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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Bach in Black
Violin concerto in D minor, BWV 1052r [22:00]
Erbarme dich. St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 [6:18]
Violin concerto in G minor, BWV 1056r [10:06]
Es ist vollbracht. St. John Passion, BWV 245 [4:49]
Violin concerto in A minor, BWV 1041 [13:44]
Agnus Dei. Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 [4:36]
La Voce Strumentale (on period instruments)/Dmitry Sinkovsky (violin, countertenor, director)
rec. 2016, Victor Popov Academy, Moscow. DDD
NAÏVE OP30567 [61:23]

The reason for the recording's title, "Bach in Black", is that it presents works by the Leipzig master exclusively in minor keys.

Thus, the third violin concerto on this disc is Bach's well-known one in A minor, BWV 1041, but not the other solo violin concerto, BWV 1042, which is in E Major. The two other minor-key violin concertos here are arrangements of equally familiar Bach harpsichord concertos. They are billed as reconstructions of putative original versions for violin and orchestra, hence the “r” appended to their BWV numbers. The first is a re-working of the famous D minor concerto, BWV 1052, while the second is a version of the concerto in F minor, BWV 1056, but transposed to the more violin-friendly key of G minor.

As performed by Dmitry Sinkovsky and his superbly disciplined Moscow-based period-instrument orchestra, La Voce Strumentale, both arrangements are utterly convincing as violin concertos. The solo of the first movement of BWV 1052, also the disc's first track, opens with startling gruffness from Sinkovsky's solo violin, rather reminiscent of the robust, grainy tone favoured for the music of the earlier great Austrian violin virtuoso, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.

This opening augurs the fresh and delightfully inventive approach that Sinkovsky and his team take to these three concertos. In all three, tempos are brisk in the fast outer movements, but not unduly so. In the slow movements, Sinkovsky's playing is by turns sweet, dreamy or simply ecstatic. The delicate featheriness of his bowing in these movements is breathtaking. However these are only superficial aspects of the revolutionary nature of these performances: Sinkovsky's muscular yet delicately shaped phrasing is dazzingly virtuosic and replete with fascinating ideas and constantly shifting colours, ebulliently supported by his ever-attentive and sophisticated orchestra.

The result is a performance of BWV 1041 in particular whose sharp intelligence, profound expressiveness and restless energy are quite unlike anything I have heard in this work before. I had hitherto regarded it as more worthy than brilliant, despite the fact that it is genuine Bach and most of the big names in baroque violin have tackled it and its fellows over the last several decades, including Sigiswald Kuijken, Simon Standage, Monica Huggett, Andrew Manze, Rachel Podger, Petra Müllejans and Gottfried von der Goltz, Giuliano Carmignola, Gunar Letzbor and Amandine Beyer. There have also been accounts in recent years by some rising stars of the baroque violin too. None of these has really sounded very convincing.

In the hands of Sinkovsky, however, this work truly sparkles and he reveals its staggering fecundity of ideas. What is more, Sinkovsky and his band infuse a similar, eye-opening energy into every movement of the other concertos – even in the gorgeously floating middle movement of BWV 1056, but without in the least detracting from its sensuousness. Even the stylish and nimble Monica Huggett, who included the same three concertos on her recording in 2005 (ASV Gaudeamus CD GAU 356), now seems a little stodgy and over-reverential by comparison.

Additionally, throughout all three concertos, Sinkovsky ornaments considerably more than is customary in historically informed performances of Bach's chamber and orchestral music. Those familiar with him will know that playful yet organically conceived ornamentation is always a feature of Sinkovsky's recordings. In fact, his ornamentation generally is so natural, whether he is playing Vivaldi or someone else, that renewed listening to a disc of his often reveals previously unheard embellishments. On this recording, once again, his ornamentation catches attention for its daring agility and wit, but it is never intrusive.

The instrumental works are separated by three vocal pieces, which Sinkovsky also sings in his attractive countertenor voice. All three are massive undertakings, extracted as they are from the three greatest works of sacred music from Bach's pen, the St. Matthew Passion (Erbarme dich, in which, thanks to modern technology, he both sings and plays the violin solo), the St. John Passion (Es ist vollbracht) and the Mass in B Minor (Agnus Dei). As the booklet notes writer, Larissa Kirillina, comments, when Sinkovsky began singing he was regarded as little more than a charming curiosity in view of his main occupation as a violinist. However, his performances here demonstrate that he is a considerably talented singer. It is in no way to diminish his skill to remark that he brings to his singing much of the effervescence and emotional sensitivity of his violin-playing. He captures with exquisite poignancy and intense psychological insight the melancholic mood of these three arias. He does tend to apply more vibrato than I would prefer, although far less than many currently active countertenors; but, far from being a defect in his vocal technique, this is a deliberate decision he has made. In these works too, Sinkovsky embellishes more than customary, but always strictly in the service of the verbal or musical text.

The marvellous performances are complemented by fine sound-engineering within a modern-sounding but warm, mildly resonant concert hall acoustic. The solo violin and voice are nicely balanced against the accompanying strings, with a good sense of the space around the musicians, favouring both detailed clarity and the natural tonal richness of the instruments.

A whole disc of works in minor keys may seem somewhat daunting. However, one can trust in both Bach's genius and Sinkovsky's superlative talent. This recording well deserves enthusiastic praise.

Christopher Price