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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Musikalisches Opfer BWV 1079 [52.49]
Aria from the Goldberg Variations BWV 988 [2.23]
XIV Canons on the Goldberg Ground BWV 1087 [8.29]
Sonata in G major BWV 1038 [7.39]
Masaaki Suzuki (harpsichord), Kiyomi Suga (flute), Ryo Terakado (violin I), Yukie Yamaguchi (violin II and viola), Emmanuel Balssa (cello)
rec. 2016, Old Catholic Church, The Hague
Reviewed in surround
BIS BIS-2151 SACD [72.12]

The Musical Offering is one of the most cryptic compositions in music. In all the thousands of words written about its history, its structure and its actual meaning, there is one matter which gets little attention. Was it actually intended to be listened to as a single composition? Given that there is no agreement about in what order the sections should be played, let alone which instruments should play each section, the presence of a CD in one's player poses more than the usual issues. One cannot exactly 'judge' the quality of the performance, because comparisons are effectively impossible. I am not even sure it matters whether one 'enjoys' the experience or not. BWV 1079 reaches a level of musical abstraction that certainly defeats me as a listener. As for the coded messages the work is said to contain, that would occupy even more time to investigate. I have only just noticed that the initials of the subtitle Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta (the theme given by the king, with additions, resolved in the canonic style) spell out the word ricercar.

Some description is in order. The two Ricercar are played by Masaaki Suzuki on the harpsichord, the Canons are played by him alone and by various groupings of instruments, and the Sonata sopr'il soggetto Reale is treated as a standard Trio Sonata. The sequence adopted is: Canons Diversi super Thema Regium; Ricercar a 3; Canon Perpetuus super Thema Regium; Ricercar a 6; Quaerendo invenietis; Sonata; Canon Perpetuus. Suzuki and the four members of his Bach Collegium Japan play with the accumulated skill one has grown to expect.

The history surrounding the commissioning of this work is quite well known, even if some important issues, like who actually wrote the theme for all those variations, and whether this huge display of skill was appreciated or even liked by its recipient, Frederick the Great, are not. The extensive notes by Michael Marissen explore as many of these issues, including the coded meanings, as space allows and I am sure most listeners will learn something they did not know about the work.

As a bonus a further set of Canons and another Trio Sonata bring the disc to a standard 70+ minutes. Unless you possess several hi-res recordings already, this one should be added to your Bach collection. I was surprised to note that my two recordings, neither of them the same instrumentation or sequence as this, were not even on CD; one was on vinyl and one on DVD video. So this disc was a new spacious experience of Bach's extraordinary opus.

Dave Billinge


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