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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Musical Offering, BWV 1079
Ricercar Consort (Maude Gratton (harpsichord); Marc Hantaï (flute); François Fernandez (violin); Philippe Pierlot (bass viol))
rec. 2011, Temple de Lourmarin, France
MIRARE MIR237 [54:00]

With a name like theirs, I suppose it was all but inevitable that that the Ricercar Consort would one day turn to Bach’s Musical Offering. Their recording brings to Bach’s enigmatic masterpiece all of the virtues that their earlier recordings of his vocal music have brought: namely one-to-a-part precision, forensic interest in the detail, and the responsiveness to one another that comes only when you have lived and made music with your colleagues for a very long time. To hear them do this at their very best, listen to their Bach Magnificat, or their Actus Tragicus CD.

Their greatest achievements in Bach have, so far, been in his vocal music, but this disc transfers across many of those lessons to this instrumental masterpiece. They argue as convincing a case for it as you’ll find anywhere. The Musical Offering is a work that I’ve always found easier to admire than to love, and in some performances it’s difficult to get away from the feeling of it being primarily an academic exercise or to escape from its reputation as one of those great summations that Bach was putting together towards the end of his life. However, there is beauty aplenty in this release, and it’s to be found primarily in Maude Gratton’s harpsichord, which I found strangely moving, much more so than I would normally find this instrument. Throughout, she brings to life more nuances than one often remembers the harpsichord as having. She put me in mind of the fact that, when Bach tried out the pianoforte, he was largely unimpressed: the harpsichord was his conscious choice, and Gratton reminds us why. Her playing of the opening Ricercar is full of nuance, subtlety, space and breath, and the other instruments echo this with their contributions. François Fernandez’s Baroque violin is uniquely responsive, very much part of the picture rather than an attention-grabbing soloist, and Hantaï’s flute weaves in and out of the texture most beguilingly. Pierlot’s viol underpins the whole thing with strength and beauty.

Repeatedly, this disc felt like a cultured conversation, given in the spirit of all the best chamber music, and each movement brings out the beauty and spirit of the music beyond the academic rigour. Frederick the Great’s spiky, angular, but strangely haunting theme, can hardly have been put to better use. The booklet notes are a useful aid, though I abhor the fact that they’re stuck into the slipcase in the way they are.

Simon Thompson

Track listing
Ricercar [6:00]
Canon perpetuus super Thema Regium [2:29]
SONATA: (I. Largo [6:29]
II. Allegro [5:53]
III. Andante [3:25]
IV. Allegro [2:54]
VI. Canon perpetuus [2:28]); CANONES: (Canon 1 a 2 [2:21]
(Canon) 2 a 2 Violin : in Unisono [0:50]
(Canon) 3 a 2 per Motum contrarium [1:11]
(Canon) 4 a 2 per Augmentationem, contrario Motu [2:41]
(Canon) 5 a 2 [2:49]); Fuga canonica in Epidiapente [2:14]
Ricercar a 6 [7:37]
Canon a 4 [2:53])



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