Friday, April 16, 2010

Bach - Violin Concertos - Perlman,Zuckerman,Barenboim-English Chamber Orchestra (EMI) / Fischer,Sitkovetsky,Academy of St.Martin in the Fields (DECCA)

Trying to find the best possible version (for my taste) of three of my favorite works in the entire musical universe, Johann Sebastian Bach's violin concertos, has proved a difficult experience. My old version with Takako Nishizaki and the Capella Istropolitana on Naxos needed some authentic-instruments company and I found it with Andrew Manze’s version with the Academy of Ancient Music on Harmonia Mundi. After listening to that last one, I needed another one with modern instruments (my favorite taste for the baroque era) played at slower tempos. I ended up buying not one but two additional recordings.

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.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mahler, Copland - Orchestral Works - Jeremy Benk (Pianist) - New World Symphony Orchestra - Michael Tilson-Thomas - Miami, April 10, 2010

Last Saturday I attended a concert by the New World Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Tilson-Thomas that took place at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. The programme included Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto and Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in C-sharp minor. The soloist for the Copland piece was American pianist Jeremy Denk.

Tilson-Thomas founded this orchestra and is its artistic director. There’s no doubt about the connection and dedication that he feels towards this ensemble made of young musicians taken from all over the United States. Deemed as the “America’s Orchestral Academy”, this group of instrumentalists gave me a great impression on my first time seeing them perform live. The sound of the orchestra is pure and precise; the percussion section is quite amazing. And it’s clear they hold Tilson-Thomas in a special place in their hearts and minds, since the dialogue between all the instruments and the conductor was free of obstructions, they communicated perfectly and in total harmony. Tilson-Thomas sometimes-awkward body motions were followed with exact execution by the performers, who, is evident, know who is in command.

I was also very pleased with the acoustics of the Arsht Center. I sat in second row (one could even say first, as the actual front row didn’t circle the entire round-shaped stage). I had the big grand piano in front of me through Copland’s entire piece, and the second violins were pretty much in my face. But I could listen to all instruments, with crystalline clarity, and with perfect balance. From the snare to the trombone to the bass, I was able to enjoy all the details of the performance.

Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto was new to me. I’ve heard plenty of works by the American master but this concerto was not one of them. I can honestly say the piece left me undecided. On one hand, it is exciting, full of energy, with a tremendous percussion section and quite dazzling piano acrobatics; on the other hand, the jazzy/ragtime elements incorporated in the music make it feel rather mundane, even vulgar. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” came to my mind, though in that work the popular-music flavor is evident and welcomed; here, in Copland’s concerto, I wasn’t sure what the intentions were when the piece was composed. Anyway, in general, the work is entertaining (specially seeing it performed live) and Jeremy Benk’s playing was nothing short of amazing. At times I was caught surprised at abrupt time changes, dissonant chords and plenty of “wrong” notes, but that was all Copland’s invention.

After the performance, Benk stayed for one extra little dessert: by petition of Tilson-Thomas (according to Benk), he performed Charles Ives’ “Scherzo” for piano, a little quickie piece, an adaptation of a popular American theater melody (the name of which escapes me) that served as a perfect showcase for the soloist’s abilities.

After the intermission, the orchestra came back for the main event. The piano was (thankfully) taken under the stage, and Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony kicked off. What a change! This is a monumental piece of music, my third-favorite work by Mahler after his Sixth and his First symphonies, and the rendition was amazing. The first movement was all drama and emotion, from the fanfare that opens the work to the ending of the march. The brass section performed perfectly, though there was one occasion when I noticed something wrong, though I failed to point out exactly what it was (I saw some musicians looking at each other with grins on their faces, so I was not alone). The second movement got the same treatment, with a perfect balance between fortissimo and pianissimo. The tempos, all of them, were spot on for my taste. The stormy scherzo that marks the middle point on the symphony was fiery, chaotic, a musical pandemonium. The most famous movement of the symphony, the adagietto, was especially beautiful, and probably the orchestra’s best moment of the night. How beautiful this music is! It almost brings tears to my eyes, the way the violins and other strings cried with tenderness, in mourning. This was a glorious lament, sad, human, a musical gem. The final movement, triumphant and loud, was superb. All the gigantic orchestra this symphony requires comes into effect here. This is a magnificent conclusion that, nevertheless, leaves the listener with an ambivalent feeling: it’s not totally optimistic, hardly so, but it’s not sad. The orchestra conveyed those emotions perfectly.

The concert ended after several rounds of applause for the young musicians and their revered master. This was a fantastic concert, the best I’ve attended so far in the US, and it leaves me wanting to hear more and more performances of this outstanding group of young musicians who, under the expert direction of their director, show that classical music has a bright future in their hands.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Handel - "Messiah" - Sir Andrew Davis - Toronto Symphony Orchestra - (ANGEL - EMI)

I'll say it straight away: this is an outstanding version of Georg Friedrich Handel’s masterpiece, one of the best ever. Of all the oratorios I have heard, “Messiah” has always been my favorite (even toppling Bach’s “Matthew Passion”), but I never found a complete recording that pleased me in all levels. With this double-disc set, I finally fulfilled my wishes.

The soloists are incredible, especially the tenor, John Aler, who gives me probably the best “The Trumpet Shall Sound” I’ve ever heard. All the big numbers of the oratorio are played perfectly, from the incomparable beauty of “I Know my Redeemer liveth” to the joyous festivities of “For unto us a child is born”. The orchestra is flawless, and the tempos are exactly where they should be: not too fast lest they become too playful, nor too slow lest they become tiresome. The music’s solemn, grandiose character is perfectly portrayed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra which has no problem with the instrumental pieces like the opening “Sinfony” or the larghetto that splits the first part in half. The chorus deserves a special recognition: all its numbers are excellent, acting like a choir of angelical voices when the opportunity requires, as well as bringing joy and pomp to the proceedings when the music asks for it. The most famous (and deservedly so) number of the entire oratorio gets here probably its best version ever: the “Hallelujah!” on this disc is so overpowering, so out-of-this-earth, that we really feel this music is created for a divinity, a superior being, and we feel the need to stand up, just like King George II did at the London premiere of the work.

This music needs modern instruments. Period instruments fail to convey the majesty of the subject; their dry sound lacks the depth to portray music dedicated to the highest of divinities. Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony knew that, and it shows in their approach to this music, which they make feel solemn, superb.

The sound of the recording is clean, clear, but not perfect. The clarity is not in the same level as newer recordings with more modern technologies. But the sound is good enough, we can hear every detail, every little note, every little color. If we add this to the fact that this double-disc comes at an extremely affordable price, we can’t but give it the highest possible recommendation. This is some of the best music ever written, and with this cost, no fan of music can be excused of obtaining a copy of this particular version, one of the best in the entire catalogue.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Vivaldi - "Le Quattro Stagioni" (The Four Seasons) - Anne Sophie-Mutter (violin) - Trondheim Soloists - (DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON)

Is not every day that I find I classical recording that absolutely baffles me. This one is one of those.

Anne-Sophie Mutter is a revered violinist in the classical music world. Her technique and skills are amazing, she’s a virtuoso beyond question. I never figured her as much of a baroque expert, though. When I was looking for a new version, in modern instruments, of Antonio Vivaldi’s magnificent “Quattro Stagioni” (The Four Seasons), I certainly got very optimistic when I saw her in the cover, though I also felt somewhat cautious. Would she do a overly romantic reading of the score? Would she play it safe?

It turns out, she really did whatever she wanted with Vivaldi’s music. This is no mere romanticizing of a baroque work; this is 100% making it a virtuoso fest, suited totally to the emotions and the desires of the interpreter. Mutter, leading the Trondheim Soloist in this recording, makes the most out of the music for her own benefit, sometimes getting on the way of a more fluid discourse for the score. The slow parts are excruciatingly slow, the pianissimo parts are so low they can’t be heard, and on the other hand, the forte parts are loud as thunder, and the fast parts played at speeds that would probably make Vivaldi faint in amazement. Though it works from time to time, Mutter’s playing with the tempos and the accents got on my nerves in more than one occasion.

“Spring” is harmless enough. By the end of the last movement, we’re certain a storm is about to arrive, and not just one created by Vivaldi in the music. “Summer” is a complete different beast. It starts glacially slow and quiet, then it builds up tension, until it explodes in the fast section. All works well enough though the solo violin parts seem to have been taken from a Paganini concert instead of from a Vivaldi one; the last movement of the concert, though, just leaves me trying to catch my breath. The speed is unbelievable, the ensemble and the soloist trying to show us how fast this music can really go. The breaks in-between the bursts of speed are contrastingly slow, to a point where the work starts to feel more like a rhapsody made of different barely-related parts than like a baroque violin concert. “Autumn” gets a very solemn treatment in the last movement (the one where recordings usually fail to impress me), the hunting march moving forward with an impulse and determination rarely heard. “Winter”, as the darkest, at times fastest concert of the four, is probably the more chaotic here, and the rhapsodic feel returns, with stark contrasts that go from pianissimo to fortissimo in the blink of an eye, with fast sections played so violently that, without exaggeration, make the music sound almost like metal.

In the end, this is an unusual reading of the score, probably not one for baroque purists, but one that, once understood, can provide a lot of enjoyment. It certainly is one of the most romantic, expressive, and definitely, FASTEST “Four Seasons” around. I’d recommend it but with reserves. Try a more relaxed version first. Then aim for an authentic-instruments one. Then you will be ready for the display of pyrotechnics that this album contains.

As a side note, there’s also a recording of Giuseppe Tartini’s “Devil Trill” Sonata in the album. Though it totally pales in comparison with Vivaldi’s superb music, it’s a nice piece that showcases a more earthly, less thunderous side of Mutter’s playing.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Bach - Brandenburg Concertos - Christopher Hogwood - The Academy of Ancient Music (DECCA)

This is the first time I have heard one of my favorite works, Johann Sebastian Bach’s 6 Brandenburg Concertos, played in authentic instruments. I had always preferred recordings of baroque music with small-size ensembles, but played with modern techniques and in modern instruments (with the exception of the harpsichord, which, in the presence of a continuo part, must be included, or the music wouldn’t feel “baroque” to me.) The dry, cold sound of antique instruments can’t compete with the fuller, richer, warmer sound that contemporary ones can provide. But the current trend in classical music is to have baroque music played with the same forces and techniques that must have been the norm when they were composed and performed back in the late 17th, early 18th century. Thus, it was just a matter of time before I faced an authentic version of Bach’s orchestral masterpieces.

After having heard modern-instrument recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos for all my life, I can say I am less disappointed than I expected to be with my first taste of authentic-Brandenburgs. Though the dry sound and the lack of techniques like vibrato are all here, the music is played very energetically by The Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of Christopher Hogwood. His tempos, though faster than most (and faster than I would like) are consistently good and he never lets his musicians give anything but their best to make this set of concertos quite a satisfying but flawed experience. Though at times the dry and uneven sound of antique instruments gets in the way (like in the first movement of the first concerto where the horns practically devour all the rest of the instruments with a harsh, crude sound –could be the engineering, too-), the performance never sounds mechanic, it’s always full of vibrant life (it’s almost impossible to drain the life out of Bach’s music anyway).

Going into specifics, the rendering of the second concerto is one of the best I’ve heard, with all the right tempos, perfect phrasing, and a fantastic solo trumpet; the third, one of my favorites, is one of the weakest of the set, with an opening movement that fails to capture the spirit of Bach’s superb music, and a third one clear in its counterpoint but without the purely-musical drama that other versions have conveyed (I’m glad there were no bizarre experiments like in Marriner’s version; Hogwood left the cadence between the first and last movement intact); the fourth is efficiently played, the fifth is vibrant and another success, while the six, my least favorite concerto out of these 6 masterpieces, receives a by-the-number treatment that makes it the most forgettable one.

There’s but one real BIG complain here: in the spirit of being as authentic as possible, Hogwood used manuscript copies of the concertos for the orchestration and the music, and because of that, we’re deprived of the first concerto’s third movement and the Polonaise section in the last movement. There’s a few other changes in the instrument parts in all concertos, but the second most radical change appears in the fifth concerto, where Hogwood pretty much eliminated the long harpsichord solo at the end of the first movement. Though interesting ideas, these changes make this set suffer in comparison with other ones where the music itself has been left untouched. For this reason, I can’t recommend this version as the first one for someone trying to get familiar with the Brandenburg Concertos. This is an excellent addition to a collection with at least one other recording of these concertos already there.

Alongside the Brandenburgs we get three concertos that we usually find thrown around to fill space in recordings of Bach’s orchestral music: BWV 1060, here adapted for violin and oboe, BWV 1062 for two harpsichords, and BWV 1064, arranged by Hogwood himself for three violins. There are better versions of all three concertos, and their presence here, though welcomed, doesn’t make or break this album, which is worthy of recommendation, but with the reserves I’ve pointed out


Friday, March 26, 2010

Bach - St. John Passion - Benjamin Britten - English Chamber Orchestra (DECCA)

"Bach almost persuades me to be a Christian."
Roger Fry, quoted in Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry (1940)

I’m not a believer. While I can’t presume to know the truth either way, I’m more inclined to believe there is none out there. But I can’t be certain of that either. I doubt. That’s the best way to put it. But just as some events in life bring me closer to absolute denial, there are a few things that sometimes make me wonder: “what if it’s true?” Of those, probably Johann Sebastian Bach’s religious music is the more important, the one thing that always makes me doubt towards the other side, the believing side, for only an illuminated mind could write music of so high, so unreachable beauty. Bach’s devotion didn’t hinder him from expressing himself; on the contrary, it stimulated him, it helped him create works of gigantic scope and reach, music that sounds like nobody else's before or after him, sounds that transport us to places that are not of this Earth. I’m not a believer, but when I listen to some of Bach’s religious music, I believe. He makes me do so. And one of those works is this Passion.

The St. Matthew Passion has always overshadowed this other, less famous work. While parts and excerpts of the St. Matthew Passion have even been used in popular media, the St. John Passion remains largely unknown except for classical music aficionados. The magnitude of the work is a little smaller, the scale of the forces needed and the duration of the composition not as sumptuous as its big sister. But the same beatific melodies, the same consolatory passages, the same devotion is here. All it takes is a few minutes to realize we’re listening to another masterpiece in the same level as the St. Matthew Passion or Handel’s “Messiah”: the opening, quiet, continues to grow with a wave-like ostinato below the chorus that brings to mind images of thousands of souls singing for their Lord, moving and flowing like a river, like a sea before the arrival of a terrible storm. The music is beautiful yet there’s a hint of danger, of sadness, of gloom, we are let know that upcoming events will leave us like orphans. The music ascends to the heavens, yet it somehow predicts the suffering that is yet to come.

This is just the first movement. For me to describe all the recitatives and chorales and arias would be pointless (and difficult). People already familiar with the art of the composer will know the kind of music that is to be expected here. A little more intimate than the St. Matthew Passion, St. John Passion is another one of those rare musical works that make me doubt my doubts. It really is divine music. Sad, nostalgic, but full of hope, as were, supposedly, the last days of the life of Jesus. At the end of the piece, after more than 130 minutes have elapsed, we leave terribly sorry for what has happened but very optimistic of the future. We leave resurrected.

A note about this recording (and the only reason I don’t give it a perfect score): while the playing, in modern instruments, is perfect and the conduction impeccable (with all the right tempos and understanding of the devotion in the music), I don’t like the fact that the vocals are sung in English, using a translation of the German original. We don’t all understand German, but that’s not necessary, that’s what the texts that come with the discs are for. Music such as this could be in any language, and we’d always understand what it means.


Bach - Great Organ Works - Helmut Walcha (DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON)

The organ, that all-powerful, gigantic, extremely-loud instrument that has always been linked to religious music, had in Johann Sebastian Bach its undisputed master of all times. Later centuries brought about a lot of good music for organ, but the work of the German composer has never really been equaled. Nowhere is this more evident than in this great double set of recordings by German musician Helmut Walcha, the blind organist who, because of his lack of sight, penetrated the depths of the instrument like few had before him, forming a relationship where all the facets of the music shined through in all their glory. Free of visual noise, Walcha’s senses could concentrate on sound; he had to use his ears to make up for the shortcomings of his eyes. On this record, his strong integration with the aural world can’t be more obvious, as he understands the strengths and weaknesses of the big pipe organ and makes the most out of every detail. Walcha is probably the best possible partner for Bach’s majestic music.

The set, divided on two discs, contains many of Bach’s best-known organ works. Three Toccata & Fugues, including a vibrant version of the famous one in D-minor and a more controlled version of the one known as “Dorisch” (“Dorica”). Especially in the former, Walcha’s playing is more relaxed, less virtuosic but more connected with the material than Karl Richter’s version (one of my favorites, too). The only moment where I prefer the Richter version now is by the end of the fugue, where Walcha’s recording lacks the menacing emphasis of the Richter one.

Other works included here are two Fantasia & fugues, two Prelude & fugues, the glorious (and famous) Passacaglia & Fugue in C-minor (which receives the best treatment I’ve found yet), a Trio Sonata in D-minor, and two sets of more religious-oriented pieces: the Canonic Variations on “Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her”, and the exquisite 6 Chorales “Schubler”, including the famous one based on the melody of the middle choral movement of the cantata “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”. All of these, while less exciting than the larger, more purely musical-oriented works like the toccatas , the passacaglia and the preludes, show the devotion of the man to the music and of the man to his god in a very eloquent way. One can easily tell that, just as Bach’s devotion for his God was absolute, so was the faith the interpreter had for both the same divinity and the music of the baroque master.

The recording itself, made in two organs in two different occasions, is good; especially considering it was made more than 40 years ago. I recommend this disc as a perfect introduction to the organ music of the composer who best understood the instrument, played by one of the musicians who better understood that relation.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Bach - Six Favourite Cantatas - Joshua Rifkin - The Bach Ensemble - DECCA

Johann Sebastian Bach’s religious music is, arguably, the best in its kind ever to grace the Earth. There’s no need to give any more evidence but to name a few of his more majestic works: The St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, the Magnificat, and his glorious Mass in B Minor, all stand as the pinnacles in music written inspired by a higher power. If we add Bach’s cantatas to his gigantic catalogue, there can be no doubt as to the certainty of the original claim.

On this double-disc by DECCA we have a collection of six of Bach’s most loved cantatas. All of them require rather small orchestral and vocal ensembles, but they demand a lot from them. From the beautiful chorales to the fugues to the tranquil recitatives and the expressive arias, there’s just too much good music on this set. Bach plays with the instruments and soloists and the meaning of the texts with a use of symbolism that requires more knowledge than average to be detected, but just a good pair of ears to be appreciated. Everyone can enjoy the peaceful music of these Cantatas, from the layman to the expert, and also from the deeply religious to the sharply atheist. This music doesn’t demand you to believe in god, it just asks you to believe in the art of a man whose faith inspired him to create some of the best music in history.

In the collection, probably the most known of the six cantatas are “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben”, with its very famous choral (twice repeated) commonly known as “Jesu,Joy of Man’s Desiring (the melody of which is not Bach’s original but an arrangement of “Werde Munter” by German violinist and composer Johan Schopp) and tremendous fugal introduction, and “Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns die Stimme”, with its famous, beautiful choral “Zion Hort die Wachter Singen”, adapted as one of the Six Organ Chorales later in Bach’s life. But one of my favorites is certainly also “Liebster Gott, wann wird ich sterben”, with one of the most poetic openings in all of the works. “Ein feste Burg”, “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” and “Jesu, der du meine Seele” are also plethoric of musical delight and artistry.

The recording here by The Bach Ensemble lead by Joshua Rifkin is made on authentic period instruments and with a total respect for the original scores. As such, for example, in “Ein Feste Burg”, the trumpets and timpani commonly heard in the first and fifth sections of the work have been eliminated, as they were added by Bach’s son, Wilhelm Friedemann, after the master’s death. The playing is quick and agile, very relaxed, with little of the pomp given to Bach cantatas by larger, modern-instrument orchestras, but a sense of intimacy and connection with the thematic material higher than in competing versions. In general, this is a fantastic double set and one I strongly recommend.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bach - Complete Harpsichord Concertos - Trevor Pinnock - The English Concert - ARCHIV

Let’s get this out of the way first: this collection really has one of the worst covers I’ve seen in a classical album by a major label. I’m not sure what the pink background and the three berries have in relation with Bach’s Harpsichord concertos (maybe one berry for each disc?) but to say they could have done so much better is a major understatement.

This is a re-release of a collection I used to own in vinyl. I hadn’t realized that until I searched in the internet and realized this was the same ensemble and soloist that played in a 4-vinyl set I used to have when I was around 12 years old. The music immediately reminded me of my loved, lost version. One quick search revealed me that this was indeed the same version I had with a proper harpsichord in the cover performed (as shown below - compare that with the berry cover) by Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert (at 12 years of age I really didn’t pay as much attention to the performers as today).

On to the music and the recording. This collection of all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s harpsichord concertos is outstanding in its price and in its completeness. Here we have all the pieces that the Eisenach master composed and/or transcribed for the keyboard instrument. We have all concertos for solo harpsichord, as well as 2 for 2 harpsichords, one for 3, and one for 4. All the pieces but one (BWV 1060) are transcriptions made by Bach of concertos for other instruments, and as such some of them are not as brilliant as the others. I absolutely love BWV 1052, in my view one of the best compositions by the Kantor, with a first movement that mesmerizes the listener with the musical plight the main theme endures in order to return at the end, and a third movement filled with an energy that has rarely been rivaled since. Other highlight is the concerto in F-minor BWV 1056, with its haunting opening theme, much more subdued in its character than the virulent BWV 1052. The only concerto thought to be initially written for harpsichord, BWV 1060 for 2 harpsichords, breathes with a grace and elegance presaging the classical masters of the late 18th century, its finale rivaling the violin concertos and the BWV 1052 in sheer musical drama. BWV 1057 is a transcription of the 4th Brandenburg Concerto and doesn’t suffer in the transition. On the other hand, I’m not too fond of the transcriptions of the violin concertos, especially the one in E-major (here in D major to accommodate the harpsichord’s range), which loses its vivacity and turns into a good if irrelevant piece. The re-working of the glorious concerto for 2 violins also pales in comparison to the original, even though, if one didn’t know the latter, one would be still marveled at the music of the former. BWV 1065 for 4 harpsichords is a transcription of a concerto by Vivaldi and its different origin is evident, especially in the outer movements.

This recording was made using authentic, period instruments. While I’ve been less than thrilled to listen to baroque music in baroque instruments in the past, this is slowly starting to change. I still prefer the emotion and passion that modern instruments and techniques can bring to the music, but with art so high as Bach’s, the music in the end shines through and actually reveals new facets when performed in antique instruments. As far as the versions go, I’m happy with the tempos and the character given to the pieces, and Pinnock is a fantastic soloist who brings these concertos to life in a exploding fashion, with none of the coldness of other performers I’ve heard who play mechanically as if the music wasn’t meant to be an interaction between three parts: composer-performer-listener. Pinnock and his soloists get this right.

I can’t do anything else but recommend this collection to everybody. Great versions of magnificent works at an unbeatable price. Go beyond the awful berry-cover, and you’ll find a treasure where every little penny you spend will be rewarded 10 times over. Or more.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bach - Das Wohltemperierte Klavier 1 and 2 - Gustav Leonhardt (harpsichord) - DEUSTCHE HARMONIA MUNDI

It’s an undertaking of sorts to listen to the entire two books of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier by Johann Sebastian Bach. They are a monumental work and an essential contribution to the musical vocabulary and the development of music of all times and all genres, including non-classical ones. But they are, after all, 48 preludes and fugues, all played in the same instrument, and in the case of the harpsichord, one with no dynamics capabilities, so trying to listen to all of them in one seating can be quite exhausting. Of course, I didn’t attempt that. I listened to 12 preludes and fugues each day, and I re-listened them at will. The experience was thus much less demanding and much more pleasing.

The music needs no comment. Only Bach could’ve written so academic a work and made it sound so fresh, so inventive, so alive. Only he could have managed to write one prelude and one fugue in each one of the 24 scales of equal temperament and made each one sound so different, so distinct when compared to the other ones. The amount of imagination displayed here is just astonishing. Even with the lack of dynamics of the harpsichord, the music carries an inner beauty and, at times, drama (especially in the minor-key works) that listening to all of the parts does not become an excruciating ordeal, but a revealing adventure. One doesn’t have to endure these works, one has to learn from them.

As for the performance, I have only a few other references to compare this with. I’ve heard some of the preludes and fugues as played by Glenn Gould on the piano, and, also, on the harpsichord. Of course the piano version possesses the dynamics that the ancient instrument can’t provide. But at the same time, the harpsichord one seems more authentic, more truly baroque, more “Bach”. Those two verswions, anyway, were played in a much more frenetic, romantic style than this one by Gustav Leonhardt, who performs a cold, scientific, rigorous reading of the Klavier books. This is very good in the faster pieces (mostly, the preludes), where we don’t endure the tendency to go too fast of other baroque interpreters. But this hurts the experience a little in the fugues, especially in some of the slower ones, which sound too mechanic, even lifeless at times.

For this reason, while I strongly recommend this four-disc set to anyone wanting to discover this great music played on (likely) its intended instrument, I advise caution and patience. Trying to cover all of them in one seating will be almost impossible to accomplish, not so much because of the music itself, which is vibrant and varied, but because of the exact, cold approach of the performer.