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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concerto in d minor for two violins BWV1043 [14:56]
Concerto in E major for violin BWV1042 [17:35]
Concerto in a minor for violin BWV1041 [13:43]
Concerto in c minor for violin and oboe BWV1060 (reconstructed after the Concerto in c minor for two harpsichords) [12:39]
Catherine Mackintosh (violin); Elizabeth Wallfisch (violin, BWV1043); Paul Goodwin (oboe, BWV1060); The King’s Consort/Robert King
rec. St Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London, 30 April-2 May 1989. DDD.
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55347 [58:55]
Experience Classicsonline

The two Bach solo Violin Concertos and their double companion are amongst the mainstays of the repertoire, with a considerable number of rival recordings, many of which also include the reconstructed Violin/Oboe Concerto in c. No collection of Baroque music would be complete without at least one recording. With recordings to suit all tastes and pockets - one online supplier lists 69 varieties - how does this Hyperion reissue stand up?

If you’re looking for a modern-instrument recommendation, the overwhelming critical consensus points to Grumiaux, Krebbers and Holliger on mid-price Philips Silver Line 420 770-2, with the same coupling as the Helios reissue. The fact that this recording has remained in the catalogue for so long with the same number is testimony to its appeal. I can also strongly recommend Grumiaux’s performances of the solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas on a 2-for-1 Philips Duo, 438 736-2. But beware - valuable Duos are disappearing from the catalogue at an alarming rate. I also retain a soft spot for the performances of the concertos by the Oistrakhs, père et fils, still available in different permutations on DG labels.

When the Hyperion CD first appeared, there were already a number of period-instrument versions in the catalogue, notably from the Harnocourts on Telefunken, Schröder, Hirons and Hogwood on Oiseau Lyre and Standage, Willcocks and Pinnock on DG Archiv; I haven’t heard the Schröder but the Telefunken and Archiv CDs have been reliable standbys in my collection for many years now and remain well worth considering. The Telefunken and Oiseau Lyre recordings are not currently available but the former will probably reappear as one of the mid-price reissues currently being released to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Das Alte Werk label. The Harnoncourts’ version of BWV1060 and another reconstructed Double Concerto, BWV1062 are available, however, on a budget Warner Apex CD with three other Double Concertos by members of the Bach family (2564-61137-2).

Simon Standage’s versions of the two solo concertos, with Elizabeth Willcock in the double, are still available on DG Archiv 410 646-2. That this CD has remained available with the same catalogue number for even longer than the Grumiaux - since 1984, in fact - at full-price and offering rather short value (no BWV1060), though parts of the programme have appeared in different couplings at different times on mid-price reissues, is also a testimony to its lasting power. It’s also available in a 5-CD budget set of Bach Concertos, which is well worth considering (463 7252 for around £25) - but hurry, because DG seem to be in the process of deleting these multi-CD bargains.

There was a general consensus that the one flaw in the Standage/Pinnock recording of BWV1041 was the rather slow tempo for the Andante slow movement. Certainly Mackintosh and King adopt a true Andante for this movement (track 8) and one that I am very happy to live with. Performers of the older school lingered here, often to the detriment of the music - I’m thinking particularly of a Philips recording by I Musici where the life was almost drained from the slow movements - and there’s still an element of languor in the Hyperion performance, but it’s affective without ever developing into sentimentality.

Mackintosh/King take 5:59 for this movement, very close to Grumiaux’s 6:05 on his classic recording; Standage/Pinnock take 7:15. And yet, despite the slow tempo, I don’t find that their Archiv performance sentimentalises the music and I shall keep this version in my collection and listen to it with as much enjoyment as the Helios. I’m afraid that my copy of the Harnoncourts’ recording is not to hand for comparison - it’s currently in my collection in our little flat in the New Forest - so I can’t check this movement against that recording, which has been criticised as being too fast to the point of being off-hand.

Some have felt that the Hyperion tempo for the final Allegro of BWV1060 is somewhat too hectic. Admittedly, this is beautiful music and it wouldn’t have come amiss to have lingered a little longer in savouring it, but I wasn’t unduly troubled by the tempo - it certainly doesn’t sound like a race to get the recording finished, as I have seen suggested in some quarters, but some may find it easier to live with a tempo closer to that on the Grumiaux recording (3:51). For tempi on other period-instrument recordings of this movement, see below.

I’ve concentrated on these two movements because of the perceived virtues of the middle-of-the-road tempo in one case and the perceived drawback of the fast tempo in the other, agreeing with the former judgement but not wholly with the latter. Everything else seems to me to be very well judged, with the pairs of soloists very well matched in the two Double Concertos - you might actually prefer the two violins to be a little more differentiated in BWV1043, here placed first. The playing goes with a real swing, but not exaggeratedly so.

The Hyperion recording is excellent, with the performers placed in a credible sound-frame. In fact, it’s quite unremarkable in the best possible sense, in that it serves the music without drawing attention to itself.

The presentation is, as always with Hyperion, first-class. If you want to check it out first, it’s available to download as a printable pdf. document from the Hyperion website, where you can also listen to extracts from each movement.

One of the soloists here, Elizabeth Wallfisch, in partnership again with Catherine Mackintosh, went on to record the Violin Concertos with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for Virgin, currently available on a budget twofer (Virgin Veritas 5 61558 2, containing the four concertos on the Helios CD plus several other reconstructions, around £8 in the UK). I haven’t been able to listen to the whole of this 2-CD set but the account there of the Andante of BWV1041 is very much in line with that on the Helios reissue - at 5:47 it’s actually a trifle faster and it sounds even further removed from sounding sentimental, without the over-brisk manner of the Harnoncourt. The finale of BWV1060, at 3:45, still sounds brisk but gives the music a little more time to breathe than the Hyperion, at a basic pace very close to that of Grumiaux and Holliger. What I have been able to hear of this version, coupled with the very reasonable price and the favourable reviews of the original issues, leads me to think that this would be a very worthwhile alternative to the Helios reissue, especially for those wanting more music for little more money.

Simon Standage later re-made his interpretations with Collegium Musicum 90 on Chandos Chaconne (BWV1041, 1042 and 1043, with the 3-violin arrangement of BWV1064, on CHAN0594). That remake brings a time of 6:01 for the Andante of BWV1041, now much closer to the consensus than on his Archiv version, though it still seems to drag a little. I hope to include this version in my September, 2009, Download Roundup; at the moment I’ve had to time to listen to just BWV1041.

There’s one other well-liked period-instrument performance to consider, from Rachel Podger and Andrew Manze with the Academy of Ancient Music on Harmonia Mundi (HMU90 7155). At 6:16 their account of BWV1041 Andante is a trifle slower than that of Mackintosh/King and Wallfisch/OAE but not unduly so. The finale of BWV1060, given in a 2-violin version on this CD, is a little slower and perhaps more likely to appeal, at 3:23, than the 3:13 on the Helios reissue.

The virtue of the current reissue is that it presents eminently sane performances, well recorded, at a very reasonable price. As such it certainly deserves to be reckoned among the half dozen top recommendations and possibly as the top budget-price recommendation.

Brian Wilson 

 
 


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