Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Keyboard Concertos (c. 1738)
No.1 in D minor, BWV 1052 [21:42]
No.2 in E major, BWV 1053 [20:37]
No.3 in D major, BWV 1054 [15:35]
No.4 in A major, BWV 1055 [13:35]
No.5 in F major, BWV 1056 [10:00]
No.7 in G minor, BWV 1058 [12:59]
Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI/Andrea Bacchetti (piano/conductor)
rec. 30-31 July 2014, Turin RAI Auditorium.
SONY CLASSICAL 88875 184942 [71:31 + 23:01]

J.S. Bach’s keyboard concertos are justly popular and widely available in a variety of fine recordings, both with piano and harpsichord. While the music remains the same in essence, our appreciation of it can be enhanced by greater understanding of the context for these works. Mario Marcarini’s charmingly translated booklet notes for this release cast the net wide in terms of viewing these particular pieces in terms of precedent from Italy and other sources. While retaining our wonder at Bach’s genius we already knew that his creations didn’t exist in isolation – no man is an island, and this particular man knew all about his musical relations in the likes of Vivaldi, and both Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello. The notes point out numerous cross-relationships both within Bach’s own oeuvre and beyond, inviting us to open our ears ever further.

Andrea Bacchetti’s pedigree as a Bach performer has long preceded him, and the opportunity to enrich our collections with a set of these concerti is a welcome one. The debate about use of piano instead of harpsichord rumbles on, but as ever the sonorities here will inevitably be that mash-up of modern and antique which may or may not bother you.

They don’t bother me as such, though the relatively chamber-music effect of the RAI strings against a full-fat Steinway is arguably a case of incompatibility. Steinway? Yes, Bacchetti doesn’t use his commonly heard Fazioli in this recording, but the instrument selected for this recording works very well. The brightness of the piano helps with Bacchetti’s lightness of touch and rhythmic bounce, and has enough of a singing tone to keep us attentive during the slow movements. Bacchetti leads from the piano, and this lends an intimate feel to the recording, especially in slow movements such as the Siciliano of BWV 1053 where you sense the strings leaning in towards the soloist and everyone listening closely to each other. There are also some moments where string numbers are even further reduced, with solo players taking more sensitive bars in the Larghetto of BWV 1055. Outer movements are not played wildly fast, but nor do they drag. That opening Allegro of BWV 1052 tells you all you need to know about Bacchetti’s approach in this regard, with plenty of drive and urgency to the accents, exciting dynamic contrasts and a lack of distracting tricks or annoying mannerisms. The only thing I’m not entirely keen on with BWV 1052 is in a section of the last movement from about 6:30, where Bacchetti pulls things around in a way that seems to emphasise the sequences rather than letting this climactic moment fly. Perhaps the opening Allegro of BWV 1056 could have used a little more pep, but the speculative nature of this marking often seems to lead towards caution and the tempo here is no big surprise. The acoustic of the Turin RAI Auditorium is nice and spacious, helping create atmosphere even though the instruments are recorded fairly closely.

As I mentioned, the RAI strings sound less than symphonic in this recording, and this means there are one or two mildly fragile moments. If you prefer something a bit more beefy then there is Murray Perahia, also on Sony Classical, alongside the Academy of St Martin in the Fields with even some added plucked continuo by way of support. This is an uber-complete 3 CD set, where other single-disc releases tend to miss out one or other of the concertos, such as Nick van Bloss on Nimbus, or Ramin Bahrami on Decca. Where Bacchetti and his team lose a little in weight of sound they gain much in transparency, so it will be up to personal taste as to which you prefer. What you almost invariably notice when comparing recordings is that the piano will always sound a bit ‘too much’ in relation even to larger string groups, and this is a problem inherent in the medium. The harpsichord may have restricted expression and dynamics but it will always blend more effectively with strings, and this is one set of concertos that I will also want to have in versions such as that with Trevor Pinnock, where greater equality of sound generates its own kinetic energies.

Don’t be put off by the short playing time of the second CD for this release as the set is priced two-for-one. In general this will certainly be a must-have for fans of Andrea Bacchetti, who are unlikely to be disappointed. I wouldn’t personally choose it as an absolute top version if the orchestral playing were the defining factor. This can be had more distinctively elsewhere, but these are works for which the keyboard is central and so the overall impression is fine indeed. These are refreshing performances that very much avoid the darker ‘fatness’ you can find with some piano recordings. Bacchetti is a strong enough player to carry six concertos at a sitting and still leave you wanting more.

Dominy Clements

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