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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Harpsichord Concertos Volume 1 .
Harpsichord Concerto No.1 in d minor, BWV1052 [21:18]
Harpsichord Concerto No.2 in E, BWV1053 [19:04 ]
Harpsichord Concerto No.4 in A, BWV1055 [13:17]
Harpsichord Concerto No.5 in f minor, BWV1056 [9:21]
La Risonanza/Fabio Bonizzoni (harpsichord)
rec. 2017, Pieve di San Donato in Polenta, Forli. DSD.
Reviewed from SACD 2-channel layer.
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72773 SACD [63:07]

We have all manner of recordings of Bach’s keyboard concertos, ranging from period-instrument style with harpsichord soloist and one instrument to a part, as here, via versions with piano solo, with or without cognizance of period style, to outré arrangements – there’s one with mandolin solo. This new recording offers the four concertos which were composed for solo keyboard from the outset, as opposed to the remaining three which were adapted by Bach from his other works. (I should add ‘probably’; it has been suggested that BWV1053 may have been adapted from an oboe concerto.)

Of the recordings with piano, Angela Hewitt with the Australian CO and Richard Tognetti (Hyperion CDA30003 and CDA67308 or CDA67607/8, 2 CDs – review review) and Murray Perahia with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields (Sony SK89245 and SK86890 or 88697742912, 3 CDs – review: NB correct catalogue number) are among the front runners.

I find both Hewitt and Perahia convincing in Bach on the piano, but it’s to the harpsichord recordings, with period-instrument accompaniment in the concertos, that I automatically turn first. Among these, Andreas Staier as soloist directing the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, with Petra Müllejans, in all seven concertos (Harmonia Mundi HMC902181/2) is well worth considering.

The very fine period recordings by Café Zimmermann, appropriately adopting the name of the Leipzig coffee house where the music was first performed, with Céline Frisch as soloist, are spread across a series of recordings of Bach’s concertos for several instruments on six Alpha albums (Volume 5, ALPHA168 reviewed in DL Roundup August 2011/1; all six CDs reissued as ALPHA811, no longer available – review). Their Brandenburg Concertos from this series were reissued separately on two very recommendable CDs at budget price some time ago (Alpha ALPHA300 – DL News 2015/9), so it may be that we shall have the keyboard concertos on a similarly-priced pairing in due course.

Reviewing the Staier as a 24-bit download from eclassical.com in September 2015 in comparison with Richard Woolley and the Purcell Quartet (Chandos, download only), I thought the performances very fine in a non-assertive way and the recording equally faithful without drawing attention to itself. They offer slightly larger forces than the one-to-a-part Café Zimmermann and La Risonanza, but with single strings in BWV1053.

In fact, Freiburg Baroque never overwhelm the music, nor do Café Zimmermann and La Risonanza with their lighter touch underwhelm it. La Risonanza provide a slightly ‘meatier’ sound than Café Zimmermann, but never at the expense of making the music sound bottom-heavy. Some time ago I made one of their very different recordings, of several of Handel’s Roman Duetti and Terzetti, a Recording of the Month (Glossa GCD921517 – review; now download only or limited CD stock from some dealers), so it came as little surprise to find them equally adept in the music of Handel’s great contemporary.

Though modern interpretations of Bach usually sound much more ‘right’ than the slower, often stodgy performances of the past, I occasionally find myself wondering if we haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater in favour of fast movements which sometimes sound hectic rather than exhilarating. It’s a very fine distinction, but I found myself wondering now and then about a new recording of the Brandenburg Concertos from a group for whom I have a great deal of respect, Zefiro, directed by Alfredo Bernardini (Arcana A452). In the end, I found myself warming to these performances, as I did to their release of three of the orchestral suites – the fourth is contained on the new Brandenburg set. Part of the problem arose from the abysmally low-quality mp3 which I had received as a press preview. Matters improved with a better-quality download, and there’s no such problem with the new Challenge Classics SACD, but the thought about tempi was still in my mind when I listened to the Bonizzoni recording.

That’s where the thought stayed; the chosen tempi throughout the harpsichord concertos are well chosen. The fast movements are never hectic, though the music is always encouraged to move forward: overall the effect is lively and colourful enough to make one want to hum or dance along with the performances. The tone of Bonizzoni's harpsichord adds to the pleasure; one hopes this is how that instrument installed in the Café Zimmermann, ‘the like of which has not been heard around here’, sounded like this.  Perhaps even Sir Thomas Beecham might be encouraged to rethink his famous dictum about the harpsichord sounding like two skeletons copulating. (I fear that he might have been right about some of the harpsichords of his day; even George Malcolm’s chosen instrument in 1964 sounds quite different from Bonizzoni’s copy of a Couchet original. The 2-CD Eloquence reissue of BWV1052 and 1053, in which Malcolm is joined by the Stuttgart CO and Karl Münchinger, coupled with Art of Fugue, 4825187, is both surprisingly stylish and yet of its time – review review).

The slow movements, too, have a strong sense of momentum. At 5:48 I wondered if Bonizzoni’s tempo for the adagio of BWV1052, here performed from Bach’s autograph score, might sound a tad relentless – Staier gives the music significantly longer to develop – but I need not have worried. The same is true of the larghetto of BWV1055 – only direct comparison, Building a Library style, reveals the difference between Bonizzoni’s 4:24 and Staier’s 5:14. Ditto the apparent difference between 2:16 (Challenge) and Céline Frisch’s 2:43 (ALPHA168) in the adagio of BWV1056.

The Challenge Classics recording, as heard from the high-definition stereo layer is very good – clear but warm; I can’t comment on the surround option. The CD layer also sounds fine, if lacking a little of the clarity. In fact, this disc offers a very good demonstration of the subtle but significant improvement which SACD can bring, so it’s a great pity that so many record companies have abandoned the format. At least 24-bit downloads compensate, with HD-quality sound, but usually at a premium price when hybrid SACDs cost the same as regular CDs. Since it costs no more to offer 24-bit downloads than the 16-bit equivalents, when it must cost more to produce an SACD than a CD, the logic of that pricing policy escapes me. (Surprisingly, no-one seems to be offering this new recording in 24-bit, so SACD it has to be.)

For a single CD of these four keyboard concertos, there’s no preferable recording available. If you are looking forward to more from this team, I join you in that aspiration too.

Brian Wilson




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