Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concerto VI in F major BWV 1057 [16:20]
Concerto in G minor BWV 1058 [13:19]
Concerto I in D minor BWV 1052 [21:19]
Concerto IV in A major BWV 1055 [13:23]
Retrospect Ensemble/Matthew Halls (harpsichord)
rec. 27-29 September 2011, St George’s Church, Chesterton, Cambridge, UK
LINN RECORDS CKD410 SACD [64:24]
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 pointed to 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 moreish morsels.
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.
Very good indeed.
Masterwork Index: Bach keyboard concertos