Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concertos for Two Harpsichords
Concerto in C minor, BWV 1062 [13:54]
Concerto in C major, BWV 1061 [18:19]
Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, BWV 1066 (arr. Suzuki) [24:13]
Concerto in C minor, BWV 1060 [13:22]
Masaaki Suzuki and Masato Suzuki (harpsichords)
Bach Collegium Japan
rec. January 2013, Saitama Arts Theater, Concert Hall, Japan
BIS BIS-SACD-2051 [71:08]
When it comes to J.S. Bach via Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan you can be pretty sure you are hearing state-of-the-art recording and performances. With the huge project recording Bach’s Cantatas now complete, these musicians can further explore instrumental music which has already brought top choice recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos and numerous solo works for harpsichord.

Each of the three concertos BWV 1060-62 are accompanied by a small quintet of strings: what amounts to a standard string quartet plus a violone bass. This light and transparent backing balances well while putting the harpsichords firmly in the foreground. While you wouldn’t exactly call it muscular it also avoids sounding thin, with plenty of rhythmic oomph in the faster movements. The programme opens with the refreshing sounds of the Concerto in C minor, BWV 1062, better known in its version for two violins in D minor BWV 1043. The booklet notes remark on Bach’s careful arrangement in this version, and this superb music sounds excellent in this performance, though don’t expect much expressive sustain in that beautiful Andante e piano central movement. The dialogue between the soloists is nicely captured in BWV 1061, the final Fuga a genuine delight. The Concerto in C minor, BWV 1060 is a real masterpiece, and as with the other concertos I admire the players for expressive playing which avoids pretension. These are works which can speak for themselves, and with tempi neither too swift or too slow there are no weak moments and plenty of life-enhancing energy on show.

There are inevitably quite a few competitors in this field, not least from Helmut Müller-Brühl on Naxos 8.554217, which has lively performances of all of these double-harpsichord concertos and BWV 1034 and BWV 1065 for three and four harpsichords respectively. The venerable Philips recordings from Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra now sound a bit stately by comparison but are by no means ugly ducklings, and somewhere in between are the elegantly polished but rather uninvolving forces of Robert Leven and Jeffrey Kahane with Helmuth Rilling on the Hänssler label. There are many more, and you can’t ignore Ton Koopman on Warner Classics (see review), but if you are collectors of the fruitful Suzuki/BIS collaboration then this will be an automatic choice and one which will reward your loyalty.

As so many of Bach’s concertos are arrangements is doesn’t seem so very strange to have Masato Suzuki’s two harpsichord arrangement of the Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, BWV 1066. The full sound of the two instruments together creates its own excitement, and there is plenty to enjoy in this version. The justifications for its creation laid out in the booklet are an interesting sideline but not really necessary. Masato Suzuki’s arrangement is “an attempt to reconstruct what Bach might have done himself”, and it certainly sounds convincing, with the sonorities of the instruments explored to the full. The thrumming low strings in the final Passepied are wonderful. Great fun is to be had from the differences between each dance movement and the cracking pace with which some are taken, adding to the virtuoso flair surrounding this entire CD.

I have an affection for Bach on the piano, but these are works which respond as well or better to the bounce and upper harmonic spectrum of harpsichords, especially when performed with so much verve and dedication as in this case. This is a very fine release, the BIS engineering to be relished in stereo as well as in the added space and sense of detail you have from the 5.0 SACD set-up. This is one case in which feeling as if you are amongst the musicians is nothing but pleasurable.

Dominy Clements

Masterwork Index: Bach keyboard concertos

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