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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079 [57:03]
Members of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra/Ton Koopman
rec. June 2008 Waalse Kerk Amsterdam, Holland DDD
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72309 [57:03]

Experience Classicsonline


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 Philipp Emanuel.

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 or fireworks.

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 cerebral music.

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.

Mark Sealey


 


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