JS BACH Musical Offering
We’ll never know for sure why Bach’s Musical Offering, a collection of short pieces all composed to a theme improvised to him by Frederick the Great, is sequenced so very unusually and unevenly in its first print edition of 1747. Did Bach really intend to split his 10 canons around the ricercars and sonata in this strange 1+5+1+2+1 order, or was it a random grouping for players to rearrange ad libitum? And while we’re on the subject of mysteries, did he really intend that the set’s only stipulated instrumentation – flute and violin plus basso continuo for the sonata – be applied to the whole, or did he assume the other members of Frederick’s musical household would contribute across the rest?
Whatever the answer, The Bach Players have certainly built an exceptionally thoughtful programme from the theory that the collection’s unusual sequence is in fact Bach’s quite deliberate musical working out of the Roman writer Quintilian’s theories on rhetoric; and, interestingly, the moment you view this supposedly wonky ordering of contrasting musical styles as the successive chunks of a persuasive oratory, you can also stick to flute, violin and basso continuo throughout – as The Bach Players have done – without things becoming samey.
So that’s it really; it’s through variations of articulation, tone and mood that the musical argument is grown and our interest maintained, all done with a courtly seriousness and fluidity that will particularly appeal to those who appreciate a playing style on the lighter, leaner end of the scale. Also worth pointing out is that by giving the first canon’s presentation of the theme to the flute they’ve acknowledged the Frederick the Great connection more strongly than has been the recorded norm.
Certainly there are perkier (Musica Antiqua Köln) and fruitier (Ricercar Consort) readings out there; but if it’s an elegant evening drawing-room intellectualism you’re after, then this hits the spot perfectly; and to have preceded their Bach with an earlier rhetorical Baroque gem, Buxtehude’s Sonata No 6, they’ve beautifully cemented their case.