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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin Concertos
A minor, BWV 1041 [12:42]
E major, BWV 1042 [16:10]
D minor for two violins, BWV 1043 [13:42]
D minor, BWV 1052R [19:19]
G minor, BWV 1056R [9:19]
D major for three violins, BWV 1064R [15:52]
Sinfonia in D, BWV 1045
Isabelle Faust, Christoph Poppen, Muriel Cantoreggi (violins)
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
rec. 1999/2000, Stadthalle, Leonberg; Stadthalle, Sindelfingen, Germany
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC HC18054 [42:54 + 51:40]

Surprisingly given their source, these discs are very poorly documented. There seems to be some confusion as to whether Isabelle Faust’s Christian name ends in an ‘e’ or not (it does). There are no programme notes at all, a serious lack given the complex musicological issues surrounding at least three of these seven works. And we are not told who plays the solo concertos (BWV 1041-2) on the first disc: I assume it’s Christoph Poppen, given that Hänssler do let on that it is Isabelle Faust who is the main soloist on the second disc, and that she seems to have a warmer tone and slightly lighter touch than the violinist we hear on disc 1. But maybe the player I hear as Poppen might simply be Faust on a different day and in a different acoustic? Who’s to say? All we need, of course, are a couple of asterisks in the inlay booklet to clear up the mystery for good and all.

We must briefly summarize what I referred to obliquely just now as the “complex musicological issues”. Anyone with a basic knowledge of BWV (“Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis”) numbers will know that we don’t ‘normally’ associate BWV 1052, 1056 or 1064 with the violin, but rather with the harpsichord or piano. The D minor and G minor concertos were first published for, and are usually played by, a single keyboard soloist, whereas the D major concerto BWV 1064 employs three. What we have on the second disc here are arrangements or reconstructions of all three works for an equivalent number of violins; but matters are complicated still further by the fact that the outer movements of BWV 1056 are believed to have been initially intended for the violin, rather than for a keyboard soloist. Moreover what is here labelled the ‘Sinfonia in D, BWV 1045’ (other recordings call it a ‘Concerto’) seems to have been written originally for inclusion in a now lost cantata. As such, it has been included by Ton Koopman and Masaaki Suzuki in their recorded traversals of the cantatas.

In terms of completeness, these two – not very well-filled – discs plainly offer considerably more than the three indisputably authentic violin concertos, BWV 1041-3; but they do not include the fairly well-known Concerto in D minor, BWV 1060, for either two violins or violin and oboe, or indeed the arrangement of Keyboard Concerto BWV 1055 which has been recorded by Alina Ibragimova and Rachel Podger. So what we have is arguably both a valuable selection and a slightly uncomfortable half-way house.

The performances are reissues of discs that first appeared separately in the early years of the present century, but don’t seem to have been reviewed on MWI. Disc 1 offers BWV 1041-3, with (presumably) Poppen and, in the Double Concerto, Faust. They use modern instruments but, as one would expect from readings that also involve Helmuth Rilling (who, I see, is still going strong at 86), their playing is thoroughly historically informed. In matters of tempo, indeed, they out-pace many period instrument performances, especially in the outer movements. These tend towards the brisk, crisp and rather unyielding. They’re not heavy or foursquare, and they admirably eschew any anachronistic sentimentality; but they are, well, a bit unsmiling, even relentless. The recording doesn’t help, rather close and bright, and not always conveying the nameless violinist’s tone in the most ingratiating of lights. The saving graces are the slow movements of BWV 1041 and 1042, both played relatively ‘straight’, but with a sense of delicacy and spiritual repose that arguably escapes these performers elsewhere. Overall I would say these are good, but by no means great performances of these standard repertoire works, and I wouldn’t recommend you buy them in preference to any others you already love. Personally I shan’t be jettisoning Manze, or indeed Grumiaux, any time soon.

Disc 2 offers less familiar fare (at least on the violin), possibly a new principal soloist, and certainly a different acoustic (on my equipment it comes across as rather warmer and softer, and that’s all to the good). There’s a lot to enjoy here. The brief ‘Sinfonia’ is a terrific piece that I confess is new to me, but which strongly conveys the combination of ceremonial excitement and underlying spiritual certainty you get in plenty of Bach cantatas and, for that matter, in the Brandenburgs. As to the three concertos normally heard with keyboard, they all work perfectly well on the violin. The technical demands are plainly considerable, especially at the fast speeds that Rilling continues to favour; but Faust is very much equal to them. Moreover her performances convey a slightly but crucially greater degree of relaxation than do those on the companion disc, and there is a good sense of dialogue between soloist and orchestra. As before, though, the artists seem to be at their best in the slower movements. The ‘adagio’ of BWV 1052R, for example, whilst not slow, conveys an appropriately grave dignity; and the great ‘largo’ of BWV 1056R – is superbly done. Faust spins out its great melody with a near-perfect mix of sweetness and purposeful momentum, and in doing so hints, perhaps for the only time on these discs, at the kind of spiritual profundity you experience in truly special Bach performances. Significantly or not, this was the only time during the three reconstructed concertos that I felt I was actually preferring the violin I was hearing to the more usual harpsichord. Elsewhere both seemed equally valid; though I concluded whilst listening to BWV 1064R that, purely as sound, the effect of three solo harpsichords is perhaps richer and less tiring on the ear than that of three solo violins – well though, Faust, Poppen and Muriel Cantoreggi work together.

So then, what we have here is a good, at times very good conspectus of Bach concertos conceived or otherwise suitable for the violin. The documentation is, as I say, execrable; but in all other respects the discs are well worth their now modest price. Just don’t expect the kind of ‘wow!’ moments you get when listening to Bach as channelled by his very greatest interpreters.

Nigel Harris

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