Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Complete Keyboard Concertos
Concerto in D minor BWV 1052 [22:55]
Concerto in E major BWV 1053 [18:51]
Concerto in D major BWV 1054 [16:16]
Concerto in A major BWV 1055 [13:26]
Concerto in F minor BWV 1056 [10:08]
Concerto in F major BWV 1057 [15:59]
Concerto in G minor BWV 1058 [13:15]
Italian Concerto in F major BWV 971 [12:25]
Double Concerto in C minor BWV 1060 [15:38]
Double Concerto in C major BWV 1061 [18:57]
Double Concerto in C minor BWV 1062 [15:23]
Triple Concerto in A minor BWV 1044 [21:28]
Triple Concerto in D minor BWV 1063 [15:38]
Triple Concerto in C major BWV 1064 [18:47]
András Schiff (piano and director)
Peter Serkin (piano, BWV 1060-1064)
Bruno Canino (piano, BWV 1063, 1064)
Aurèle Nicolet (flute, BWV 1044)
Yuuko Shiokawa (violin, BWV 1044)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe (BWV 1052-1058)
Camerata Bern (BWV 1044, 1060-1064)
rec. Grosser Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 24-26 January 1989 (BWV 1052-1058); Temple Guillaume Farel, La Chaux-de Fonds, Switzerland, 12-13 April 1992 (BWV 1060-1062); Psychiatrische Klinik, Münsterlingen, Switzerland, 7-9 June 1993 (BWV 1044, 1063, 1064)
DECCA 478 2363 [4 CDs: 53:02 + 52:46 + 62:18 + 55:53]
All considerations to one side, this is a comprehensive if not entirely complete collection of Bach’s keyboard concertos on a world class record label for not a great deal of money. So we’re starting off very well indeed. I’m not that keen on the ‘postmarked package’ design for this series of re-issues: if you’re going to use all those colours in the printing then it might as well look classy rather than flaky and low rent, but that’s a question of personal taste.
Now there is the issue of Bach on the piano. I’m really not bothered about what Bach is played on as long as the magic is communicated, and I really like Bach’s solo works on piano when played by masters such as Schiff, Angela Hewitt and the like. The concertos are a different kettle of fish however, and this is a place where as a rule I’ve had a preference for harpsichord rather than piano. There are clear reasons for this. To start with, the strings of an orchestra go very far in supplying the variety in dynamics which a harpsichord obviously cannot create, and I love the variety in texture created by plucked against bowed strings. The harpsichord is also a far better instrument for mixing with the string sound. A piano will always sound like a piano, whereas the harpsichord can mingle and hide, adding rhythmic punch and tonal sparkle, but capable of being absorbed into a more substantial wash of string sound where required. You would after all never expect to find a modern grand used as a continuo instrument.
This said, András Schiff is never less than entirely musical in his Bach playing, and the qualities in his solo work do carry through to the pieces in this collection. The solo concertos cover the first two discs, and are performed very well indeed. Bouncy outer movements and generally fleet tempi meet expressive and involving central movements in a sonic feast which should bring a smile to your face and a lift to your soul. The opening to BWV 1054 is perhaps a little stern, but the central Adagio e piano sempre will usually soften the heart, as it does here. There is a heaviness to the opening movement of the Concert in F minor BWV 1056 which later performers such as Angela Hewitt have raised somewhat with the application of a little more of that historically informed style, but again, the disarmingly transparent simplicity of the following Largo wins you back. The Concerto in F major BWV 1057 with its flute duet obbligato also pops up on disc 2, and while the opening Allegro might have been a bit lighter and swifter there are some charming little ornamental extras. Listen to the opening of the following Andante, where Schiff makes the piano answer to the orchestral theme sound like a tiny musical box. For some reason the last movements of all these concertos suffer less from tempo issues, but you may find the dated sounding vibrato in the flutes less attractive here. This is not so bad in BWV 1057, but is a subject to which I will be returning later.
Disc 3 begins with an excellent recording of the solo Italian Concerto BWV 971, and it’s nice to have this kind of variety in the set. Schiff’s unpretentious directness and elegantly expressive melodic touch are all to the fore in this performance which, if you hadn’t been tempted before, may well direct you towards more of his solo Bach playing. This is followed by the double concertos, and aside from a rather heavy opening Allegro to the C minor Concerto BWV 1060 the remaining movements on the disc give no cause for concern. Indeed, there are considerable treasures to be found here, with all of the slow movements having a lovely quality - only the famous Andante from the Concerto in C minor BWV 1062 - originally ‘that’ double violin concerto, seeming a bit too urgent in tempo: it would have been nice to have lingered a little longer here.
Disc 4 brings us to the triple concertos, and unfortunately to the least appealing set of recordings in this box. The Psychiatrische Klinik in Münsterlingen is a less attractive acoustic than that on the other discs, and the strings of the orchestra are rather thinner and more messy sounding. The overall feel is rather un-elegant and clunky throughout, but the worst blemish is the Concerto in A minor BWV 1044. I have every respect for Aurèle Nicolet’s flute playing, but his vibrato in this concerto is pretty intolerable. I’m not talking about any kind of hair-shirt non-vibrato authenticity here, I’m talking about sustained notes which go ‘wOwOwOwO’ in a way that would be deeply unattractive in any music, let alone Bach. Yuk!
So, that’s the first time I’ve used the ‘Y’ word in a review, and I’m sorry to have to do it here. There are some redeeming features with the other concertos later on, but there is no real definition between the multiple keyboards in the stereo imaging of the recording so there is no real sense of dialogue and in fact a good deal of confusion if you are trying to follow individual lines. There are better recordings of Bach’s triple concertos on piano around, and you could do a good deal worse than the EMI triple disc set with Jean-Philippe Collard, Gabriel Tacchino and Michel Béroff, though this can also be somewhat heavy at times. This also includes the Concerto in A minor BWV 1065 for four keyboards not to be found with the Schiff set, so there goes that ‘complete’ word out of the window again. If choosing a piano version of the solo concertos I would, as a desert island price-no-object choice, go for Angela Hewitt on Hyperion, now also available as a two disc set. Her playing has a more inventive and witty character when it comes to ornamentation, and with an extra fleece of authentic style when it comes to performance her recordings are lighter and filled with greater contrast and a heightened sense of newness and surprise. That said, I’ve found a great deal to enjoy in this box, and fans of András Schiff will be delighted to be able to reap these lower priced re-issue rewards.
Largely enjoyable, but not without flaws.