Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concerto No.1 in D minor BWV 1052 [19:37]
Concerto No.2 in E major BWV 1053 (1739) [17:40]
Concerto No.3 in D major BWV 1054 (1740) [15:48]
Concerto No.4 in A major BWV 1055 (pub.1741) [13:12]
Concerto No.5 in F minor BWV 1056 (1742) [8:30]
Ramin Bahrami (piano)
Gewandhausorchester/Riccardo Chailly
rec. Grosser Saal, Gewandhaus, Leipzig, 20-21 May 2009 (BWV 1053-1055, 28-29 May 2009 (BWV 1052 & 1056) (live concert recording)
DECCA 478 2956 [74:42]
Almost all of Bach’s keyboard concertos on one CD? Yes, Riccardo Chailly and Ramin Bahrami have proved this to be possible, and with reason: “Bach’s keyboard concertos have to be seen as a whole, not just as the dialogue between piano and orchestra… each acts as a source for the other, working together to create the perfect polyphony.” Other points are made, but the essence of the message is that Bach is a composer for today, and that if these two musicians had not been able to make this recording they would have withered as grapes on a November vine. Well, perhaps not quite, but this has been a fairly long term project, and quotes from both of these main players show how much bringing Bach to life meant to them.
Ramin Bahrami is an Iranian musician, which needn’t have any bearing on our perception of his playing, were it not that he allows to hear “traces of an Iranian song I knew as a child” in the finale the fifth concerto BWV 1056. Rather than pushing aside any relationships between East and West, he and Chailly clearly relish any extra spice this refreshing new view can be brought into Bach’s music, and the sheer life and ‘zip’ in all of these concertos is a joy to behold.
Fitting five concerti on one disc doesn’t result in any indecent haste however. Timings are a tad shorter than many modern performances, but not by an overly dramatic amount. Listeners may prefer to linger perhaps a little longer over movements such as the gorgeous Adagio of BWV 1052, but the version here speaks clearly and without affectation, guiding us through Bach’s beautiful harmonic and formal structures with a gentle hand - one which is keen for us to experience the total movement, as well as casting glances at all of those significant moments. These are more ‘vocal’ readings than interpretations which explore the resonance of the instrument as part of the overall impression. Indeed, Bahrami uses virtually no sustaining pedal in his playing for these pieces. You can imagine such a movement being a highlight from one of Bach’s cantatas or Passions, and the same goes for the Siciliano of BWV 1053 and indeed all of the slow movements. This in turn gives is new insights into what the music can express. BWV 1054 in this context is seen as “the very heart of the whole series”, and there are some stunning touches which make the first movement different enough to make even the most jaded reviewer put down their coffee and gaze blankly into the middle distance. The movement has a dynamic variety which creates a variegated path though Bach’s verdant creation, and the world stops turning momentarily for those transitional moments such as at 2:04. The beauty of the Adagio e piano sempre movement is a given, but the musicians make the music ripple like gently moving water, rather than creating the familiar, more sombre atmosphere. If the section from 2:12 onwards doesn’t make you shed at least a small internal tear, then I fear there is more rehab work to be done. The music here is so simple, and further reduced almost to nothing by the players, we seem to be made aware of the silence which surrounds our planet, let alone that which engulfs our very mortality. This indeed is what Bach is all about, and I bow deeply in gratitude to all of those involved in this recording.
Ramin Bahrami’s playing is sheer pleasure from start to finish. Effortless technique throws off little ornamental turns, passing notes and runs, and his legato lyricism is something to which many a pianist can merely aspire. He will occasionally ‘ping’ notes a little over the expected dynamic or add an octave to make a point - something which I feel is an aspect of his orchestration of the solo part. Sometimes it might be a fanfare of brass from the treble, or the thwack of a drum or some extra organ notes in the bass. These elements keep us awake but are used sparingly and never unmusically. Riccardo Chailly’s Gewandhausorchester has already proved itself in Bach through a superb series of recordings for Decca, and they have a shine and bounce which is glorious throughout. The balance between soloist and orchestra seems perfect to me.
Choice in this repertoire on piano is fairly hot, though not boiling over. There are a number of very high quality complete recordings which compete with Bahrami/Chailly, though these generally include a wider variety of extras including the BWV 1057 concerto and on more than one CD so we’re not really on the same playing field, but I’ll just mention a couple of alternatives in terms of absolute quality. Angela Hewitt on the Hyperion label for example now has all her concerto recordings in a very desirable box set which includes the A minor Triple Concerto and the 5th Brandenburg Concerto (see reviews of the separate discs here and here). Her performances with Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra are gorgeous, seeking extra poetry in the music in very rewarding ways, and with a balance which allows the piano to mix sweetly with the strings. Hewitt’s tempi are more measured than Bahrami, and there is more subtlety of colour in the piano playing if less excitement around the faster movements. Murray Perahia also makes a strong case on the Sony Classics label, though is also to be found on three discs with similar extras to Hewitt, as well as a nice Italian Concerto BWV 971. He and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields are very fine indeed, though the antique plucking of a continuo lute here and there is more of a confusion than a benefit when sat next to a modern grand piano, especially with one recorded with as much richness and authority as in this case. I’ve reviewed Andras Schiff here, but find his Decca package to be too much of mixed bag to recommend, especially over the versions above.  

Without taking anything away from other musician’s achievements, this recording from Ramin Bahrami and Riccardo Chailly is in my opinion now the one to have - if you only seek five keyboard concerti and can live without the entire set that is. Even if you already have these pieces in different versions, and even if you have yet to be converted to piano over harpsichord I would urge you to try this one. These performances are both life-enhancing fun, and breathtakingly and movingly beautiful. I have removed all others from my wish lists, and added this one to my very thinly populated disc of the year desert-island for 2011.
Dominy Clements 
Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester on Decca:
Brandenburg Concertos review
St Matthew Passion review
Christmas Oratorio review
Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue etc. review
The one to have.