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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin Concertos
Violin Concerto No.1 in a minor, BWV1041 [13:50]
Harpsichord Concerto No.2 in E, BWV1053 (arr. K. Debretzeni for Violin & Orchestra, world premiere recording) [18:37]
Violin Concerto No.2 in E, BWV1042 [16:06]
Harpsichord Concerto No.1 in d minor, BWV1052 (arr. W. Fischer for Violin & Orchestra) [21:37]
Kati Debretzeni (violin)
The English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. 7-11 December 2018, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. DDD.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk.
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG732 [70:17]

There are many recordings of the Bach violin concertos, in different combinations; I have and enjoy quite a few of them. Take one look at the personnel involved in the new SDG recording and you will understand why I had to add it to the list and review it. Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s complete recordings of the Bach sacred cantatas, made live in their pilgrimage year, are one of the top recommendations, alongside Masaaki Suzuki’s set for BIS, and his recording of the Brandenburg Concertos is also a prime consideration (SDG707, 2 CDs – Recording of the Month: review).

In fact, Gardiner conducts only the first two Brandenburgs, leaving the remainder to Kati Debretzeni, soloist and leader throughout. I wrote in January 2010 that the decision to leave her in charge for numbers 3 to 6 was amply justified. A pluralist by merit, she was also the solo violinist for another very fine set of the Brandenburgs, with the European Brandenburg Ensemble and Trevor Pinnock (Avie AV2119 – review review). So that’s a triple whammy in disposing me to hear the new SDG recording.

I had hardly finished hearing the end of BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library recommendations for the E major Concerto when I noticed an advertisement for the new album. I didn’t hear the whole review, but I have no problem with the recommendations: for period-instrument performance Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque (CCSSA30910 – November 2011/1), Pablo Valletti and Café Zimmermann (Alpha 103 – review of box set) or Isabelle Faust and Akademie für alte Musik (Harmonia Mundi HMM902335.36, 2 CDs – review). For modern-instrument performance with a sense of period style, Janine Jansen and Friends (Decca 4785362) or René Capuçon with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Erato 4632322 – review review).

To these I would add two older recordings which, though by no means HIPP, are stylish and still worth having: David Oistrakh (DG Originals 4474272, 2 CDs, or DG Galleria 4198552, download only, or Alto ALC1399 – review) and Arthur Grumiaux (Decca 4207002, download only). These are not the only ones, but they will do very well to be getting on with.

Many will prefer one-to-a-part performances of these concertos. It’s not a matter that I make an article of faith, but the small-scale English Baroque Soloists on SDG make for an ideal compromise, with three first and three second violins, two each violas and cello, one double bass and harpsichord. Certainly, the balance between ensemble and soloist is well maintained throughout, thanks, of course, in no small measure to the recording engineers. Astronomers searching for Goldilocks planets – not too hot or not too cold – will find the musical equivalent here.

I said that I had no problem with the Building a Library first choice of Rachel Podger with Brecon Baroque in the E major, BWV1042, and that’s the version that provides my benchmark for both it and the a minor concerto on the new recording. It’s especially appropriate that I listened to both in 24/96 format. They differ in their couplings, however, the Channel Classics offering two other reconstructed violin concertos from the keyboard set, BWV1055 and BWV1056. And though the English Baroque Soloists ensemble is slightly larger than that of Brecon Baroque – the latter fielding one each first and second violin, viola, cello, violone and harpsichord – the difference in practice hardly affected my judgement.

In fact, I find it very difficult to plump for one at the expense of the other. Both are beautifully played, excellently supported by ensembles which include accomplished soloists in their own right, and very well recorded. Both are guaranteed to transport all but the most obstinate Bach-hater – is there such a being? – to Elysium.

That includes the slow movements, an important point in all recordings of these concertos. Traditionally, both the andante of the a minor and the adagio of the E major were squeezed for every last drop of sentiment. The trick is to move the music along without dragging it out, yet still find the emotional content. I think that Podger scores in that regard in the a minor, at a pace which better represents the andante marking, but I don’t want to make too music of it. Debretzeni’s account certainly brings out the emotional power, and honours are about even in the E major.

Just to complicate matters, what is meant by ‘Bach Violin Concertos’ is something of a variable feast, as we have seen from comparing the Podger and Debretzeni recordings. Mostly we are offered the two ‘regular’ concertos for solo violin, in a minor and E major, but after that it’s a free for all – some add the Double Violin Concerto, BWV1043, others one or more of the keyboard concertos in arrangements. On the new SDG we have two of these, BWV1052 and BWV1053, the latter in a new arrangement by the soloist Kati Debretzeni. Scholarship suggests that the keyboard versions which we have were arranged by Bach himself from originals with the violin, oboe, or violin and oboe, so reverse engineering is wholly acceptable.

BWV1053, if not played with keyboard solo, as published, is sometimes performed as an oboe concerto, but there is another recording of a violin arrangement (in D) from Viktoria Mullova with Accademia Bizantina and Ottavio Dantone (ONYX4114 – review). I enjoyed this, even by comparison with other then recent recordings from Masaaki Suzuki (BIS), Petra Müllejans (Harmonia Mundi) and Podger (see above) in DL News 2013/10.

The concerto makes sense with a violin soloist, transposed down to D, though Debretzeni admits in the notes that ‘in all probability [it] was never a violin concerto’. No matter if it works, and it did for me, though I revel in all the permutations that the music of Bach and Handel, both inveterate borrowers and re-arrangers, often throw our way, and I certainly wouldn’t wish to be deprived of the keyboard version. In fact, Mullova and Debretzeni use slightly different arrangements of this concerto; the latter explains how she has also borrowed from the same music as recycled by Bach in two cantatas.

Heard in conjunction with the new SDG recording, Mullova’s and Dantone’s slightly slower tempi sound more deliberate. That doesn’t mean that they are stodgy, especially in the finale where there is very little to choose, but it does mean that I ended with a slight but clear preference for Debretzeni and Gardiner in the one work common to both which sets them apart from most recordings of these concertos. I listened to the new SDG in 24-bit sound and to the Onyx in 16-bit, but I don’t think that was the sole reason for my preference. If the idea of BWV1060 arranged for violin and harpsichord, rather than as published for two harpsichords or as usually reconstructed for violin and oboe, appeals, there’s no reason not to choose the Onyx.

Mullova and Dantone, like the new recording, offer four concertos: both contain the ‘regular’ concertos in a and E, BWV1041 and 1042. Here, too, the Onyx timings are very slightly slower than those on SDG, though the differences are less noticeable than in BWV1053.

The SDG and Channel Classics booklets are head and shoulders above that which Onyx provide for Mullova and Dantone – an inadequate affair which, for example, doesn’t tell us the number of performers in the Accademia. Both SDG and Channel are honest in admitting that neither BWV1053 on the former or BWV1055 on the latter were likely to have been composed for the violin originally.

Rachel Podger writes of the E major concerto as life-enhancing and that’s exactly how both she and Kati Debretenzi make it sound, with its companion in a minor hardly far behind. The different couplings of these two recordings give me the perfect excuse to duck the choice and advise buying both. Even then, you still need a recording of the concerto for two violins, BWV1043.

That’s where my third choice, Isabelle Faust on a 2-CD set, effectively a 2-for-1 offer, comes in, with a coupling of BWV1041, 1042, 1043, 1060, Suite No.2, two trio sonatas and cantata movements that offers it all. Simon Thompson called that ‘remarkable and refreshing’ – review – and I’m not about to quibble. It’s available in very good 24/96 sound from eclassical.com, with 24-bit still on offer for the same price as 16-bit when I checked, at the competitive price of $19.98. It’s a measure of the quality of the work and of the three performances that I was able to play Isabelle Faust’s E major concerto immediately after hearing the Podger and Debretzeni recordings without any feeling of satiation – and then went on to listen to the rest of the album.

Overall, with the greater wealth of material on offer, at much the same price as its competitors, I suppose it’s Isabelle Faust and the Akademie für alte Musik that would have to accompany me to that Desert Island. But if the Fates were to throw in the new SDG or the Channel Classics, that were a consummation devoutly to be wished. Forgetting about coupling complications, the new recording is up there with the best. Even the cover picture is spot on, with Bach’s music unfurling as beautifully and as inevitably as a fern in Spring.  My usual warning about checking prices is especially important: there is a very wide disparity in what is being asked for this CD as I write.

Brian Wilson



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