Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concerto in D minor BWV 1052 [21:44]
Concerto in D major BWV 1054 (1740) [15:32]
Concerto in D minor BWV 974 (arr. Tharaud-Labadie) [3:55]
Concerto in F minor BWV 1056 (1742) [9:39]
Concerto in G minor BWV 1058 [13:46]
Concerto in A minor BWV 1065 [9:34]
Alexandre Tharaud (piano)
Les Violons du Roy/Bernard Labie
rec. 9-14 September 2010, Salle Raoul-Jobin, Palais Montcalm, Québec, Canada
VIRGIN CLASSICS 50999 070913 2 2 [74:46]

After waxing so lyrical about Ramin Bahrami’s Leipzig recording (see review) I was a little concerned about having to make a choice between that and this recording from Alexandre Tharaud. Fortunately there are plenty of excuses for having both. Admittedly there are overlaps with the BWV 1052, 1054 and 1056 concerti, but with a wide difference in approach, the concert BWV 1058 and that four keyboard concerto BWV 1065 as well as an extra Marcello arrangement there is plenty of complimentary music to be found here.

We know Alexandre Tharaud from his excellent Scarlatti disc (see review) and his contributions to the Naxos Poulenc Chamber Music series, but this is something of a new venture. Les Violons du Roy is a period performing ensemble which uses modern instruments with period bows. This means having a period sound, but no problems performing with modern instruments at A=440 concert pitch. I hear you asking, “period bows with a modern piano?” Yes, I am sure there are critics who will be apoplectic with stylistic nausea at the mere thought, but this is only one step further along an already well-trodden path which regularly brings us period orchestral style in all kinds of contexts. The string sound is less warm than with Bahrami’s Gewandhausorchester recording which is only to be expected. To my ears this makes for instance the slow movement of BWV 1054 marginally less miraculous, but the musicians easily make up for less body in the sound through their sensitivity of dynamics and tenderness at such points. They go for arco or bowed rather than plucked pizzicato in the slow movement of BWV 1056, which changes the character of the music, broadening it considerably when compared with Chailly’s, which is a good half minute shorter. Both are good, but tastes will differ. There are a few more of these kinds of tweaks here and there, but none of these come across as anything particularly unconventional.

The piano used by Tharaud is a nice sounding 1980s instrument, not named but chosen for a mellow sound which made the soloist think of pianos from the 1960s. The sound of a modern piano against period strings will always be anathema for some people, and this will not be cured by the use of a mature instrument. The sound is a good deal less ‘in your face’ than some solo recordings however, and the set-up is geared towards a chamber-music feel to the performances, the piano staged behind the strings on stage. While the instruments mix as well as could be hoped this is not something which is particularly apparent from the recording. The zing in the outer movements in each concerto is keener than with Chailly, the bounce coming more from the upper tones than from the bass with the Decca recording. I really enjoy the sense of sunshine and brightness which comes from the livelier movements, and there are no tempi with which I can find fault.

There are genuine highlights in the little extra Adagio BWV 974 arranged from an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello, and re-worked by Thabaud and Bernard Labadie. The string contributions are the subtlest of introductions and a brief coda, the bulk of the piece being carried by the piano. The Concerto for four keyboards and orchestra BWV 1065 is also a real treat. Alexandre Tharaud has recorded each part himself, multitracking the same piano from different positions on the stage. This is all done with the lightest of touches, and rather unexpectedly is not heavy at all. The real money moment comes in the central largo, where the multiple pianos join in a magical pre-minimalist section which would easily provide enough material for an hour long piece by Simeon ten Holt.

This is a superb CD and a set of marvellous performances which I would recommend to anyone with a warm heart and an open mind. Would I choose it over Bahrahmi/Chailly for my desert island? Perhaps not: even for me the balance of a larger body of strings with modern bows fits a few degrees better with a modern piano, but more importantly the sheer joy in the Decca performances is something I plan to keep close for a long time to come. There is plenty of fun and life in Tharaud/Labadie as well though, and the music remains an infectious buzz which you carry around with you all day even after just a quick blast. The musical points are made just a little more earnestly however, tiny little rubati picked over expertly and musically but on occasion a little too microscopically in my opinion. These are points of taste rather than criticisms, and I will place this recording next to all the others with pride and in the knowledge that its well-tempered sounds will be brought out to brighten many a gloomy evening in these intemperate times.

Dominy Clements

Well-tempered sounds for ill-tempered times.