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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Harpsichord Concertos (c.1738)
Concerto in E major BWV 1053 [20:32]
Concerto in A major BWV 1055 [13:18]
Concerto in F minor BWV 1056 [9:21]
Concerto in D minor BWV 1052 [21:58]
Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone (harpsichord)
rec. Sala del Refetorio di San Vitale, Muzeo Nazionale, Ravenna, Italy, 31 March-4 April 2007. DDD.
DECCA L’OISEAU LYRE 4759355
[65:11]

Experience Classicsonline


I naively thought that the survey of Bach’s Orchestral Music which I posted less than a month ago had settled, in my own mind at least, the most recommendable version of Bach’s Keyboard Concertos. Then along came what I imagine is the first instalment of a new series of recordings which throws the question open again.
 

Let me begin with a recap of the situation as it was. Those who have already read my survey can omit the next few paragraphs and cut to the chase. 

Ton Koopman offers BWV1052-3 and 1056-7 on mid-price Warner Elatus (2564603292 – also available as a download from Warner Digital) and BWV10602 and 1065 on another Elatus CD (2564617752). These and the Richard Egarr/Academy of Ancient Music/Andrew Manze set of the solo harpsichord concertos plus the Triple Concerto, BWV1044 (HMU90728384 – also available as 24 tracks from emusic.com) are well worth considering. My strongest recommendation for these works, however, must rest with the Chandos recordings made by Robert Woolley, with assistance from Paul Nicholson and others in the multiple concertos, and the Purcell Quartet. This runs to four discs as opposed to three for most similar collections, but you get the Fifth Brandenburg thrown in on the first disc – a harpsichord concerto in all but name, especially as it is performed here – and the performances are superb. I am amazed that music-making of this quality appears to have been deleted on CD and all the more grateful, therefore, that Chandos have made them available as downloads: all are on offer from theclassicalshop.net in mp3 format (£6) and some of the volumes also in lossless format (£10) – CHAN0595, CHAN0611, CHAN0636 and CHAN0641. It’s no exaggeration that these performances bowled me over completely, with the players ‘nudging’ and ‘leaning on’ the music very subtly and totally delectably. The booklets of notes for this series, with Brueghel illustrations on the covers, are a delight. None of the other downloads which I have mentioned come with such fine notes – in most case, none at all. 

The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock set on mid-price DG Archiv Trio (4717542 – also available as a download from Universal), hitherto my staple for these works and the Koopman recordings to which I have referred, are now replaced in my affections by these Chandos recordings. Even if you think downloading too much of a nuisance – it can be like watching paint dry – their unavailability on CD makes it worthwhile to make the effort to acquire them.

Piano fanciers should note that I have included only harpsichord versions in this list, though I might make an exception for Angela Hewitt’s Hyperion versions (CDA67307 and 67308, with prefix SACDA for SACD versions, or a 2-CD set CDA67607-8, also available from iTunes.) 

Now along comes this new Decca CD to complicate the issue. I’m please to see it sporting the Oiseau Lyre logo: Decca never seem able to decide whether to integrate all their recordings under one overall banner or to keep Oiseau Lyre/Florilegium separate; I’m all for diversity, even though we all know that Decca themselves have long been part of the Universal empire. What about the Argo label? 

First, let me clear away two possible misconceptions. Despite its being housed in the round-cornered type of case associated with SACD, this is a common or garden CD: Universal Classics seem increasingly to be employing these cases for their premium CD issues, as with their recent recording of Chant: Music for Paradise (UCJ1766016). These cases do seem to be rather more robust than the traditional type, though I have known them disintegrate in the post. Secondly, despite the claims on the sticker affixed to the front of the case, these one-to-a-part performances are not unique: the Chandos recordings to which I have referred broke that particular barrier some time ago. 

I had been very impressed by Ottavio Dantone’s recording of Vivaldi’s Op.8 concertos on two Arts SACDs (47564 and 47565 – see review); not quite my desert-island choice, but very close to it. Knowing that KM was also very impressed by Dantone’s Bach (Well-Tempered Klavier, Arts 476542 and 476572 – see review) I had high expectations of this new recording which, in the end, were not quite met, though I enjoyed hearing it, especially before I got my critical measuring-stick out. 

I was rather expecting some breakneck tempi, but the opening movement of BWV1053, though nimble-fingered, is taken at a fairly sedate pace, 8:42 against 8:07 on Volume 2 of the Chandos recording (CHAN0611). Nor does Dantone ‘lean’ on the phrasing as much as the Chandos performers; you could never be in danger of mistaking his performance for the old school, Münchinger et al, but he is undoubtedly plainer than Woolley here. If Dantone’s Vivaldi is for those who like to live a little dangerously, it is Woolley who more closely fits that description here. Much as I normally dislike performers who pull the tempo around – Nigel Kennedy’s first version of The Four Seasons and some of Ton Koopman’s more extreme affectivity in Buxtehude, for example – the Chandos recordings really work for me. 

Surely Dantone’s 5:28 for the Siciliano second movement is too slow: he really does sound Münchinger-like here, especially measured against Woolley’s 4:37. In fact, Dantone is consistently slower in second movements, as the table below indicates. I don’t want to imply that he ever sounds stodgy, but he comes closer than I could wish: his slow movements are too slow for my liking, except in BWV1056. 

All is well, however, in the Allegro Finale, where his tempo and pace - not always quite the same thing - are very similar to Woolley’s and honours are about even. As the table below indicates, his times for all outer movements, apart from BWV1053, are very similar to or even a little faster than Woolley’s. There is little to choose between them, except that I found some of Dantone’s ritardandi (e.g. in BWV1055/iii), a little more obtrusive than anything that Woolley does. 

All in all I was a little disappointed by the new recording. Anyone looking for a recommendable single CD of four of the solo concertos is unlikely to be seriously disappointed, but I didn’t find here the daring that I found in Dantone’s Vivaldi. Only occasionally did I feel totally satisfied with these concerto performances. The outer movements of BWV1052 are examples of where everything does seem to fall into place. Woolley sounds slightly stodgy by comparison. Pinnock’s times for these two movements match Dantone’s, almost to the second, but neither he nor Woolley allows the second movement to drag.

Dantone:

 

Woolley:

 

BWV1055

 


CHAN0636

 

I

4:06

 

4:17

II

4:57

 

4:28

III

4:15

 

4:16

BWV1056

 


CHAN0595

 

I

3:08

 

3:12

II

2:40

 

2:35

III

3:33

 

3:42

BWV1052

 


CHAN0641

 

I

7:23

 

7:26

II

6:48

 

5:54

III

7:47

 

8:06

Unfortunately, if you want to mix and match Dantone and Woolley recordings of this music, the concertos on the new Decca recording are spread across all four volumes of the Chandos – and purchasing individual concertos from theclassicalshop, instead of whole CDs, works out more expensive. 

Though both recordings are one-to-a-part, the Decca sound is rather ‘larger’ than the Chandos and the effect of the small forces, therefore, somewhat diminished. My overall recommendation, therefore, remains unchanged. Unless you have a serious aversion to downloading, the Woolley/Purcell Quartet versions are the ones to go for. 

Both sets of notes are very good, but I far prefer the Brueghel paintings on the Chandos covers. There are enough photographs of a pensive-looking Ottavio Dantone inside the booklet and on the rear insert, without needing another on the front cover, or a close-up of his fingers behind the transparent tray. 

If you don’t want to download the Chandos, you could still do much worse than the Pinnock set – 3 CDs for not much more than the one Decca.

Brian Wilson


 




 


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