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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Musical Offering, BWV 1079 [51:26]
Canonical variations on Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her, BWV769 [12.59]
Il Gardellino (Jan de Winne (baroque flute), Sophie Gent (baroque violin), Tuomo Suni (baroque violin), Vittorio Ghelmi (viola da gamba), Rodney Prada (viola da gamba), Lorenzo Ghielmi (fortepiano, harpsichord, organ))
rec. Crema, November 2012 (BWV 1079); Milan, Basilica San Simpliciano, January 2013 (BWV 769)
PASSACAILLE 1000 [64:25]

I began work on this review by consulting my shelves for other versions, those that still give pleasure and thus survive regular culls. I found three. Then, to give myself more context, I looked at some earlier MWI reviews of more recent releases. One such by Brian Wilson ended by commending the very three versions that I have kept and still enjoy. The period instrument ones are by Ensemble Sonnerie on Virgin, and Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln, once on Archiv and now on Eloquence. The third is by Neville Marriner and the Academy on Philips Duo, a 1979 issue in which the piece is “edited and orchestrated” by Marriner, and still gives pleasure. It now seems in a special category, a part of the performance history of the piece, rather than one still to be considered alongside the Virgin and Eloquence issues or this excellent newcomer from Il Gardellino.

The booklet here devotes space to establishing the ‘right’ sequence for the ‘movements’. However all these versions have slight differences of sequence. This is not least because the Musical Offering is not an integrated cyclical work but a single publication of pieces related by the theme they use but not expected to be performed complete. It is possible that complete performances of this ‘offering’ are mainly a phenomenon of the recording industry though at least one fine authentic instrument recording of the great Trio Sonata, the most substantial piece in the collection and one of the best, is not part of a complete recording. It is to be found on Florilegium’s Channel Classics CD of 2000 – which is confusingly titled ‘A Musical Offering’, but has only that Trio Sonata and the Ricercar a 6 from BWV 1079. I am tempted to add that for Bachian heretics, who might regard the brief canons of the collection as rather dry, this issue is also worth investigating, since it adds the other instrumental trios by or once attributed to Bach (BWV 1037-39). It also has the Ricercar a 6, which as with Il Gardellino is usually given to solo harpsichord, played by a group of six instruments. Speculative instrumentation perhaps, but it is a great aid in following the contrapuntal lines.

In terms of the complete set, the present version by Il Gardellino can take its place alongside the Virgin and Eloquence issues, and is at bargain price. For the historically aware though it has an advantage in its use of a fortepiano for the Ricercar a 3 voci. We know that J.S. Bach’s famous 1747 visit to King Frederick’s court at Potsdam, which led to the work’s genesis, involved Bach trying out some of the royal collection of fortepianos built by Silbermann — with much input from JSB himself it seems. Christoph Woolf in his book "Johann Sebastian Bach – The Learned Musician" (2000) states “... the motivic material of the interludes in the three-part Ricercar, significantly distinct from Bach’s other keyboard works, was inspired by and conceived for the fortepiano and its new - unlike the harpsichord’s – dynamically flexible sound.” This recording’s CD booklet shares that view, and employs a delightful-sounding copy of a Silbermann fortepiano in the Ricercar a 3.

The recording from Passacaille seems initially rather close, with a heavily breathy ‘giant’ flute for the opening Thema. There also a fairly audible fortepiano mechanism in the Ricercar a 3 which follows on track 2. Thereafter things settle down, or perhaps I did, since it was no longer troublesome. In fact after a while the characteristic tang of the authentic instruments gives much pleasure here, aided by the very closeness and clarity of the recording. The playing too is excellent, both individually and in combination. I came to prefer both playing and recording slightly to the older Ensemble Sonnerie and Musica Antiqua recordings. However if you are devoted to either of those already, this issue should not disturb your allegiance, unless you are curious about that fortepiano. The Ensemble Sonnerie recording has two versions of the Ricercar a 6, one for harpsichord solo and one for six instruments. They also add some contrapuntal details at various points that Bach did not supply himself, but which deploy the same techniques he illustrates in his score. If it was still easily available, that Virgin Veritas issue might still be first choice but it is becoming elusive. Versions by the Kuijkens and by Koopman have their devotees also, as does that of Jordi Savall and one from the Leipzig Bach Collegium. As with any major work of Bach’s the choice on CD is great, but it would be a pity if these illustrious names crowded out this Passacaille release.

The Il Gardellino disc closes with more canonic invention from Bach, in the form of the Canonical Variations on Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her, BWV769, for organ. The performance and organ sound for this superb piece are very satisfying, and might well tip the balance for those in the hunt for a newly recorded bargain price Musical Offering.

Roy Westbrook