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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Keyboard Concertos
Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052 (c.1737-39) [21:59]
Concerto in D major, BWV 1054 (c.1737-39) [16:29]
Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056 (c.1737-39) [9:43]
Concerto in G minor, BWV 1058 (c.1737-39) [13:24]
Lucia Micallef (piano)
European Union Chamber Orchestra/Brian Schembri
rec. 28-29 April 2014, St John’s Smith Square, London
DIVINE ART DDA25128 [61:59]

I have never worried too much about Bach being played ‘authentically’. I recently reviewed John Kitchen playing the great Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV582 on the organ of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh (Delphian DCD34132). In this recital he made use of registrations that would have been customary in the Edwardian era. I was thoroughly impressed and moved by this realisation. My introduction to Bach, around 1970, was an old EP featuring the pianist Ronald Smith playing the beautiful Myra Hess transcription of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. Shortly afterwards, I was bowled over by a recording of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV903 played — I have forgotten who the pianist was — on the piano. Thereafter my own efforts to play ‘manageable’ Bach have continued on that instrument. In recent years, I have been seriously impressed by Angela Hewitt’s survey on Hyperion of the keyboard works – all played on the piano.

Like the American pianist and harpsichordist Rosalyn Tureck, I do not dislike the harpsichord or clavichord, but I do think that Bach sounds great on the piano. I feel that the ‘endless controversy’ about ‘authentic performances’ has become a bit boring. Remember that true authenticity would force us to listen to the music in candlelight, probably in the freezing cold and with badly tuned instruments and there would be no Aspirin to relieve the headaches.

Bach contributed seven complete solo concertos which survive on a manuscript dating from 1737-39. At this time, Bach was Cantor of St Thomas’ Church in Leipzig. The concertos were probably composed for performance at Zimmermann’s coffee house by members of the Collegium Musicum with Bach at the harpsichord.

They are some of the earliest keyboard concertos to have been written. The liner-notes mention the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto and Handel’s Organ Concertos which were written in London as other early examples of the form. It is likely that all Bach’s keyboard concertos were transcriptions that the composer made from his earlier works for other instruments.

The notes by Antony Burton point out that the original instrument used in these concertos would have been the harpsichord; however he adds that they have been in the pianist’s repertoire for many years. Burton further notes that when these works are played using modern orchestral instruments, ‘the piano provides arguably a better balance than all but the largest (and least authentic) harpsichords.’

I have not heard Lucia Micallef play before. The Maltese-born pianist has had an impressive career. After early appearances as a soloist she regularly played with the Johann Strauss School of Music orchestra under its conductor Alexander Maschat. She won a scholarship from the Associated Board to study at the Royal Academy of Music.

Micallef has toured Europe and North America and has played at a number of festivals including Edinburgh, and the International Spring Orchestra Festival in her home country. She has performed as a soloist and accompanist with a number of chamber groups. In 2011 Micallef released an album of The Love Songs of Paolo Tosti with the soprano Gillian Zammit. In addition to her concertizing, Lucia Micallef is artistic director of a number of festival and cultural activities.

The European Union Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1981 with players from the member states of the EU. It gives young musicians the opportunity to gain experience in orchestral playing at the start of their professional careers.

This vibrant recording was made in St John’s Smith Square, London with its excellent acoustic: it is perfectly balanced between soloist and orchestra. Lucia Micallef’s playing is superb with a fine and nuanced interpretation of this great music. Her ability to imbue the concertos with just the right amount of vivacity or reflection as appropriate is ideal. The booklet is helpful and includes details of the soloists, the conductor Brian Schembri and the orchestra.

I suggest that each concerto is approached separately and listened to with attention. This is not a CD for through-listening. I can only hope that the remaining three concertos — plus the short twenty second fragment of the 8th — will appear very soon on Divine Art under the auspices of the same performers.

John France