The Retrospect Ensemble in its various guises has been making
quite a name for itself of late, with excellent recordings for
Linn including Bach
Oratorios and Purcell trios. This collection of Bach’s
harpsichord concertos is another sparkling jewel.
With no shortage of this repertoire in the record catalogues
the question has to be asked as to where this release positions
itself. With a small string ensemble, quartet plus bass, and
the two recorders required in the re-worked Brandenburg Concerto
BWV 1057 this is a similar sound to Richard Egarr’s
Harmonia Mundi recording with the Academy of Ancient Music.
Matthew Halls’ harpsichord is placed more closely in the
recorded balance, which provides a greater sense of drama and
impact, possibly even slightly a bit too much in the machine-gun
rattle of notes demanded of the soloist two minutes into the
final Allegro assai of BWV 1057. This will depend
on your sound system and in fact the balance is very good -
perhaps not quite what you would call concert hall accuracy,
but capturing all of the detail you want to hear on a recording
and not too heavily biased in favour of the soloist.
Tempi are brisk and rhythmically light in the outer movements,
with the occasional rubato to point out expressive or
structural points. There is nothing extreme or disturbingly
mannered in these features, and a sense of natural breath in
the music is one of the many strong aspects of these performances.
Slow movements have been highlighted as one of the strengths
of Richard Egarr’s recordings, but Matthew Halls’
are if anything nicer to listen too. Without quite so much of
an expressive magnifying glass held up to the notes, he lets
the music speak for itself more, and as a result the rhetorical
significance of the string chords of the Andante of BWV
1058 are less of a chewy meal in their own right. They are
still given their due weight, but to my ears are better integrated
A big favourite is the Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052,
and there are no disappointments here. Bach’s dark and
dramatic mood in the opening Allegro unfolds like an
operatic overture, scenes and imagery moving cunningly about
on the Baroque stage, with flashes of lightning and a constant
sense of explosive anticipation. Egarr has the added thrum of
an archlute in his ensemble, but Halls keeps the onward flow
steady where the Academy of Ancient Music teases a fraction
more, and I prefer Halls’ approach in this particular
movement. The unison line which opens the Adagio is superbly
nuanced, once again the music being allowed to speak for itself
while the shaping of the notes themselves provides the expression.
This is one of the few movements where timings between Halls
and Egarr differ, the latter taking a good minute and a half
longer. This has its own poignant effect but inevitably has
a different sense of flow, the melodic shapes strung together
by means of a tightrope rather than a series of balletic turns.
As you will have gathered by now, I rather like this recording
by the Retrospect Ensemble. Excellent SACD sound is an attraction,
as are the thorough and very well written notes by Gawain Glenton.
The Retrospect Ensemble may be a compact group, but the sound
is full and there’s plenty of chunky bass to support Bach’s
delicious harmonies. With a close recording the acoustic doesn’t
play a huge role, but the sound is by no means dry or fatiguing.
If you don’t already have these pieces in period-sensitive
performances this is a very good place to find them, and even
if you do already have them it will arrive like a fresh breeze
and enhance your day with each airing.
Masterwork Index: Bach