnotic authority. Her final Gigue is a triumph of irrepressible vitality yet, throughout, you are reminded of the comprehensiveness of Argerich’s Bach, the way his alternations of robust and interior musical thinking are so tellingly and vividly characterised.
It only remains to add that the dynamic range of these towering, intensely musical performances has been excellently captured by DG. Bryce Morrison (Awards issue 2000)

 

Toccatas

Angela Hewitt pf

(Hyperion)

As Angela Hewitt tells us in her exemplary accompanying essay‚ Bach’s Toccatas were inspired by Buxtehude’s ‘stylus fantasticus – a very unrestrained and free way of composing‚ using dramatic and extravagant rhetorical gestures’. For Wanda Landowska‚ they seemed initially ‘incoherent and disparate’ and it takes an exceptional artist to make such wonders both stand out and unite. Yet Angela Hewitt – always responsive to such a teasing mix of discipline and wildness – presents even the most audacious surprises (the close to the G major‚ the chromatic grandeur in the Adagio from the F sharp minor‚ etc) with a superb and unfaltering sense of balance and perspective. Time and again she shows us that it is possible to be personal and characterful without resorting to self­serving and distorting idiosyncrasy. Everything is delightfully devoid of pedantry or over­emphasis; few pianists have worn their enviable expertise in Bach more lightly. How scrupulously she observes Bach’s moderato qualification in the C minor Toccata’s Allegro fugue‚ how delicate and precise her way with the same fugue’s return. Again‚ in the F sharp minor Toccata everything is meticulously graded‚ and in the dazzling D major Toccata‚ which so fittingly closes her programme‚ not even Bach’s most ebullient virtuosity can induce her to rush; everything emerges with a clarity that never excludes expressive beauty. Commenting that it is impossible to know the precise chronology of the Toccatas‚ Hewitt plays what she calls ‘an arbitrary sequence’‚ modestly aiming for a ‘satisfactory recital’. As a necessary corollary‚ her performances could hardly be more stylish or impeccable‚ more vital or refined; and‚ as a crowning touch‚ Hyperion’s sound is superb. Bryce Morrison (October 2002)

 

The Well-tempered Clavier

Edwin Fischer pf

(Naxos)

Edwin Fischer’s 1933-36 HMV set of Bach’s 48 was the first recording by a pianist of the set, and it remains the finest of all. Fischer might well have agreed with Andras Schiff that Bach is the ‘most romantic of all composers’, for his superfine musicianship seems to live and breathe in another world, ether or ambience. His sonority is as ravishing as it is apt, never beautiful for its own sake, and graced with a pedal technique so subtle that it results in a light and shade, a subdued sparkle or pointed sense of repartee that eludes lesser artists. Again, no matter what complexity Bach throws at him, Fischer resolves it with a disarming poise and limpidity, qualities as natural as they are profound.

All this is a far cry from, say, Glenn Gould’s egotism in the 48, or the sort of performances that can make genius a pejorative term. Fischer – a blessedly naive artist who told his students to forget ‘the material, working world and be on intimate terms with trees, clouds and winds’ – showed a deep humility before great art, making the singling out of one or another of his performances an impertinence. Impossible, however, not to mention in passing his ethereal start to the set (that light, bouncing staccato above a singing bass-line in No 1), or the disconsolate, phantom yet ordered voice he achieves in No 4. The contrapuntal flow of No 7 – initially grand, then reflective and finally free-wheeling – is realised to perfection, and what a virtuoso play of the elements he recreates in No 15!

Turning to Book 2, you could hardly imagine a more seraphic utterance in No 3, later contrasted with the most skittish allegro reply. The list goes on indefinitely, dissolving the supposed barriers between one form of music and another: ‘baroque’, ‘classical’, ‘romantic’, even ‘impressionist’, become terms of convenience rather than accuracy once you have heard Fischer’s Bach. He did, indeed, possess a touch with ‘the strength and softness of a lion’s velvet paw’, and I know of few recordings from which today’s generation of pianists could learn so much; could absorb by osmosis, so to speak, his way of transforming a supposedly learned tome into a fountain of limitless magic and resource.

Here, then, is Fischer at his most sublimely poised and unruffled, offered at Naxos’s bargain price in beautifully restored sound. Bryce Morrison (May 2001)

 

The Well-tempered Clavier

Ewa Pobłocka pf

(NIFC)

Ewa Pobłocka’s name first came to my attention back in 1980, when she tied for fifth place in that year’s Warsaw International Chopin Competition, and Deutsche Grammophon issued a selection of her performances from that event on a bygone LP. Since then she has pursued a steady and successful career as both soloist and chamber musician, with a sizeable discography to her credit. Gramophone readers may be familiar with her acclaimed performance of Panufnik’s Piano Concerto with the composer conducting (RCA, 5/92), and a terrific recital of Polish songs where the pianist supports the mezzo-soprano Ewa Podles´ (CD Accord, 10/99). I enthusiastically endorsed a live archival 1984 recording of Chopin’s E minor Concerto in these pages last April. A good number of Pobłocka’s recordings, however, are either out of print or difficult to source. I hope that will not become the fate of this remarkable release.

Her Bach has everything going for it: pianistic resourcefulness, keen polyphonic acumen, impeccable taste and an ability to imbue each Prelude and Fugue with a distinct point of view borne out of musical considerations. You notice this from the start. Her C major Prelude unassumingly unfolds at a moderate pace, resonating less like a piano than a murmuring organ, while the C major Fugue sounds like a madrigal featuring four distinct yet unified voices with prodigious breath control. By contrast, the C minor Prelude and Fugue stands out for Pobłocka’s hard-hitting detached articulation. The C sharp major Prelude’s arching phrases remind me of Myra Hess’s similarly unpressured vintage recording, and her fluidly lyrical approach to the C sharp minor Fugue highlights the music’s harmonic poignancy yet appreciably minimises its austere reputation.

Note, too, Pobłocka’s swaggering D major Fugue and how each entrance of the D minor Fugue’s exposition is consistently phrased, down to the slight tapering of the trill. Listen to the E flat minor Prelude and try to focus exclusively on Pobłocka’s careful dynamic calibrations in the accompaniment: what understated sustaining power and legato mastery! By contrast, the F major Prelude and Fugue amounts to a masterclass in how to imbue détaché articulation with the utmost colour and character, not to mention trills that are impeccably precise yet never mechanical-sounding. Her E minor Fugue keeps the motoric momentum in the foreground without losing melodic direction, while her intriguing interplay of voices in the F minor Prelude retains textural distinctiveness and cogency throughout. My comments about the C major Fugue likewise apply to the F sharp minor Fugue’s vocally informed trajectory.

Pobłocka uncommonly downplays the G minor Prelude’s long trills (as did Alexandra Papastefanou in her recent recording – First Hand, 10/18) and emphasises the A major Fugue’s dizzying cross rhythms while giving an extra kick to the subject’s first note for good measure. Listen to the gorgeous conversational quality in the F sharp major Prelude, as if Pobłocka’s hands were a pair of chamber music partners. I’ve rarely heard a comparably upbeat and joyous A flat Prelude, or an A flat Fugue so organically tapered. The G sharp minor Prelude is a particularly inspired example of Pobłocka’s controlled freedom and imaginative voicings. She holds interest in the long and difficult-to-sustain A minor Fugue by terracing the dynamics and incorporating myriad alternations of touch and timbre. And Pobłocka’s soaring alla breve reading of the B minor Prelude differs from the measured tread of, say Daniel Barenboim or Edward Aldwell. Although she takes her time over the B flat minor and B minor Fugues, Pobłocka’s strong inner rhythm and subtle organisation of dynamics keep the music alive in every bar.

One can take issue with occasional tenutos that verge on mannerism (Pobłocka’s phrasing of the E flat Prelude’s introduction), or how she glibly trots out the F major Prelude. But such quibbles are inconsequential in face of this pianist’s heartfelt musicality, enhanced by attractively full-bodied sound and a beautifully regulated Shigeru Kawai SK EX concert grand at her disposal. Wary as I am of superlatives, I can claim without hesitation that Ewa Pobłocka’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 encompasses some of the greatest and most fulfilling Bach pianism on record. I look forward to Book 2.
Jed Distler (March 2019)

 

Goldberg Variations

Murray Perahia pf

(Sony Classical)

The roll call of Goldbergs on disc amounts almost to one first-class version per variation. I cannot think that there’s a single recording (and by now I must have heard at least 30) that doesn’t identify some minor detail unnoticed by others. My last Gramophone review celebrated Angela Hewitt’s sense of colour, and the passing months have done little to dim the appeal of her fine Hyperion recording. Now Murray Perahia enters the fray with a version that isn’t just colourful, or virtuosic, or thorough in terms of repeats, but profoundly moving as well. Here one senses that what is being played isn’t so much ‘Bach’ as an inevitable musical sequence with a life of its own, music where the themes, harmonies and contrapuntal strands await a mind strong enough to connect them. This Perahia does with sovereign command, and his perceptive programme notes help illuminate the complexion of his thinking.

Rosalyn Tureck was the first recorded Goldbergian to take the structural route and her EMI/Philips set remains among the most cogent of older alternatives. And while Glenn Gould achieves formidable levels of concentration (especially in the second of his two commercial recordings for Sony), his gargantuan personality – utterly absorbing though it is – does occasionally intrude. Perahia brooks neither distraction nor unwanted mannerism. He invests the Goldbergs with the sort of humbling gravitas that Schnabel brings to, say, Schubert’s B flat Sonata. Yes, there are fine-tipped details and prominent emphases (sample the wildly accentuated bass-line in Variation 8), but the way themes are traced and followed through suggests a performance where the shape of a phrase is dictated mostly by its place in the larger scheme of things.

The opening Aria is crystalline, lively in tone and with a distinctly singing bass-line. The first repeat is rather softer, whereas the first repeat of the first variation incorporates various added ornaments, a trend that registers time and again through the course of the performance. Middle voices are brought to the fore in Variation 3 and where, in Variation 4, Hewitt opens boldly and softens for the first repeat, Perahia reverses the process. Variation 7 is crisp and tripping, 16 opens to firmly brushed arpeggios, and I loved Perahia’s pianistic gambolling in the snakes and ladders of Variation 23. Hewitt is amazingly skilful in the contrary motions of 21 but Perahia keeps a firmer hold on the principal theme and in Variation 25 his classic, sculpted lines conjure a level of purity reminiscent of Lipatti (in Bach generally, that is – not the Goldbergs in particular, which Lipatti never recorded).

Perahia never strikes a brittle note and yet his control and projection of rhythm are impeccable. He can trace the most exquisite cantabile, even while attending to salient counterpoint, and although clear voicing is a consistent attribute of his performance, so is flexibility. He makes points without labouring them, which is not to deny either the brilliance or the character of his playing. Like Hewitt, he surpasses himself. It’s just that in his case the act of surpassing takes him that little bit further. A quite wonderful CD. Rob Cowan (December 2000)

 

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)

 

Keyboard Works

Víkingur Ólafsson

(DG)

Not exactly being a fan of Philip Glass’s music, this is the first time I’ve encountered Víkingur Ólafsson on disc, though I was very taken with his Bach in concert last year. That impression is deepened by this disc: here is an artist who palpably adores and reveres JSB in equal measure, and makes sense of a programme that could have sounded bitty – 35 tracks, with the biggest work being the youthful Aria variata (alla maniera italiana).

In terms of pianistic lineage, Ólafsson combines the fantasy of Maria João Pires and Martha Argerich with the contrapuntal élan of Piotr Anderszewski. But he is very much his own man, mixing original Bach with transcriptions that range from Stradal, Busoni and Rachmaninov via Kempff to the present day, with Ólafsson’s own rethinking of the luscious aria from the solo alto Cantata No 54, ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’, in which he channels the great transcribers of old, using left-hand octaves to give it a grounded feeling, and choosing a measured tempo more akin to Alfred Deller than Andreas Scholl.

Ólafsson’s notes tell of his discovery of Bach pianists as different as Edwin Fischer, Rosalyn Tureck, Dinu Lipatti, Glenn Gould and Martha Argerich. From this, he has found his own way with Bach – highly individual but never mannered. His account of Kempff’s transcription of the chorale prelude Nun freut euch is less anchored by the chorale tune itself and more flighty in effect than Kempff’s own performances (Eloquence). I like the way that Ólafsson alternates original Bach with the transcriptions, so that Stradal’s take on the middle movement of Bach’s Fourth Organ Sonata (given here with generous use of sustaining pedal to create a poetic ambience) is followed by a refreshingly airborne account of the D major Prelude from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, while its Fugue melds clarity with nobility. After this comes the Busoni version of another chorale prelude, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, which unfolds more naturally than in Demidenko’s hands (Hyperion). We then get another dash of cold water in the C minor Prelude and Fugue from Book 1. The Prelude is judged to perfection, combining energy and brilliance, the Fugue a model of crisp detail.

And so it continues: almost as if Ólafsson is offering different angles on the statue of Bach that he keeps by his piano – one that ‘looks like wisdom incarnate, stern-faced and majestic in its wig’. He brings considerable character to the theme of the Aria variata, tending to choose faster tempos than Angela Hewitt (Hyperion, 10/04), to thrilling effect in Variations 2, 7 and 9, while Var 6 has a limpid beauty. Even an outwardly simple piece such as the A major Invention, BWV783, is full of interest, the energy infectiously joyous, the trills razor-sharp.

Other highlights include the Bach/Rachamninov Gavotte from the E major Violin Partita, which here has an engaging nonchalance, and the Siloti reworking of the E minor Prelude from Book 1 of the WTC, a model of restraint in which Ólafsson allows the music’s beauty to shine through. If the first movement of the Harpsichord Concerto in D minor (Bach’s arrangement of Marcello’s D minor Oboe Concerto) is almost too punchy in its ebullience, the famous Adagio is suitably haloed and the finale fizzes. He ends his journey with the A minor Fantasia and Fugue, BWV904, which again is unerring in its sense of build, the closing bars of the Fugue making a fittingly grandiose conclusion to the disc.

DG’s engineers have done this remarkable musician proud. I can’t wait to hear what he does next. Harriet Smith (November 2018)

 

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)

 

Mass in B minor

Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner

(SDG)

The degree to which conductors are more or less synonymous with particular works is a largely subjective matter, though few would argue that the Mass in B minor captures with special pertinence the flavour of John Eliot Gardiner’s distinctive contribution to music-making over 50 years of professional life. While he has only recorded the work once before, in 1985, performances of the work have peppered his career in all four corners of the globe. That recording was something of a yardstick at a time when the pioneering compact disc coincided with the second birth of the ‘early music movement’ in tsunami mode: Gardiner let rip, in short, with a towering performance of blazing choruses and oratorian solos, firmly planting his feet in the DG space that Karl Richter had vacated with his early death four years earlier.

If that performance now seems uncontained in a bristling vigour of varying durability, the intervening 30 years have transformed Gardiner’s B minor with his consistently impressive Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists from something less culturally reactive and adrenalin-driven towards a more contained, pictorial and inhabited ideal, though no less energised. If there was anything Gardiner learnt from the monumental traversal of the cantatas during that great millennium year, it was to take longer-breathed interpretative positions with Bach and to know when to let the singers, especially, and the music do the work.

From the outset here, Gardiner’s meticulous grasp of the detail and architecture in tandem is almost terrifyingly auspicious. The Kyrie has never felt more naturally contrasting in both that respect and in the etched placement (some might find it a touch too articulated) of the fugal entries; it’s a ‘melos’ – an unbroken evolution of line – which becomes especially evident from the tautly conceived ‘Et in unum’ and the most luscious ‘Et incarnatus’, each underpinned by skilful dynamic contouring.

Indeed, the idea of the Mass as Bach’s ‘summa’ anthology (a work that may never even have been conceived as a single piece) has often inhibited that elusive golden ‘arc’ where the culminating ‘Dona nobis’ feels magnetised to all before it. How can it be uncovered without pressing too hard on the tempi or under-curating those reflections of discrete stillness? If Brüggen’s first reading with its purity of abstraction comes close in its controversially instrument-heavy recording and, more recently, Jonathan Cohen’s elegant and generous account asks further questions – albeit in the difficult acoustic of Tetbury Church – we have a further vision here with Gardiner’s extraordinary, single-minded, quasi-mathematical proof.

It starts with peerless choral singing, the trumpet-led movements bolted into an unerring tactus and purring through the gears; the ‘Et exspecto’ with its luminous lead-in is quite miraculous, as is the shining portal of the Sanctus. Such is Gardiner’s dramatic placement that the predominance of D major never palls. Less consistent are the solo movements. Gardiner’s policy of showcasing young vocal talent inevitably leads to occasional gaucheness and some hints of tiredness, but the price is small: there is much that is winning, and the ‘Laudamus te’ (Hannah Morrison) is one of several examples of fresh tenderness.

Out of this youthful paradigm emerges an especially corporate endeavour, one that challenges pre-conceived ideas on vocal and instrumental ‘role-play’, and celebrates Bach’s endlessly sophisticated relationship between players and singers: perspectives where our modern ears are forced to re‑evaluate expectations within our conventional understanding. This is borne out in many ways, none more than the dialogues of the ‘Quoniam’, where the bass, horn and bassoons fulfil many purposes in a changing canvas.

Gardiner’s admiration for this work is palpable in every bar, perhaps over-curated for some; and if so the softer-hues of Cohen may be preferred. But in the grip of its conceits and its virtuoso executancy, captured in the strikingly immediate recorded sound of LSO St Luke’s, this High Mass joins a distinguished discography at high table. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (December 2015)

 

Mass in B minor

Dunedin Consort and Players / John Butt

(Linn)

There are few who strive sincerely to juxtapose the bedfellows of academic rigour and inspired musicianship. Given his recent Handelian activity at the helm of the Dunedin Consort and Players, some might have forgotten that John Butt is a Bach research specialist and author of the Cambridge Handbook on the Mass in B minor. In the booklet he explains his thoughts about historically informed performance practice (one voice per part, following the evidence outlined in the writings of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott), and discusses his choice to make the first recording of Rifkin’s recent edition (which reconstructs Bach’s score c1749, without later accretions). Butt’s interpretation owes firm allegiance to the “OVPP” creed that will not please everyone (even if detractors have not yet produced a single scrap of proof to refute it), but the Dunedin Consort and Players are never perfunctory or merely dogmatic. This performance demands to be heard.

Butt has considered every musical connection, context, texture and form. Not only do the individual movements feel spot-on in articulation and affekt but the free-flowing pacing from one section to the next makes it easy for the listener to be pulled along. Each section of the Roman Ordinary is envisaged as continuous music, so there are no pregnant pauses between solo and choral movements. The first chords of the “Kyrie” are sung boldly by the 10 singers (five “principals” and another five “ripienists”), and the solemn fugue is performed with gentle ardency; every gesture, detail, suspension and arching line is judged and executed with transparency, flexibility and rhetorical potency.

Thomas Hobbs and Matthew Brook sing the principal lower-voice contrapuntal passages with sensitive blend and superb intonation: they also declaim their solo movements with confidence and eloquence. The higher-voiced principals are marginally less successful: the combination of Susan Hamilton and Cecilia Osmond in the duet “Christe eleison” occasionally threatens fragility but perhaps more authoritative and smoother-toned soprano soloists would have been less adaptable in the choruses. Butt’s flowing tempo for “Agnus Dei” prevents Margot Oitzinger from conveying the breathtaking timelessness some might hanker after but catharsis is tangible in “Benedictus” (performed movingly by Hobbs and flautist Katy Bircher). The galant character adopted by Butt’s elegant harpsichord continuo, Patrick Beaugiraud’s poignant oboe and tasteful strings during “Qui sedes” proceeds without pause into “Quoniam”; Anneke Scott’s sparky horn playing and Matthew Brook’s conversational authority conspire to take no prisoners, and the momentum carries through into a knock-out “Cum Sancto Spiritu”.

Once upon a time the bravery of minimal forces tackling this repertoire was ridiculed by sniffy sceptics. Butt and the Dunedins might not change any entrenched minds; but the climax of “Gratias agimus tibi” is as bold, resonant and glorious as anything one would expect (and not always get) from larger forces. The opening of the “Gloria” bursts forth with radiant splendour but also has a dance-like lilt, and with Bach’s intricate writing emerges as a compelling dialogue.

The Dunedin Consort’s singing conveys the ebb, flow and shading of Bach’s choruses with ease and naturalness. The sonorities of full homophonic chords concluding the grandest choruses are thrilling, whereas the densely polyphonic choral passages always possess clarity and logic thanks to the disciplined interplay of the singers. The five principals combine to rapturous effect in “Et incarnatus est”, and Butt’s handling of the strings and flutes during “Crucifixus” is both patient and emotionally charged.

Many excellent recordings of this monumental work cater for different tastes and priorities. Some have more consistent line-ups of soloists, equally impressive choirs (of varying sizes) and comparably strong artistic direction. Although an excellent one-voice-per-part version is nothing new, Butt’s insightful direction and scholarship, integrated with the Dunedin’s extremely accomplished instrumental playing and consort singing, amount to an enthralling and revelatory collective interpretation of the Mass in B minor – perhaps the most probing since Andrew Parrott’s explosive 1985 version (Virgin, 8/86). David Vickers (August 2010)

 

Magnificat

Ricercar Consort / Philippe Pierlot

(Mirare)

Presented as a grand work with a single-voice chorus, this reading of the Magnificat is as vitally conceived and multi-dimensional as I can recall. So often the blend of a madrigal-sized choir detracts from a necessary corporate impact but such is the keen characterisation of the text and the willingness to “come and go” in the texture that the Ricercar Consort convey, in the exultant framing movements and “Omnes generationes”, a rare combination of visceral rhythmic verve and vocal energy.

The solo movements are also bursting with personality, soprano Anna Zander delivering a robustly fluent “Et exultavit” and her counterpart, Maria Keohane, a sensually captivating “Quia respexit”, whose oboe d’amore obbligato dovetails her lines with imploring beauty. If the alto, Carlos Mena, is the least vocally poised, then his “Esurientes” is still exceptionally judged and his duetting with tenor Hans-Jörg Mammel in “Et misericordia” sensitively projected. As throughout, all the singing is complemented by delectable instrumental accompaniments. “Suscepit Israel” is the highlight, however: a bittersweet Carissimi-like trio (perhaps more Scarlatti Stabat mater in supplication?) of mesmerising fragility.

The G minor Mass represents a clever juxtaposition of conceits with the Magnificat, as Bach revisits choice cantata movements (from BWV72, 102 and 187) and parodies them so successfully – whatever past curmudgeons say – that this lesser-known example from the four so-called “Lutheran Masses” reminds us what they can communicate so specially with such a finely blended and integrated ensemble as the Ricercar Ensemble. Francis Jacob – whose Bach recital (Zig-Zag, 5/01) remains a favourite – provides considered accounts of two significant solo organ works. Less abandon than Koopman, perhaps, but this is supremely refined playing and articulates the ambitions of an exceptionally distinguished project. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (March 2010)

 

St Matthew Passion

Sols; Vienna Boys’ Choir; Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Concentus Musikus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt 

(Warner Classics)

Harnoncourt has waited over 30 years to return with his Concentus Musicus Wien to the ‘Great Passion’, which, but for his live Concertgebouw recording (Teldec, 10/86 – nla), he last recorded in 1970 when he had completed only a handful of cantatas in Teldec’s defining series. This is another major recording event – as was the pioneering last one – shining like a beacon in a fairly uniform era of recorded vocal Bach. Of recent ‘period’ performances which have been lastingly memorable and/or profoundly distinctive, I would pick out Masaaki Suzuki’s deeply felt, if over-manicured, account of 1998 and Jos van Veldhoven with the Netherlands Bach Society, which is strikingly natural and fluid in delivery. Yet there is always plenty of room in the catalogue for a vision which seeks to define new levels of human understanding for Bach’s most breathtaking accomplishment, and in so doing ensures that the shape and quality of the performance is instantly conjurable in the mind’s ear.

Harnoncourt’s re-visitation presents a unique statement, one which cannot fail to make an impression. Recorded in the sumptuous acoustic of the Jesuitenkirche in Vienna, one can detect the flavour of southern European oratorio, ebulliently theatrical, immediate and free-breathing, and without the austerity of North German rhetoric. What is recognisably perceived as ‘spiritual’ in the carefully coiffured renderings of Suzuki and Herreweghe has no place here. Harnoncourt’s religiosity is not imposed but stands rather in a lifetime of musical distillation. This is instantly obvious in the opening chorus, where bridal imagery (in the music’s secular, balletic lift) is juxtaposed with the physical imagery of what is at stake (in the broad, enduring bow strokes). Whilst Suzuki’s visceral chorale is more spine-tingling, the refinement here of ‘Sehet, Wohin?’ amidst inexorable, paradoxically unquestioning direction, is masterful.

Pacing Part 1 is no easy task, and many a tank has been emptied before reaching what the great Bach scholar Friederich Smend called ‘the central message of the work’ (encompasssing Nos 46-49). Harnoncourt neither dallies unduly with the chorales nor charges through them; they skilfully counterbalance the remarkably incandescent narrative of Christoph Pregardien’s Evangelist. The tenor shows a supreme attention to detail (even if his singing is sometimes effortful), and his dialogue with Matthias Goerne’s vital Christus is especially compelling. At such moments, a large liturgical space gives the work a dramatic energy which is matched in the sharply etched arias, each carefully withdrawn from the marketplace of the action to stand on its own merits. Harnoncourt gives ‘Blute nur’ a touch of characteristic melodrama, but none can doubt how Dorothea Roschmann and the orchestra, between them, project its expressive core.

The well-drilled, medium-sized Arnold Schoenberg Choir’s strikingly cultivated crowd scenes make a strong contrast with the relatively brazen chorus in Harnoncourt’s 1970 version. ‘Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!’ is surprisingly but affectingly understated, yet one might wish for more incision (in No 60, for example) and dynamic contrast elsewhere without the slick physicality of the Monteverdi Choir. Unlike the specialists of the pioneering years, Harnoncourt hand-picks his soloists from the widest possible pool. Apart from the excellent Roschmann, Christine Schafer impresses here far more than in her rather harried solo Bach disc over a year ago (DG, 1/00). More relaxed and controlled, she sings with acute coloration and stillness in ‘Aus Liebe’. With Bernarda Fink’s beguiling ‘Erbarme dich’ and Michael Schade’s resplendent ‘Geduld’, only Oliver Widmer (who sings ‘Gebt mir’) gave me less than unalloyed pleasure. The pick of the crop is Dietrich Henschel, who sings with great warmth and penetration with a ‘Mache dich’ to stand alongside (if not to rival) Fischer-Dieskau for Karl Richter. But with even these wonderful contributions, it still takes clarity of vision to graphically propel the drama yet also ponder it reverentially. Again, Harnoncourt leaves his mark with his unerring compassion at most of the critical points. ‘O Schmerz’ is dynamic in the juxtaposition of the panicking Zion and the unfazed faithful. The austerity is palpable where Christ gives up the ghost. From that point on, we must return to Richter’s 1958 recording for the benchmark. Harnoncourt projects a more resigned and objective set of emotional ‘tableaux’ compared to Richter’s long-breathed and ethereal ritual in the final cadence. Given the way Bach builds the tension at the mid-point from ‘O Mensch bewein’, there is a degree of anti-climax as Harnoncourt (or his producer) sacrifices momentum by creating large gaps between sections. Are these really intended?

Finally, one should mention Concentus Musicus, grainy and luminous in ensemble, the obbligato wind a far cry from the softer-edged and rounded tonal world of almost all other ‘period’ groups (though some occasional brittle intonation is slightly disorienting). In short, this is the most culturally alert reading in years. A truly original and illuminating experience (not least, the bonus CD-Rom of the autograph score). Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (June 2001)

 

St Matthew Passion

Sols; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner

(SDG)

As has often been the case since his Bach Pilgrimage of 2000, the John Eliot Gardiner of this new, second recording of the St Matthew Passion is a changed conductor from that of the first. That was a studio version for DG (10/89), made when Gardiner was their Bach man enjoying the benefits of studio time and big-name soloists including Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter; it was a state-of-the-art product but today can sound a little brisk and uninvolved in that 1980s way, particularly with regard to the shaping of the words. The new recording for the Monteverdi Choir’s own label is a live concert recording, with all the soloists except the Evangelist and Christus drawn from the ranks of the chorus. The live format is not so unusual in these economic times but choir soloists do seem to be dear to Gardiner for purely musical considerations, to judge from his use of them in several post-Pilgrimage projects. There is no doubt, however, that both elements pay off here.

The recording was made in Pisa Cathedral last September, but its foundations were laid over the previous six months in a 15-city tour which included a memorable performance in Brussels the day after the terror attacks there. The experience seems to have drawn the musicians together and intensified their commitment. If a Passion performance has no sense of community it has nothing, and this is surely the making of Gardiner’s account. This is a memorable and moving St Matthew, and for all the right reasons.

Musically it is very fine. The choir are excellent, of course, with a solid but clear and intimate sound even in the larger choruses, no end of expressive means in the chorales, and a thrilling quickness in the crowd choruses. Gardiner asks for a lot of quiet singing from them and they execute it with superbly controlled beauty. The orchestra is as skilled and musical as you like in their obbligatos, and exquisitely responsive to Gardiner’s subtle shapings – the string accompaniments to Christus’s recitatives, for instance, normally thought of as ‘haloes’, have never sounded so alert to the meaning of the Word. The experienced Evangelist of James Gilchrist and Christus of Stephan Loges are not to be faulted, and none of the nine young aria soloists is a weak link, to the extent that I’m loath to single out any one of them at the expense of another; suffice to say that each one lives up to their moment in the drama. Any or all of these are things you may find in other Matthews; but you will rarely find the same careful relishing of text, which treats the German words almost as rhythmical and textural sounds in themselves rather than theological pronouncements, as in Hannah Morrison’s lilting ‘Ich-h will hier mein Herze strenken’ or the choir’s impatient ‘L-lass ihn kreuzigen!’

What really makes this one special, however, is its emotional integrity, coming not from affected theatricality but from a pervading air of profound sadness. If ‘sad’ seems a weak word, it is not meant to be; it is just that the actors of this piece are not tearing at their hair but letting the weight of the events they are witnessing sink deep into their beings as individuals. The aching ‘Erbarme dich’ of alto Eleanor Minney and violinist Kati Debretzeni expresses it perfectly, assuming the pain further unto itself in a barely breathed da capo, like a wounded bird.

This is just one strongly moving moment among many, which more often than not are achieved through tender phrasing, confident (but never exaggerated) articulation and measured (but not sluggish) tempos. Though this at first may seem like a surprisingly light-touch reading from Gardiner, it is in fact one with a firmly controlled atmosphere of hurt and vulnerability. And when an individual performance does break through to something more outwardly emotional, as in Minney’s imploring ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’ or the heavy-laden strokes of Reiko Ichise’s gamba in ‘Komm süsses Kreuz’, it thus emerges all the more truly.

In his booklet-note Gardiner repeats his assertion that Bach’s great skill as an artist lay in his ability to write music with supreme power to console, and it is clear that this is what he has looked for here. That his considerable experience has enabled him to find it in such a thoughtfully moulded, expertly executed and deeply committed reading, so honestly communicative of its intent and so free of self-conscious monumentalism, sententiousness or melodramatics, is why I believe it to be one of his finest achievements. Lindsay Kemp (April 2017)

 

St John Passion

Sols; Dunedin Consort / John Butt

(Linn)

Bach’s St John Passion gains more from the small-ensemble approach, I think, than its big sister, the St Matthew. Its emotional intimacy and urgency are better suited to the agility and immediacy a one-to-a-part performance brings, and the result can be a deeply compelling human drama. We have had several decent ‘chamber’ St Johns in recent years – including recordings from the Ricercar Consort (7/11), Cantus Cölln and Portland Baroque (both 3/12) – but this new one from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort really struck home for me by achieving its vital results without extravagant overstatement, overt ‘holiness’ or self-conscious marking-out of the work’s architecture. Indeed, naturalness and emotional honesty are what emerge from this tight-knit and perfectly paced ensemble Passion, in which Bach’s complex succession of recitatives, arias, choruses and chorales has surely seldom sounded so convincingly of a piece.

This is not, by the way, a polite way of saying that the performance lacks expressive variety or that performing standards are modest. On the contrary, the increasingly impressive Nicholas Mulroy’s alert, lightly coloured Evangelist strikes a balance in which declamation and lyricism are equally ardent and equally touching, while Matthew Brook is a supple and authoritative Christus. The use of harpsichord and organ together in the recitatives gives their joint story-telling a reassuringly grounded quality; there is nothing ‘ethereal’ in this St John and it is better for it. Both singers also perform with great effectiveness in the arias, where they are joined by Joanne Lunn (her ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ is a joyous and sure-footed gem) and Clare Wilkinson, whose distinctive alto, straightforward in expression and tellingly connected to her speaking voice, lends fragility to ‘Von den Stricken’. Her desolate, almost whispered ‘Die Trauernacht’ in ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ also stabs to the heart.

When these four sing together in the choruses, to be joined by four more ‘ripieno’ singers, their sound is pressing and urgent but never hectoring, so that whether representing a crowd baying for blood or a group of chastened or horror-struck sinners, they come across as a gathering of real people rather than a disembodied chorus. The fact that you can sometimes recognise a soloist’s voice within the mix only adds to this impression of reality. Chorales are shaped with care and expressive sensitivity, but also never overcooked. The Dunedin Consort’s reliance on relatively young casts such as this has always brought their performances an uplifting freshness and immediacy in their recordings of Messiah, the B minor Mass and of course the St Matthew Passion, but in this harrowing piece it allows the sense of drama and personal identification to reach a higher level.

There is, however, another unique layer to this St John, for the piece is set in the context of the Good Friday Vespers liturgy of Bach’s Leipzig. This is where John Butt’s scholarly curiosity pays off, for he clearly sees the liturgical setting not as a dilution but an intensification of the work’s message. In this presentation the Passion – the service, not the oratorio – starts with an Easter chorale, first in Bach’s organ setting (played by Butt) and then sung by a congregation (actually the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir) alternating verses with a solo Mulroy. Then a short burst from a Buxtehude Praeludium leads straight to the opening chorus, nearly nine minutes after the disc has started. A similar sequence follows Part 1, and Part 2 is prefaced by another organ chorale. Immediately after the oratorio has ended (and let’s not pretend that the usual ending, a simple chorale to follow the glowing choral farewell that is ‘Ruht wohl’, does not sometimes sit strangely) comes Ecce quomodo moritur, a gentle funeral motet by the Renaissance composer Jacobus Handl Gallus (sung rather well by the University Choir again under James Grossmith). The reconstruction then ends with a few liturgical nuts and bolts and a final chorale for the congregation.

None of this extra material interrupts the Passion music itself – which, for the record, is a composite version representing what Bach’s uncompleted 1739 revision might have been like – and it can be programmed out if desired. But while you may not always want to sit through nine verses of chorale before getting down to business (or indeed listen to the half-time sermon, taken from a 1720 collection by Erdmann Neumeister, which is downloadable from the Linn website!), the effect of the violin swirls, pounding lower strings and intertwining oboe suspensions of that great opening chorus interrupting Buxtehude’s somewhat Gothic organ prelude certainly deserves more than one hearing. Butt makes a nice point in his booklet-note about how Bach’s Passion performances would have brought together in one project local singers of all abilities, from the soloists to the ‘motet choir’ to members of the congregation; and if his aim here has been to position this in the listener’s imagination and suggest the element of inclusive community that any Passion performance ought to have, well, it works for me. Lindsay Kemp (March 2013)

 

St John Passion

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Polyphony / Stephen Layton

(Hyperion)

Stephen Layton’s outstanding new St John is about as state-of-the-art a Bach Passion recording as you’ll hear. For all its referencing various traditions, the overall signposting is pitched in the ‘middle of the road’ (and I mean that simply as one likely to satisfy as broad church as any available recording) and yet it appears remarkably fresh-sounding. Take as read the urgency, clarity, balance and declamatory unanimity of the chorus; Lindsay Kemp described the equivalent in Butt’s version where the effect of ‘a [single] voice within the mix only adds to this impression of reality’. Layton’s reality is about cultivating the focus of each sentiment with supreme corporate executancy.

Where Nicholas Mulroy’s Evangelist offers us intense reportage and touchingly personal asides, Ian Bostridge is the master story-teller who surveys all about him, impeccably delivering every nuance of every word. Some may find it too consciously etched, yet in the context of Layton’s carefully weighted reading it is both deeply subtle and consistently finessed.

Alongside the top-class and pliable choral singing of Polyphony comes the roll call of exceptional soloists – Nicholas Mulroy among them. Indeed, his ‘Ach mein Sinn’ conveys as rarely before the blend of inner mournfulness and savage panic which Bach inspires with this terse chaconne-inspired movement. More worldly still is Carolyn Sampson’s delectable ‘Ich folge’, where seasoned discipleship rather than bright-eyed innocence prevails.

The noble Christ of Neal Davies and the deeply felt singing of Roderick Williams complement the kaleidoscope of vocal expression here with their capacity for reflective commentary (‘Mein teurer’ is über-elegant), as does Iesytn Davies in a treasurable ‘Es ist vollbracht’. Such is Layton’s overall grip and understanding of the generic dramatic properties of the St John – especially in controlling tension and release – that we have here a perfect balance for the greater spontaneity of John Butt’s touchingly inhabited and personal journey. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (May 2013)

 

Christmas Oratorio

Sols; Concentus Musicus Wien & Arnold Schoenberg Choir / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(DHM)

History has not judged kindly the revisiting of major Bach choral works by eminent conductors. Here is the exception. Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded the Christmas Oratorio 35 years ago (and there was a live Unitel video in 1981) but this is a musician whose third reading of the St Matthew Passion in 2000 plumbed depths of understanding and characterisation of a quite different order from his previous accounts. Likewise, this significant and richly endowed contribution to the catalogue, whose defining rationale is the exploration of the Oratorio’s joyous and elegant poetic fervour, asks similarly penetrating questions. These are different challenges to the Passions in that Bach’s careful assembling of material for six “parts” or cantatas provides no obviously sustained “action” but, rather, tableaux from the majesty of Christ’s birth and the annunciation of the shepherds to the coming of the Three Wise Men as Epiphany approaches. Binding the themes and harnessing the material into an integrated whole for a single sitting (not necessarily inimical to Bach’s planning, despite being spread over the six Feast Days of Christmas, 1734-35) takes more than just a few well judged tempi and a generic Yuletide esprit.

Harnoncourt’s recording, taken from live performances in the Musikverein last Christmas, succeeds in this regard with uncanny freshness and generosity. Without a hint of world-weariness, each movement builds on the experience of what has been heard before (a device encouraged by Bach in his emollient and atmospheric instrumentation, and the decisive connections between each cantata). Bachians who know Harnoncourt’s Passion recordings will recognise the distinctive southern European classical tradition which has been brought to bear on his recent Bach performances. Witness the soft-grained radiance and ease, whether Mass or opera-inspired, which eschews an inward-looking and parochial outlook. Indeed, Harnoncourt is unique in his decisively pictorial and luminous landscape (in the more perennial oratorio tradition), alongside a highly developed ear for charting the work with kaleidoscopic, if occasionally maverick character. The springy choruses are bright but warm, spacious and unhurried, and packed with cathartic and lyrical dialogues between instruments and voices. The arias are also consistently probing, with fine performances from Christine Schäfer (“Nur ein Wink” is irresistible) and Bernarda Fink, whose “Schlafe” lives up to expectations (though one perhaps questions whether the faster speeds of the ritornelli reveal some patching).

Werner Güra’s narration takes a little time to warm up but by Part 2 he is in full swing with both unequivocal delivery and an impressive bravura in the unwieldy “Frohe Hirten”. Gerald Finley sings with open-hearted zeal and, despite occasional flatness, teams up touchingly with Schäfer in “Herr, dein Mitleid”. There is the odd rough edge and, inevitably, there are moments which will not be to everyone’s taste. But the unforced sweep of grandeur, complementing supple pastoral mosaics, marks out Harnoncourt’s Christmas Oratorio as a valuable and penetrating seasonal vision. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (December 2007)

 

Easter Oratorio

Retrospect Ensemble /  Matthew Halls

(Linn)

Bach created the Easter Oratorio for Easter Sunday 1725, although some of the music was shrewdly parodied from a secular cantata composed some months previously for the birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels. The Retrospect Ensemble’s orchestral playing and choral singing is of the highest quality, not surprising given that the personnel list features many alumni of the King’s Consort and other such expert Baroque ensembles. Matthew Halls neatly juxtaposes bustling vitality and an unforced conversational quality in the first part of the Sinfonia, with the three natural trumpets sounding particularly shapely and relaxed. The chorus is impressively disciplined and radiant in the opening chorus, during which rapid duet passages are delivered impeccably by James Gilchrist and Peter Harvey. Rachel Brown’s flawless flute is an eloquent counterpart to Carolyn Sampson’s enchanting gentleness in the aria “Seele, deine Spezereien”, and Halls controls its pizzicato bass-line with benevolent finesse. Gilchrist almost whispers the yearningly beautiful tenor part of “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” and the aria is all the more special because of Halls’s expressive handling of the delicate pastoral accompaniment of recorders and muted strings; I’ve heard many lovely performances of this aria but do not recall hearing the text communicated with such heart-rending consolation as this.

Halls partners BWV249 with Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (written for Ascension Day 1735). The pairing is a sensible idea shared with previous discs from Leonhardt, Rilling and Suzuki but that need not dissuade anyone from savouring these outstanding performances. “Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben” (Bach’s model for the Agnus Dei of the B minor Mass) has wondrous unison playing from the first violins and sweet eloquence from Iestyn Davies; the accompaniment of flutes, oboe and upper strings for Sampson’s singing in “Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke” is also interpreted perfectly. The excellent declamation, impeccable shaping of contrapuntal lines and flawless tuning of the Retrospect choir comes to the fore in the festive opening and closing choruses; the notably clean transparency between all four parts is achieved partly by an entirely male alto section but also by Halls’s astute ability to convey each strand of vocal and instrumental detail. David Vickers (May 2011)

 

Motets

Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner

(SDG)

Underpinning so much of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s approach to Bach is identifying the provenance and essence of dramatic character, ‘mutant opera’ (as Gardiner calls it) found in genres – like the motet – which are not enacted but depend on perceptive rhetorical judgement within a fabric of rolling continuity. Bach’s motets may pay homage to forebears in scale, tone and technique but each one, especially revealed in this vibrant and questing new set, presses for fresh meaning with all the virtuoso means Bach could muster.

The motets have appeared as pillars of the Monteverdi Choir’s existence over five decades, punctuated by a notable recording for Erato in the early 1980s and most recently within selected programmes during the millennial Cantata Pilgrimage. For Gardiner, these works represent an endlessly fascinating tapestry of discovery which will doubtless continue to evolve, a body enhanced by the addition of Ich lasse dich nicht – a short motet once thought to have been by Bach’s great elder cousin, Johann Christoph, but now considered the work of the Young Turk.

Common to the Monteverdi Choir’s performances over the years are their inimitable textual projection, clarity of line, rhythmic rigour and an overriding sense of expectancy and flair, just occasionally slipping a little too eagerly into exaggerated gesture. Gardiner asks for more pinpoint delicacy, quicksilver contrast and lightness than ever and illuminatingly inwardda camera dialoguing between voices. For all the pages of sprung bravura and purpose, especially in Lobet den Herrn and Singet dem Herrn, there are as many periods of elongated and poignant restraint.

There is no more compelling example than the soft, controlled climate of the final contemplative strains of Fürchte dich nicht, where we have an extraordinary representation of the precious mystery of belonging to Christ. The soprano motif on ‘und dein Blut, mir zugut’ (‘thy life and thy blood’) is uttered with such sustained and ritualised other-worldliness (track 15, 5'38") that the risk of disembodiment is only allayed by the Monteverdi Choir’s captivating certainty of line as the devoted soul drifts heavenwards.

One of the most striking features in this new collection, as I mentioned previously, is how attentive Gardiner is to the individuality of each of the motets. This might seem a time-honoured ambition and yet, for all the admirable qualities of, say, the RIAS Kammerchor under René Jacobs or the more recent reading from Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent, neither of these brings as ambitious a kaleidoscopic challenge to the listener in identifying renewed character and meaning as Gardiner aspires to. Indeed, Herreweghe recently went as far as to say that ‘a groundbreaking reading is not necessary’.

Gardiner would disagree. How lucidly Der Geist hilft (that short but compact work written for the funeral of Ernesti, the old Rector of St Thomas’s, in 1729) sets out to reflect the infirmities of man gradually imbued with the intercessions of the Holy Spirit. Here we have something more perspicacious than merely good pacing: the Monteverdi singers narrate this play of uncertainty and the growing anticipation of understanding God’s will with such corporate and dynamic purpose that, even when the two choirs converge in an affirming four-part double fugue, we never feel quite out of the woods. The tantalising prospect of salvation is only truly satisfied at the final cadence of a luminously directed chorale.

Some of these interpretative risks may not suit those who prefer a less articulated, more abstract, soft-edged and generally expansive landscape. Singet dem Herrn is typically exuberant in its outer ‘concerti’ but the unique double-choir juxtaposition of chorale and free contrapuntal ‘rhapsody’ could perhaps have yielded more genuine contemplative warmth. Indeed, Gardiner rarely delivers a comfortable ride and yet what brilliant visions emerge, most strikingly in the central work, the five-part Jesu meine Freude, riding – literally – the storm of the love of the flesh, Satan, the old dragon and death.

Throughout this masterpiece, terrifying, quasi-‘turba’ (crowd) scenes are viscerally offset against an ethereal quest for redemption. ‘Es ist nun nichts Verdammliches’ (‘There is now no condemnation’) has surely never enjoyed such a mesmerising volley of declamation and rich illusion over a short space as Gardiner summons, while ‘Trotz dem alten Drachen’ (‘Despite the old dragon’) spits out its irascible consonances only to be disarmingly defied by the elevated purity of ‘in gar sichrer Ruh’ (‘in confident tranquillity’) – all this in contrasting tableaux of ever-surprising emotional impact. If the listener is often left gasping, this is caused not only by vocal singularity of purpose but by the discreet and graphic responsiveness of the instrumental continuo players, among whom the bassoon here (and in Komm, Jesu, komm) contributes with knowing effect.

As you would imagine, surprises abound – some of which take a little getting used to. Gardiner challenges orthodoxy in how these a cappella holy grails are fundamentally signposted and he does so, almost always, with persuasive passion and genuine zeal. High-wire artist Philippe Petit is a fitting cover image to this important landmark in highly recommended, high-stakes performances. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (August 2012)

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