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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Keyboard Concerto #3, BWV 1054 (1738) [15.44]
Keyboard Concerto #5, BWV 1056 (1738) [9.17]
Keyboard Concerto #6, BWV 1057 (1738) [15.39]
Keyboard Concerto #7, BWV 1058 (1738) [13.19]
Murray Perahia, Steinway piano #539525, and conducting the
Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields
David Miller, Lute continuo; Michael Cox, Leonore Smith, flutes
Piano technician, Ulrich Gerhartz
Recorded at Air Studios, Lindhurst Hall, London, UK, May 13 2001 2.0 stereo only
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français Photo of artist.

SONY SACD SS 89690 [54.02]
Also available on regular CD SK 89690

Comparison recordings:
BWV 1056: Glenn Gould, Yamaha piano, Golschmann conducting Sony M2K 42270
BWV 1041/1057: Sharon Isbin, guitar; Howard Griffiths conducting the Zürcher Kammerorkester Warner Classics 0927 45312-2
BWV 1058: Igor Kipnis, harpsichord, ASMF Sony 45616


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The question of which solo instrument to use for playing these concerti, which was debated with such ferocious intensity during the first half of the 20th Century, has now been settled. Curiously, in this age of authentic original performance practice the answer is: play it on anything you can put your hands on. But in those days, I accosted Lukas Foss, whose excellent LP recording of BWV 1052 on the piano had just been released, in the hallway at UCLA and bluntly demanded to know why he didn’t play it on the harpsichord. He looked at me kindly and said, "because the piano is my instrument." Of course Landowska would have retorted "but it wasn’t HIS instrument!" and squared off for a fist fight. But I was being fractious and Foss was right and we are much the richer today for the variety of performances of all Bach concertos in the authentic Baroque pluralistic attitude: whatever flies, fly it.

And these concerti in particular make this point for Bach produced at least two versions of all of them. BWV 1054 is better known as the Violin Concerto #2 in E, BWV 1042; it was the first Bach I ever loved, having heard it played on television by Yehudi Menuhin. I knew nothing about classical music then, and didn’t hear the announcement; it took me four years to track down a recording in a university library, rush home and play it over and over all evening long. Yet I had never cared for the keyboard version which seemed ill suited to the music. Until now, that is.

Perahia’s version is the first keyboard version that completely satisfies. No surprise when the keyboard artist is one of the two or three greatest living pianists, an artist who it seems can play music from every age as well or better than any ‘specialist,’ who always has something vitally important to add to the dialogue about any work he touches. Interestingly, Perahia does own a harpsichord and plays harpsichord music on it to understand how it would sound. Then he finds an equivalent approach at the keyboard of ‘his instrument.’

Keyboard Concerto #5, BWV 1056, is a transcription of a presumed lost concerto for oboe d’amour, or for violin, and the slow movement was used in Cantata BWV 156. Some scholars believe that the slow movement usually played here actually belongs to the Concerto #8, BWV 1059, and utilise other music in the violin or oboe version. The Glenn Gould recording of this work caused a sensation when it was released and is still to be considered one of his finest performances. But by emphasising the percussive aspects of the music, it clearly forms one extreme, with much area remaining for alternative versions. Perahia’s version is more lyrical, but with no less rhythmic integrity.

One might think that for a work that the composer produced in harpsichord and violin versions, the guitar transcription would be the perfect choice for a solo instrument, and so it may well yet turn out to be. But Sharon Isbin adopts for BWV 1041 a choppy technique of absurdly accented phrases, with more antic accents than even Glenn Gould could imagine. When this is compared directly to Perahia’s liquid legato in these same passages, there is no contest, the Perahia performance is at once to be preferred. He is actually able to preserve the singing legato of the violin while keeping the rhythmic interest of the harpsichord.

Throughout these recordings Perahia plays lyrically and dramatically, with great fidelity to the published score, only very rarely adding an extra trill, passing tone, or arpeggio, and no octave doubling that I can hear. He achieves astonishing clarity in rapid legato passages, each note distinct, yet never slipping into that strutting, hopping staccato of Glenn Gould at his worst, and without ever producing the smeary burbling tone of, for instance, Pletnev playing Scarlatti. The Kipnis recordings were a revelation when first released on LP, the first versions by top drawer artists of some of these lesser known concertos; but in comparison with recent recordings they now seem somewhat low key, lacking in drive and drama.

It is in the final work where the glory of SACD sound shows itself. In the Brandenburg Concerto #4 where the violin plays what is here the keyboard part, there is plenty of differentiation in the sound of the three solo instruments, likewise in the harpsichord version. But the piano is so similar in sound to the flutes, playing in the same register with a similar texture, that the SACD sound is very helpful in clearly keeping the voices separate in our perception, both sonically and directionally. I would expect that in the CD version (I’ve not heard it) there is a tendency for the instruments to merge into a single sonority.

Paul Shoemaker

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