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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Harpsichord Concerto in d minor, BWV 1059 (Reconstructed by Gustav Leonhardt) [14:38]
Musical Offering, BWV 1079 (1747) (Realisation by Nicholas Jackson) [41:59]
Trio Sonata in d minor, BWV 527 (arr. From Organ Sonata No. 3 by Nicholas Jackson) [12:53]
Concertante of London/Nicholas Jackson
rec. St George’s Church, London W8, 23-25 July 2007. DDD
SOMM CÉLESTE SOMMCD077 [69:30]
Experience Classicsonline


 

There are many ways to perform Bach’s Musical Offering but they basically fall into two types: versions for small orchestra and those for small chamber ensembles.  Neville Marriner’s performance with the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields offers a good example of the former (Philips Duo, 442 5562, two lower-mid-price CDs with Art of Fugue), while a performance directed by Davitt Moroney presents a good version in the chamber format.  Not currently available, recently on a budget-price 7-CD Harmonia Mundi set HMX290 8084.90.

I enjoy hearing both, but the ASMF version somehow seems more appropriate at home in SE London and the Moroney in our small flat in the quieter surroundings of the New Forest; this means that I don’t have it to hand for comparisons – which is a shame, because the new Somm version essentially belongs in the same camp.

The Musical Offering on its own used to be perfectly adequate on LP, but it would make quite a short CD; the original full-price CD of the ASMF performance ran to a mere 49 minutes.  Somm frame it on the new recording with Gustav Leonhardt’s reconstruction of the Harpsichord Concerto in d, BWV1059, and Nicholas Jackson’s arrangement as an instrumental Trio Sonata of the Organ Sonata No.3, BWV527.

Only a fragment has survived of Bach’s Eighth Keyboard Concerto, but Gustav Leonhardt has used the identical music in the opening Sinfonia of Cantata No.35 and the second Sinfonia from that cantata to reconstruct the outer movements, while his erstwhile student, Nicholas Jackson, has added a Siciliana slow movement, again derived from the same cantata.  After all, Bach and Handel were forever ‘borrowing’ from themselves – and sometimes from others. 

The resulting reconstruction sounds pretty convincing to me in this lively, foot-tapping performance, though the recording makes the ensemble sound rather larger than the solo harpsichord, oboe, two violins and continuo listed; turning the volume down a notch or two helped to make the sound more credibly small-scale.  At my normal listening volume I thought the harpsichord a little too clangorous and prominent in the opening movement; it sounds much more tastefully subdued in the Siciliana and the finale. 

Nicholas Jackson’s notes in the booklet refer to the slow movement as a siciliana, the rear insert as a siciliano; both are correct, but it would have been better to have kept to one or the other.  I would have liked more information about the harpsichord employed here.  The Times referred to Jackson’s debut at the Wigmore Hall as worthy of Landowska; his instrument is clearly not one of the metal monsters that she used to play, but there were times when I thought its sound not of the most subtle variety.

The Musical Offering arose from a visit which Bach made to his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, a flautist of no mean ability.  Jackson’s detailed notes suggest that the musical theme which Frederick gave to Bach to elaborate was designed as a trick; in any event, though Bach worked up a set of ricercars and canons and a trio sonata in the modish galant style and presented them on fine paper, elaborately bound and with a fulsome dedication to Frederick, the allergnädigster König, the most gracious King of the title page, seems never to have perused the volume, much less to have rewarded its composer.

The ricercars and canons are written with academic rigour and, to most modern tastes, are the least interesting part of the Offering.  A canon cancricans, which crawls sideways like a crab, sounds like fun, but it’s strictly academic fun.  Performances of these parts can often sound dutiful, even, dare I say, a little boring – a danger which I don’t think Concertante of London entirely avoid.  From recollection, Moroney et al don’t entirely avoid it either; in fact, among small-scale performances I think the newer version has the edge.

Though he employs a larger group, Neville Marriner’s version is in several ways more subtle than Jackson’s, never overwhelming the music.  Whereas Jackson sticks to the four players who perform the trio sonata, Marriner varies the instrumentation much more, with Nicholas Kraemer, for example, making a sensitive input on both harpsichord and organ; the organ is especially effective in the opening Ricercar a 3, where Jackson employs the harpsichord. 

Kraemer’s slower tempo, too, makes for a more effective opening: 6:14 against Jackson’s 5:30; the music seems to arise slowly from a distance.  In the Canon perpetuus super Thema Regium, based on the theme which Frederick set, Marriner’s tempo works well, too; slightly faster this time, with harpsichord as part of the instrumentation, instead of organ.

The trio sonata which ends the Offering, with its prominent flute part, designed as part of the flattery of Frederick, is much the most interesting part of the work (tracks 17-20); indeed, it’s often performed on its own.  It receives a much more attractive performance from Concertante of London than the preceding sections; this and the concluding trio sonata arrangement of Organ Sonata No.3 (trs.21-23) make the CD much more worthwhile – worth buying for these seven tracks alone. 

Yet the ASMF/Marriner version of the Offering’s trio sonata is also excellent – just as sensitive to the music and lively in its performance as the new version.  It’s swings and roundabouts as far as tempi are concerned; the greatest difference is in the Andante larghetto third movement, where the ASMF players take 3:35 against Concertante of London’s 2:50.  I do think that the Concertante players have the edge here over ASMF’s slightly lugubrious tempo.

Jackson chooses to move the trio sonata to the end of the Offering, which works very well.  Marriner places it at the mid-point of his version, as is usual, which means that there are six more ricercars and canons to follow, inevitably creating something of an anticlimax.  Yet the 6-part ricercar which ends the Philips recording sounds well at Marriner’s more stately tempo (7:16 against Jackson’s 5:57).

The Somm recording of the Offering and the Trio Sonata in d sounds much more intimate and appropriate than that of the opening Harpsichord Concerto; I don’t think it’s just that my ear had adapted.  Even so, the 1979 Philips ADD recording of the ASMF in some respects sounds more truthful; it’s certainly not put to shame by the newer version.

The notes in the Somm booklet are very informative, though less frank in evaluating the Offering than Lothar Hoffman-Ebrecht’s in the original full-price version of the Philips: ‘In ihnen stellt Bach die geistige Vertiefung des Kunstwerks über seine sinnenhafte Erscheining’ – ‘Here Bach places the intellectual/spiritual depth of his artistic creation above its sensory impact’.

The Philips 2-CD set is on offer for around £8.50 from several online dealers, which makes it less expensive than the Somm – and you get a good performance of the Art of Fugue as coupling, often running to two CDs by itself, which makes for a more attractive proposition than Somm’s shorter couplings.  I hate to sound lukewarm about the new disc – I enjoyed listening to it; it’s certainly head and shoulders better than the Ars Rediviva recording on a Supraphon LP from which I got to know the music – but artistic and cost-based considerations combine to make me prefer the Philips.  I haven’t heard the Münchinger performances on Double Decca, also with Art of Fugue (deleted?), or the single-CD Naxos (8.553286), but I can’t imagine that they are anywhere near as good as the Marriner; several of the tempi on the Naxos seem distinctly on the slow side.  For those who like his style, Reinhard Goebel’s version is still available on budget-price Eloquence 469 6802 for less than £5.

I was going to leave matters there, but Bach bids us seek and find in the Latin subtitle of one of the canons – Quaerendo invenietis – so I couldn’t resist throwing another performance into the ring: Ensemble Sonnerie on a DDD Virgin recording (5 45139-2).  They offer only the Musical Offering, but, with varied instrumentation, including alternative takes for some of the movements, they run to 72 minutes.  No organ this time, just Gary Cooper on the harpsichord, so some of the magic of Kraemer’s opening ricercar is lost, but this is a very sensitive opening and my ear didn’t crave anything more colourful.  The promise of the opening is kept throughout the recording.

Not content to stay with the instrumentation required for the Trio Sonata, Ensemble Sonnerie employ flute, two violins, viola, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, harpsichord, bassoon and viola da gamba.  The players are all distinguished: Wilbert Hazelzet, Paul Goodwin, Frances Eustace, Monica Huggett, Pavlo Beznosiuk, Sarah Cunningham and Gary Cooper.  They choose to place the Trio Sonata on tracks 12-15 out of 17, with just the repeat of the canon perpetuus and the ricercar a 6 to round off the performance.  They allow that final ricercar even more time than the ASMF players, at 8:28, and the result is most impressive, in solo harpsichord format, to contrast with the earlier performance with a rich combination of instruments.  I’m now inclined to rate this the best version of the Musical Offering that I’ve ever heard; it raises all the music to a level of enjoyment that I’d derived only from the Trio Sonata before.

The Virgin recording is first-rate, placing all the instruments clearly but not over-analytical.  I downloaded the lossless flac version from passionato.com and found it excellent; there’s also a less expensive 320kbps mp3 version.

At full price, then, my recommendation is Ensemble Sonnerie on Virgin.  The new Somm version is well worth having at mid price, especially if you find the two extra works attractive.  The best bargain is offered by Neville Marriner and the Academy on Philips Duo; alternatively Reinhard Goebel on a single Eloquence CD.
 
Brian Wilson
 


 


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