Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750)
Concerto for Violin in E major BWV 1042 [16:50]
Concerto for Violin in A minor BWV 1041 [13:10]
Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043 [14:46]
Monica Huggett (violin)
Alison Bury (violin, BWV 1043)
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra/Ton Koopman
rec. Oud-katholieke kerk Maria Minor, Utrecht November 1985
WARNER CLASSICS APEX 2564 68243-2 [44:49]

This recording first appeared on the Erato label, and was one of those clean and convincing period performances which helped cement the maturity of the early music movement in the mid-1980s. Monica Huggett was leader of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra at the time this recording was made, and the synergy and chamber-music sensitivity of the performances do make this disc a little special. Yes, she is a fine soloist, but not only does the balance of the recording not throw her into a forward and overly spot-lit sonic perspective, but you can also sense her integrating a part of the ensemble almost as much as projecting the solo part.

The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra is as you might expect quite a compact ensemble, but the tutti strings produce plenty of dynamic weight and a satisfying depth, the early digital balance being perhaps on the bright side, though not uncomfortably so. The airy and sparkling atmosphere is of course helped by an imaginatively played harpsichord continuo, which I presume is played by Ton Koopman through his credit is only that of conductor. One never has a feeling of undue haste in the outer movements of any of these concertos, and the timings are unexceptional. Indeed, one of my comparison discs, that with Julia Fischer on Decca, has the BWV 1043 double concerto the same duration to the second.

With all these positives, there have to be a few negatives to balance things out. There is the appallingly short playing time which adheres to that of the original Erato disc, but which one feels could have been put to some use. 45 minutes is only one side of an old C90 cassette tape after all. With Monica Huggett’s democratic approach to Bach’s solos there are a few moments where the emotional heights are not climbed to the peaks achieved in some other recordings. The sublime Adagio to the Violin Concerto in E major BWV 1042 for instance, has a substantial climax which can project remarkable intensity. While the playing is beautiful in this recording, ‘that moment’, here to be found at around 5:25, passes without a great deal of fuss. Not that I would approve of too much fuss, but my heartstrings remained un-tugged.

The Concerto for two violins in D minor BWV 1043 is always a firm favourite, and comes up very nicely indeed here. There is one aspect of the performance which crops up elsewhere throughout the disc but which I noticed more here, and that is a kind of ‘stop’ as part of the musical phrasing. This is a kind of interpretative gesture which I can imagine might have been intended to heighten the element of discourse in the music, but which can now sound a little mannered, halting the flow of the music where these days most performers prefer a more continuous line. If you want to hear what I mean sample the final Allegro of BWV 1043. There is a certain amount of rubato give and take in the opening statement, but what I really mean is the slight extra gap you have between each statement of the sequence from 0:20 in. This is not particularly disturbing, but once you are tuned into the nature of this performance you hear similar kinds of things all over the place, and the more you listen the bumpier the road becomes. There are some killer edits here and there as well, which headphone listeners cannot fail to notice.

If money is no object then there are certainly better collections of Bach’s violin concertos to be had, and while Julia Fischer’s has fewer claims to authenticity it is still one of the best I know. Sentimental oldies like me can always take refuge with David and Igor Oistrakh’s very fine Bach on DG Originals. Monica Huggett has since made some stunning recordings with the Sonnerie ensemble, including a fine disc of some reconstructed Bach concertos on the Gaudemus label which I would enthusiastically point out to inquisitive shoppers. This bargain Apex release is a welcome substitute to the overpriced old Erato dinosaur, though what you see is what you get – no booklet notes and no extras. This is just a fine period performance set of Bach’s violin concertos, eminently suitable for short car journeys.

Dominy Clements

A fine set for short journeys.… see Full Review