The origins of Bach's Musical Offering are well known:
only three years before his death, the composer visited Frederick
II of Prussia in Potsdam, who asked him to improvise on a theme
of his own on the clavier. Perhaps with a view to potential employment
there, perhaps purely out of courtesy, Bach took the theme away
and put his compositional money where his complimentary mouth
had been by elaborating on the theme. He wrote an emphatically
disparate collection of works based on Frederick's original… a
three-part, and two six-part ricercar movements; a series
of canons in two and four parts with fugue; a sonata in four movements.
Not, however, that a full, cyclic
performance is undesirable or in some way inauthentic. That's
what we have here from Bach specialist Ton Koopman and his forces.
It works splendidly, conveys you through the whole with great
style and yet leaves just enough unsaid, musically un-belaboured,
for you to want more and appreciate Bach's mystery.
Just as much to the point, when
the copper-engraved finished work was presented to Frederick
less than six months later, in September 1747, it seems likely
that it was well-suited not only to the compositional prowess
of the monarch, but also to the resident musicians at his disposal.
These included Johann Graun, Johann Quantz and Bach's son, Carl
It's charitable to see Bach
(senior) wishing to enhance Frederick's reputation (for whatever
reason) by providing him with such a rich vein of musical imagination.
It's realistic to recognise Bach's (perhaps inadvertent) attempt
to demonstrate how much can be derived from how little. After
all, one attribute of the ricercar fugues is their quality
of seeking… seeking something more from a 'mere tune'.
However far you subscribe to
Bach's fascination with number and letter theory, there can
be little or no doubt that the acrostic in Latin which is formed
by R.I.C.E.R.C.A.R. is to be understood as 'the melody
which the king (Regis) gave - extended by the art of the canon'.
Similarly, the augmentation canon, number 4, carries the allegorical
weight of increased good fortunes for the king. While this need
not affect the impact or quality of the music, it is useful
in binding its context and background to what we hear - after
over 250 years.
Ton Koopman's interpretation
is as rounded and precise, as focused and comprehensive as we
should expect from him. It is clearly informed by his awareness
of this history. And enriched by an appreciation of how easy
it was for Bach to live up to the occasion; although (at least
on his own admission) he was essentially a humble Kapellmeister,
however renowned. Bach was also clearly able to judge and meet
the likely demands on the first performers; and at the same
time to produce something of such complex yet accessible beauty
that it has a value to us listeners now.
Together with seven players
of his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (flute, strings and harpsichord),
Koopman has produced in this recording from 2008 in Amsterdam
an interpretation that is thoughtful and contained in that it
never tries to suggest qualities - of texture, timbre or structure,
for instance - which it has not found from well within the music
as first conceived. That's not to say that this is a lacklustre
Musikalisches Opfer. But that it has as much quiet confidence
and sensible reflection as it could have had (but doesn't) effects
Choice of instruments is always
open with this work. Koopman has chosen wisely. The texture
is a little on the mellow side - with a viola, violone and cello.
This significantly adds to the profundity and gravitas
of the work. And when Wilbert Hazelzet's flute appears - almost
imperceptibly at first and ever softly thereafter - in the Fuga
canonica in Epidiapente, it reminds us just what an expert
at contrast and colour Bach was. And in the midst of such otherwise
One's impression after listening
to this CD is of having been offered a highly refined choice
of delicacies at a banquet specially prepared for one; and where
the nutritional value of all the food is as high as are the
varied flavours from foods carefully selected from parallel
and cousin families.
Oddly enough, first class recordings
of the Musical Offering are not so plentiful as the work's
stature might suggest. The Kuijkens have at least two in the
catalogue that can be recommended; and Ensemble Sonnerie on
Virgin Classics Veritas (45139) should be considered. Still,
with a clean, clear recording (and a useful introductory essay
by Bach expert Christoph Wolff) this latest CD is more than
welcome and can be listened to multiple times with each one
revealing something new.