Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Keyboard Concerto No.1 in D minor, BWV 1052 (c.1738) [20:42]
Keyboard Concerto No.2 in E major, BWV 1053 (c.1738) [19:01]
Keyboard Concerto No.4 in A major, BWV 1055 (c.1738) [13:19]
Keyboard Concerto No.3 in D major, BWV 1054 (c.1738) [15:46]
Keyboard Concerto No.5 in F minor, BWV 1056 (c.1738) [9:19]
Keyboard Concerto No.6 in F major, BWV 1057 (c.1738) [15:40]
Keyboard Concerto No.7 in G minor, BWV 1058 (c.1738) [13:15]
Concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord in A minor, BWV 1044* (1729-41) [21:28]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050 (pre.1722) [21:19]
Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971 (undated) [12:34]
Murray Perahia (pianist and director)
Kenneth Sillito* (violin)
Jaime Martin* (flute)
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
rec. Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London, England, 14-16 May 2000 (BWV 1052, 1053, 1055); 12-13 May 2001 (BWV 1054, 1056, 1057, 1058); 1 April and 29 June 2003 (BWV 1044, 1050, 971)
SONY CLASSICAL 88697 82429 2 [3 CDs: 53:05 + 55:13 + 55:18]

Invariably the first thing that is said about J.S. Bach’s seven concertos for single harpsichord and orchestra (BWV 1052-1058) is that they are arrangements of other works. Although now lost, musicologists generally agree that the originals are by Bach himself. Don’t let the ‘arrangement’ tag put you off as these are high quality scores deserving of a place in the repertoire.

Murray Perahia plays these concertos on a Steinway concert grand giving him the ability to sustain notes and use dynamics that inevitably brings out additional colours over the restrictions of the harpsichord.

The increase in interest in authentic instruments and period informed performances of early music have allowed the listener to hear the music in the manner that Bach may well have heard it. There are several satisfying versions of these concertos played on the harpsichord. I especially admire the 2002 accounts from harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen playing and directing the Concerto Copenhagen on CPO, from Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert recorded in 1979/81 on Archiv Produktion and the 2002 release from harpsichordist Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music directed by Andrew Manze on Harmonia Mundi. We can only wonder what ‘old Bach’ might have thought about his concertos being played on a concert grand. An apposite remark that renowned concert pianist John Lill made to me in an interview when discussing this very same question springs to mind, “Would Bach have turned down a modern bathroom?” I think not.

Recorded in 2000/03 at the London Air Studios it is good to welcome these Perahia recordings back to the catalogue. Played on modern instruments the keyboard concertos were particularly high sellers for the Sony label at the time of the initial release; they certainly garnered much praise. Despite struggling for long periods with a hand injury there can be few better pianists on the scene today more suited to the playing of Bach than Murray Perahia. Perahia’s high regard and his recovery from the injury is demonstrated by winning the Best Instrumental Recording at the 2010 BBC Music Magazine Award for his recording of Bach’s Solo Keyboard Partitas 1, 5 and 6 on Sony.

In addition to the seven single concertos for keyboard and orchestra this three disc Sony/Perahia set also includes the Concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord in A minor; the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and the Italian Concerto in F major. Following the fast-slow-fast three movement scheme these concertos for harpsichord and orchestra, prefigure the beginning of the modern piano concerto as the progressive-minded Bach liberates the harpsichord from its subordinate role in the basso continuo.

From CD1 the Keyboard Concerto No.1, probably based on an earlier now lost violin concerto, is one of Bach finest concertos. The scuttling tones of Perahia’s piano in the opening Allegro overlays mysterious undercurrents. With its ominous opening the Adagio strives for calm and serenity yet cannot truly settle owing to the nervous anxiety in the writing. Playing of unbridled joy in the buoyantly taken Allegro brings the score to a splendid conclusion. Slightly over-bright, the piano is forwardly placed.

CD2 was of a generally improved sound quality and I especially enjoyed the performance of the Keyboard Concerto No.7. This highly melodic and memorable score is an arrangement of Bach’s celebrated Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041. The opening movement sounds so brisk and fresh as played by Perahia with remarkable exuberance. Music of heartrending beauty in the Andante is followed by the swiftly taken Allegro Assai which is breezy and elegant with a touch of nobility.

I felt CD3 was too closely recorded and not a comfortable fit for the sound-picture. A favourite score of mine is the Concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord in A minor with Perahia being joined by violinist Kenneth Sillito and flautist Jaime Martin. In the opening Allegro the blend of the three solo instruments is dominated by Perahia’s close and boomy piano who also has the lion’s share of the material.

In the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 the close recorded sound and the choice of tempi rather spoilt my enjoyment. As Perahia took the opening Allegro surprisingly cautiously I had the sense that the players were straining at the leash for a swifter tempo. Lighter and more gentle playing of the Affettuoso allowed the music to be heard more clearly and what wonderful music it is too; so graceful and delicate. Perahia takes the Presto: Finale a touch carefully leaving an impression that the music required additional robustness and vivacity.

Murray Perahia is a player of real artistry. His assured playing has character and style with first class support from the ASMF. What did rather spoil the experience was Perahia’s occasionally surprising tempi selection. Generally I was uncomfortable with the closely recorded sound. I was left with the sense that a great opportunity had been missed.

Michael Cookson

The sense of a great opportunity missed.