First I bought a commonly-celebrated EMI version with Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and the English Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim. The album is relatively cheap but has a few excellent reviews. In my case, I was a little disappointed. The sound, for starters, is quite weak, even for a 1973-75 recording. There’s too much echo, the sound appears to come from a gigantic hall with the instruments located in the back, and there’s not enough balance between the highs and the lows, with the former being the absolute dominant force of the aural experience. As for the music itself, it's hard to make such glorious music feel flat, but that's precisely what happens at times here. The tempos are overwhelmingly slow (even for my taste, not too fond of baroque versions that seem to run at double speed), and not in a solemn, ceremonial way, but in a dragging one. The playing by the soloists is OK, but I’ve been pleased more by other versions, where more bravura, more gusto is displayed. This is especially evident in the third movement of the A-minor concerto, the glorious Allegro Assai that from a marvelous dance of notes and colors in Bach's score turns into a rather numbing march of limping, boring aristocrats on this version. The energy and unearthly magic of the double-violin concerto is still there, but its impact is lowered. All in all, this was not what I expected.
Looking for a new, fresh face, encountered a version by Julia Fischer and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on Decca which had received positive comments. My only concern was that this seemed like the kind of record aimed more at the general population who likes some background-classical music than at the classical music aficionado, with the good-looking violinist adorning the cover and all pages of the booklet and Bach’s and the orchestra’s name mentioned just as a secondary consequence of the star’s presence in the record. I had bought versions like this before and been positively surprised (like with Sarah Chang’s superb rendering of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”) so I gave it a try. The results? Light Bach. The concertos are well-played, the tempos slightly faster than average, the violinist impeccable, but there’s something missing. There’s little spirit, little soul on this recording. Fischer plays with perfect technique but little fire. The slow movements are beautiful because the music is incredibly beautiful, but Fischer doesn’t add one bit of it. The same with the outer movements, fiery and dazzling because of Bach, not because of his current interpreter.
In the end, I went back to my Naxos and Harmonia Mundi recordings and realized they were perfect already. Manze’s one-semitone-lower version in period-instruments has all the fire and the speed, plus an absolutely superb third movement in the A-minor piece, still unsurpassed (I’ve heard a few other versions that I don’t own). My previous review of that recording needs some amending, definitely.
But it’s the lower-priced, no-name recording in Naxos that really is my favorite. No flashy names in the cover, no celebrated orchestras, just a perfect performance with all the right tempos, all the right energy, all the devotion and dedication to the music that seems to come from inside. It’s still my preferred version in modern instruments, even more so than my former favorite with Henrik Szerying and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (conducted by Marriner, and not at the expense of a star-violisist).
I own 4 recordings of these concertos. Probably I’ll end up with more. Music such as this gets new every time one listens to it and even more so if the interpreters have changed. Bach’s violin concertos are my favorite violin concertos in the entire musical cosmos, and it can only please me to find more and more versions, even underwhelming ones.