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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C minor, BWV 1060 [13:22]
Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C major, BWV 1061 [17:43]
Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C minor, BWV 1062 [14:27]
Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BWV 552 [14:12]
Olivier Fortin and Emmanuel Frankenberg (harpsichords), Ensemble Masques (Sophie Gent, Tuomo Suni (violin), Kathleen Kajioka (viola), Mélisande Corriveau (cello), Benoît Vanden Bemden (double bass)) / Olivier Fortin
rec. 2018, Temple Notre Dame de Bon Secours, Paris
ALPHA CLASSICS 572 [59:46]

Ensemble Masques and Olivier Fortin will be familiar names to collectors of Alpha Classics’ excellent Baroque music recordings, and I also greatly enjoyed his two-harpsichord recording with Skip Sempé on the Paradizo label (review). I hadn’t come across Emmanuel Frankenberg’s name on recordings, but he is an award-winning musician and another force to be reckoned with in period performance.

BWV 1060 is better known in its version for oboe and violin, and BWV 1062 for two violins, so this won’t be new Bach to most listeners. Fortin and Frankenberg play on fine sounding instruments that have recently been built based on historical models, and while fairly close the recording is by no means uncomfortable on the ears. It took me a bit of time to tune-in to the balance however. Ensemble Masques is in this case pared down to single strings to each part, and while this is common practice for period performance I couldn’t help feeling the ensemble was just a fraction too recessed in terms of balance against the harpsichords. This is always a choice that has to be made, but to my mind with the soloists so much to the fore there is little chance for the sound to blend or generate that sense of give-and-take which creates real musical conversation. It’s not that the ensemble is inaudible, but in particular with the outer movements the harpsichords create a thicket of sound which isn’t really penetrated by the strings, and detail is hidden. The soloists are not artificially separated too much between left and right but there is a good stereo spread and the sound is enjoyable in general, and these are all excellent performances with plenty of zip and zing without over-hasty tempi, and a nice collection of moods in the slow movements.

With this sort of repertoire there are inevitably comparisons to be made, though discs with all three of these double concertos together are not all that common. Masaaki Suzuki and Masato Suzuki with the Bach Collegium Japan on the BIS label (review) are a main rival to this Alpha Classics release, though declaring one or other to be a clear winner is by no means easy. Both use single-string accompaniment, have identical tuning and have a full enough sound. Tempi vary a little but not really to the extent that would give rise to controversy. There is arguably a bit more ‘swing’ in the rhythm of something like the final Allegro of BWV 1060 from Suzuki, and the presence of the strings is a fraction higher in the mix which I think helps make this difference happen. Both recordings have the right kind of texture and levels of excitement and expression in the fast and slow movements however, the latter of which maintain a dance feel from both recordings, the lack of sustain in harpsichord notes permitting no wallowing in even something as gorgeous as the Andante e piano from BWV 1062.

The programme concludes with the grand Prelude and Fugue BWV 552 which is more familiarly heard on the organ as part of the Clavier-Übung. This two-harpsichord version is impressive, giving the players an opportunity to flex the bass strings of their instruments, though the recording blends the two so that this sounds more like one huge harpsichord rather than two. I’ve greatly enjoyed this recording though have a niggling feeling that Suzuki on BIS would be my ultimate preference for the concertos, by a very close margin.

Dominy Clements

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