Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052 [24:48]
Harpsichord Concerto in E major, BWV 1053 [22:11]
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 (arr. Isaacs) [87:20]
George Malcolm (harpsichord/director (art))
Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra/Karl Münchinger (concertos)
Members of the Philomusica of London (art)
rec. Mozart-Saal, Stuttgart, October 11-18, 1963 (concertos); Decca Studio 3, West Hampstead, London, April 15-17, 1964 (art)
From Decca SXL 6101 (concertos) and Argo ZRG 5421/22 (art)
ELOQUENCE 482 5187 [2 CDs: 134:36]
First released in May 1964, George Malcolm’s performances of two Bach keyboard concertos re-released here are very much of their time. While we may enjoy sprightlier tempos these days, there is no doubting their age. While Malcolm re-recorded the two concertos on show here in the 1970s for EMI with the Menuhin Festival Orchestra and Yehudi Menuhin with slightly brisker tempos, it is good to have these earlier Stuttgart accounts. Munchinger in turn was to go on to record the Bach harpsichord concertos (including those for multiple instruments) with Igor Kipnis and his students.
There is an interesting dynamic between the soloist and conductor in the Bach Concertos. Münchinger is indeed, as the booklet notes imply, the more sober of the two. One can hear that not only in the opening of the first movement of BWV 1052, but also in the central Adagio—and it really is an Adagio. Münchinger finds magic when the dynamic drops in the opening of the movement, and he teases a gossamer sound from his strings to accompany George Malcom on his journey. Malcolm seems to revel in the melodic line, as if every twist and turn is a surprise. The finale is a joy, Malcolm’s fingerwork perfectly judged, his timing and rhythms exemplary. Roy Minshull, the producer for the concerto recordings, has made a fine fist of balance issues; the transfer, too, allows detail to come through staggeringly clearly. The recording itself is fabulous, warm and detailed.
The second concerto, BWV 1053, exhibits a generally lighter touch, although the legato ways with downward scales in the strings in the first movement might still grate some people. Malcolm’s fingerwork is the source of much delight. If the central Siciliano remains on the stodgy side, it nevertheless has some lilt.
Malcolm recorded the Art of Fugue with the Philomusica of London, a group that originated in the Boyd Neel Orchestra. The 1952 arrangement captured here, an arrangement made by Leonard Isaacs (1909-1987), was released on Argo. It is remarkable: the tissue delicacy of the “Contrapunctus 1” is sustained with such charge because of the attention given to every line. A clear, analytical ear is evidently in charge, and the result is that of a chamber performance of the highest order. The woodwind “Contrapunctus 2” sounds like proto-Stravinsky here (rather delightfully so) while the “Canon” that opens the second disc featuring the solo flute has all the chamber intensity the music demands. The recording, produced this time by Christopher Raeburn, is wonderful: clear, warm and supportive. Bach’s rigorous counterpoint is beautifully sustained. The orchestration enables the ear to follow the various strands with ease. The appearance of solo harpsichord for the “Canon at the Octave” works beautifully, and Malcolm’s playing is rewarding indeed.
This arrangement will not be to everybody’s taste: the sustaining of such clarity within the context of what emerges as rather severe counterpoint is an astonishing performance feat and it requires input from the listener, too. But those who do will be richly rewarded. “Bachian” might not be the correct word for the arrangement, as it has plenty of Issacs about it, but that is the appeal. Take it for what it is and you will not be disappointed.
The recording of Art of Fugue, overseen by Andrew Raeburn, supports the veneer of intimacy and mystery, partly in its slightly recessed aspect. Yet focus is there in the lines: listen to the clarity of the bass in “Contrapunctus 9”.
A most stimulating coupling, therefore. Bach purists may wish to give it a wide berth, but those who cherish memories of another time in Bach scholarship and who can enjoy the musicality on display for what it is will not be disappointed.