> BACH Life and Works Naxos [TB]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Life and Works
Written and narrated by Jeremy Siepmann
With John Shrapnel as Bach
Other parts read by Trevor Nichols, Ruth Sillers and David Timson
Recorded 2002, London
NAXOS 8.558051-54 [4CDs: 254.00]

 

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Naxos has been an invigorating force on the recorded music scene for several years now, at a time when one was sorely needed. And the innovations continue with issues such as this four-disc set exploring the life and music of Bach.

The project is the work of Jeremy Siepmann, who features as both writer and narrator. There are four well-filled CDs which explore Bach's life and times in an essentially chronological sequence. Siepmann narrates and there is a good pacing of text and delivery, with generally, though not consistently, well chosen music examples taken from the extensive Naxos catalogue. If not necessarily top recommendations, the performances are always more than acceptable.

Siepmann brings Bach's chronicle to life with well judged balancing of historical fact and anecdotes. John Shrapnel makes regular contributions as the voice of the composer, and more occasionally other voices add to the atmosphere of time and place. Music examples emerge naturally out of the narrative, and though the performers are not announced in the manner of a radio broadcast, the 116-page accompanying booklet contains chapter and verse about the chosen performances. There is, however, precious little information about the recording circumstances of the project itself.

One of the inevitable drawbacks with a set such as this is that the company's catalogue may not necessarily contain the music the text requires as accompanying example. It is a tribute to the richness and depth of the available repertoire Naxos has assembled, that only once does this issue loom large. It is when Siepmann deals, in the context (his chosen context) of Bach in Weimar, with the influence of Vivaldi. The spread of Vivaldi's published music to northern Europe (it was frequently published and printed in Amsterdam) was admittedly an important phenomenon, and Bach showed his interest through one of his favourite compositional devices: parody. This was the art of bringing a new identity to music by reusing it in a new context. Vivaldi's twelve concerti, Opus 3, known as L'Estro Armonico, were arranged by Bach in various ways, mostly as organ pieces. But this set includes as the music example the four harpsichords concerto Bach composed in the 1730s for the Collegium Musicum at Leipzig. Moreover this is included quite without explanation, as if implying the music was composed for Weimar twenty years before.

Sometimes musical issues emerge which are passed over. One is the use of the piano rather than the harpsichord. There is, for example, an example from a keyboard invention which is played on the piano, quite without explanation. Now I am all in favour of Bach on the piano, but in an historical survey performing styles and issues of authenticity surely ought to have a higher profile than they receive here.

In the case of The Musical Offering, the somewhat austere chamber music sequence Bach composed for Frederick of Prussia in 1747, a misleading impression is given of the nature of the music. This results from the chosen example, which is the lively Allegro of the central trio sonata movement. One of the various canons which dominate the work would have given a more typical impression.

However, these are relatively insignificant points in the context of a whole project spread across four CDs. The listener is led along with an intelligent balancing of words and music; and Siepmann's style is just right, neither patronising nor wordy. The set is also excellent value, with a substantial and well produced booklet which contains a wealth of useful information.

Terry Barfoot


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