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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin Concertos

Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043 [14:46]
Concerto for Violin in A minor, BWV 1041 [13:22]
Concerto for Violin in E major, BWV 1042 [16:28]
Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor, BWV 1060 [14:06]
Julia Fischer (violin)
Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin, BWV 1043); Andrey Rubtsov (oboe, BWV 1060)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields
rec. St Paul’s Deptford, London, 2-4 June 2008
DECCA 4780650
Experience Classicsonline

I first read about this album in one of Norman Lebrecht’s articles. Bemoaning the apparent ‘death of Decca’, he describes the soloist’s sound and the general production as “poorly balanced and over-bright ... firmly in the lower leagues. Decca in its heyday would not have passed this product.” Elsewhere, the disc has received almost universal plaudits and has become an immediate bestseller both as hard copy and download. So, what’s all the fuss about, and who is right?

With innumerable rave concert performances and numerous successful releases on the Pentatone label, Julia Fischer has not only been establishing a name for herself as a performer of stature in core repertoire for the violin, but has also already shown her skill and commitment to the works of J.S. Bach, winning the Yehudi Menuhin competition and winning praise for her playing of that composer at a very young age. Pentatone has a niche market specialising in SACD recordings, and Julia Fischer appears on nine of their current releases with more in the pipeline. Even such an array of musical calling cards, combined with the marketing strength possessed by sexy young violinists in a line from Anne-Sophie Mutter in the 1980s to Janine Jansen and others in the naughties doesn’t guarantee mass popularity and success when transferred to a label with the long tradition and reputation of Decca. While I’m prepared to bet my Woolworths shares that it does help, it has to be the intrinsic quality in the performance and recording which gives such a release real legs.

These are some of my favourite pieces of all time, let alone favourite works by J.S. Bach, and I’m sure there are many of the same opinion. The sheer upbeat nature of many of the outer movements and the sublime beauty of the middle movements make the best of these pieces a guaranteed winner on any desert island, and in such circumstances you are going to want recordings to which you can listen time and time again, without losing all that fresh energy and moving emotion on repeated hearings. My long-term favourite in these works has been that with the father and son team of Igor and David Oistrakh in the double concerto, David Oistrach a soloist in the BWV 1041 and two concertos, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Eugene Goossens, and not forgetting the impeccable George Malcolm helping everything along on harpsichord continuo in the double concerto. This Deutsche Grammophon recording has less of a chamber-music feel than this new release from Decca, but the sheer beauty of texture in the orchestra and emotion in the solo playing is something which has always brought me back. There are a few others from the ‘non-authentic’ stable which I still have kicking around: the rather nasty sounding early digital Gidon Kremer multi-tracking the double concerto on Philips, Yehudi Menuhin with the Bath Festival Orchestra in 1960 on EMI for instance which has rather more pleasant memories, and that with Josef Suk and the Suk Chamber Orchestra on a 1980s Supraphon disc which now seems terribly heavy and lugubrious when compared to the shafts of sunlight projected through our speakers from Julia Fischer and the ‘conductor-less’ Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

To my ears, the pacing of each movement is well nigh perfect on this new disc. The opening of the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043 invites the listener in with bright energy and fleet lightness of touch. The soloists are in fact not as far forward in the balance as many other recordings I could name, and this means that the solo/ripieno effects of the concerto grosso legacy from which this style of work derives work very well. The soloists can almost disappear into the orchestral texture during tuttis, and soar majestically when the accompaniment takes on a secondary role. The famous Largo ma non tanto moves along with elegant grace rather than cloying sentimentality, but the sighing downward motifs are allowed plenty of space to develop, and the contrapuntal layers are beautifully balanced. Alexander Sitkovetsky matches Julia Fischer well in terms of tone and expression, and it is often hard to tell the two apart. They both play Guadagini violins of similar 18th century vintage, so this is no great surprise. The final Allegro swings along with maximum Úlan, but still with a delightfully understated undertow from all concerned, placing all the notes where they belong rather than succumbing to a headlong tumult which compresses and distorts.

The two solo concertos have similar qualities. The pace of the faster movements is brisk and light, the interaction between soloist and orchestra is close and intimate, a cultivated conversation rather than authoritarian dictation from one to the other. Is the Andante of BWV 1041 a bit on the heavy side? It might seem so in the beginning, but as the extended arches of each harmonic progression take hold and the solo line sings above I can entirely follow the logic of this interpretation. It has the feel of Bach’s great forefather and example in this genre, Vivaldi, and one can almost feel bathed in the lazy summer heat of one of the ‘Four Seasons’. The final Allegro assai of this concerto is irrepressibly bouncy, and Fischer has great fun with the technical leaps, as well as retiring into the background when Bach’s sparing brushstrokes serve only to highlight what is going on in the orchestra. BWV 1042 opens attractively, with maximum dynamic contrast bringing everything to life. One of the highlights of any such set of these concertos has to be the sublime Adagio from this concerto, and Fischer does us desert island residents proud. The bass line has plenty of that tear-jerking pathos we need from this music, and the whole thing has all of the quiet drama of the most moving scene in the most devastatingly beautiful opera you could imagine, but without the ‘fluitketel’ soprano to spoil it all with her wobbly vibrato. The gentle central section builds from a moment of profound silence at 2:30, spanning over to the minor climax of the quiet return of the opening theme at 4:40, and allowing room for the major but oh-so-brief climax at 5:33, ushering in a coda of intense dignity and softly unassuming power.

The Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor, BWV 1060 might seem a bit of a filler after the previous violin masterpieces, but its warm good humour feels like a gift from a benign deity. Andrey Rubtsov’s oboe tone is mellow and attractive, and its lines sometimes lead the rest of the strings as if attached to its notes like the strings of a puppet in the opening Allegro. Transparency of texture characterises the Adagio, with Fischer’s violin taking second place to the oboe, and the jaunty final Allegro, with nicely done echo effects, provides a fittingly animated close to this excellent programme.

I have no agenda when it comes to reviewing this or any other CD which comes my way, and I hope you will trust my objective point of view in stating that this release is a delight from start to finish. I have listened to this CD on numerous systems and, while the recording is bright, this goes hand in glove with the nature of the performances, and for once I am overjoyed to hear a violin soloist who doesn’t sound louder than the entire orchestra when in full cry. ‘Full cry’ is not a term I would apply to this performance in any case, for while the dynamic range has plenty of width, there is always a sense of energy and power in reserve – the refinement and subtlety of Bach’s compositions coming a long way before technical muscle in the playing. If I haven’t mentioned phrasing or vibrato it is because the question never arose: there is plenty of evidence of ‘historically informed performance practice’ having rubbed off here, but not to the extent of unnatural excision of vibrato and addition of improvisatory improvisation. Expression, vibrato, line and length of delivery are all in the service of the music, something which to my mind transcends both taste and cricketing metaphor. My only criticism of this release is in the presentation. We get no fewer than nine different pictures of Ms Fischer and not a single one of the other soloists, which I know will be down to some marketing expert somewhere, but might lead an innocent public to imagine that the other players are too upsettingly ugly to appear, which I’m sure cannot be true. The notes are a bit sketchy as well, but do give some insights into Fischer’s relationships to the pieces, and that with her fellow musicians. All in all, if there were any remaining doubts you can drop them in the litter bin on your way out of the record shop. I sincerely hope this release does not signal the death of Decca, and will in fact stand for its turnaround into a gloriously creative and profitable future. Either way, for a modern instrument performance of these great works, this is now the one to beat.

Dominy Clements



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