One is occasionally fortunate enough to come across a new recording of a great work, and a personal favourite, that is so good that all other recordings pale in comparison. A recording that is not only played and recorded impeccably, but also one that gives the listener an entirely new outlook on the work in question. This is the case with this new recording of Bach's Musical Offering by Jordi Savall and Le Concert des nations.
The Musical Offering is the name of a set of pieces that Bach wrote for King Frederick II of Prussia. Bach's son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel, was harpsichordist for the young king, who was an avid music lover. He begged the younger Bach to have his father come and play for him. One evening, Johann Sebastian showed up, and the king immediately ushered him to a pianoforte, where he played a theme for a fugue. "Old" Bach improvised a fugue to this theme, but was so impressed by it that he wrote a much larger set of pieces around this theme, and dedicated it to the King, hence, this Musical Offering.
Like Bach's Art of Fugue, this work shows the many possible ways that a single theme can be elaborated on to make a large, varied work composed of fugues and canons. The two works do indeed have many similarities. The themes are related, and the manner of treating them is similar.
This new recording is brilliant, and makes all previous recordings redundant. Savall and his ensemble have managed to take this music and give it the attention and creativity it needs. I have several recordings of this work, but none come close to this one.
Several elements stand out here, beyond the quality of the playing and the excellent sound. First of all, Savall has taken a totally new approach to the work. The disc opens with a brief piece, which is not in Bach's score - a 29 second performance of the "royal theme" on solo flute. This is an excellent idea, for it gives the listener the essential musical element of the set on its own, allowing them to more easily follow the development of this theme through the various canons and fugues.
Savall has taken "liberties" with the order of the pieces - although, since no one is sure exactly what order should be respected, this is not unjustified. The work is made up of several small canons, a long (almost 9 minute) Ricerar a 6 for harpsichord, and other fugues. But its centrepiece is the sonata in four movements that gives the royal theme its most intricate exposition. Savall puts this sonata in the centre of the work, just after the Ricercar a 6, placing the two major pieces of this work in direct relationship.
Several of the canons are also played in an interesting manner. Savall plays four of these canons beginning with just one voice, then adding the next, then the next. This gives a much more interesting tone for these cryptic works (the canons were not fully written out in the work; they were enigmas that had to be figured out to be played). He also repeats one of the canons in a different manner, and repeats the Ricercar a 6 at the end of the disc, this time arranged for strings and harpsichord. (These additions explain why this disc is over 71 minutes long, compared to 45 to 50 minutes for most other recordings of the work.)
One of the high points of this disc, in my opinion, is Pierre Hantaï's solo performances of the Ricercar a 6, the Ricercar a 3, and two canons played by solo harpsichord. The instrument he is playing on is one of the best sounding harpsichords I have ever heard on a recording (the only one I know that sounds better is the magnificent instrument used by
Kenneth Gilbert on his Well-Tempered Clavier recording). No information is given in the notes as to the instrument, but it has a magical sound: it is dark and smooth, especially in the back register; its bass notes are rich and ample, its treble silky and bright, though not aggressive. The quills (the plectra used to strike the strings) are highly flexible, and sound as though they are real bird quills. In the Ricercar a 3, when he plays with the two registers coupled, the resonance of the instrument is even more astounding, and its sound when using the lute stop, in the Canon a 2 Quaerendo invenietis (A), is amazing. It sounds as if it is using brass strings, which could explain the magical sound, but, whatever the case, Hantaï's instrument and performance are extraordinary. His performance of the two Ricercars is so excellent that it is worth buying this disc for these two pieces alone.
The sound of the rest of the recording is excellent as well. There is an amazing separation of the instruments, even at high volumes, and they all fit together perfectly, with flawless' balance.
All these elements coalesce into what I feel is the finest recording of this work I have ever heard. The only thing I can say is that this is an essential disc for all lovers of Bach's music. And if you are not familiar with this work, this is even more essential - not only can you discover one of Bach's greatest works, but in perhaps its finest performance as well.