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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV1052 [19:35]
Sinfonia: Cantata BWV174 ‘Ich liebe den Höchesten von ganzem Gemüte’ [5:12]
Violin Concerto No. 2 in E major, BWV1042 [15:14]
Cantata BWV21 'Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis': Sinfonia [3:05]
Trio Sonata in C Major, BWV 529 [11:36]
Concerto for Oboe & Violin in C minor, BWV1060 [12:25]
Ouverture No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067 [22:02]
Trio Sonata in D Minor, BWV 527 [12:10]
Violin Concerto in G Minor, BWV 1056R [9:19]
Cantata BWV182 'Himmelskönig, sei willkommen': Sinfonia [2:16]
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV1041 [11:31]
Concerto in D major, BWV1045 [5:30]
Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV1043 [13:34]
Isabelle Faust (violin)
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Bernhard Forck (violin)
rec. 2017/18, Teldex Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902335.36 [67:15 + 76:33]

This set is a real treat. It’s typical of Isabelle Faust that her exploration of Bach’s music for violin and orchestra should stretch the boundaries of what we normally expect from such a disc and break new ground in this repertoire. Just play the three acknowledged concertos? No chance! Faust and her colleagues in the Akademie für Alte Musik decide also to explore Bach’s vanished violin music.

In the booklet notes, Faust contends that for an established violin virtuoso like J.S. Bach, there must have been more music for violin and orchestra than the two solo concertos and the double concerto. More of it must have been lost; so she and her team reconstruct likely candidates and give us a fresh take on other works that listeners will know from other incarnations, be they harpsichord concertos, cantata Sinfonias or even one of the four Orchestra Suites (Ouvertures).

If you’re going to break boundaries then you should do it classily, and it’s a testament to Faust’s effort that this never feels hackneyed or gimmicky. Instead it all feels remarkably natural, and I think it works brilliantly. The D minor concerto BWV1052 is probably most familiar in its harpsichord version, but here it sounds as though it were made for the violin all along. It’s almost more suited in places: in the harpsichord version the soloist can sound as though they’re spiralling around the music like an angry spider, but the violin here sounds like an evil genius driving things forward, and there is a knockout moment in the first movement where Faust’s violin takes on a spectral, shadowy sound that’s like a ghost in a horror film.

That’s indicative of a warmly pictorial approach to the sound picture that you get throughout. There is never anything generic about either the violin playing or the orchestral sound, which repeatedly gets a nudge in an interesting or unexpected direction. Listen, for example, to the sense of gentle fun that, unusually, accompanies the final iteration of the main theme in the E major concerto’s opening movement; only one example of how delicately shaded the orchestral texture always is. The notes are a bit imprecise as to whether the orchestra is being directed by Faust herself or by Bernhard Forck, the principal first violin. That, however, is kind of the point: this is a collective endeavour that’s fully at the service of the music, and is all the better for that.

That spirit is probably at its best in the E major concerto: in this concerto especially, the violin is very much primus inter pares, emerging from the orchestral texture as though a member of the band, with no undue (or unnecessary) spotlighting. Faust is entirely at one with its genial spirit, anyway, while still managing some gorgeous singing tone in the poignant slow movement. Similarly, the violin flows in and out of the texture beautifully in the A minor Violin Concerto, First Among Equals again, achieving an impressive range of textures in the throbbing slow movement. Indeed, that singing tone crops up repeatedly, perhaps best of all in the aria-like slow movement of BWV 1056, a real knockout sound, coming between two outer movements that are full of grace and ideal charm.

Of all Bach’s “Orchestral Suites”, the second has always stood out for its prominent solo flute part, reinforcing the idea that it’s virtually a concerto in disguise. By replacing the flute with a violin, Faust makes that line much more a part of the orchestral picture and thus feeding further into the sense of this as a collective endeavour. There is a beautifully unified feel to the suite’s Overture. The Bourées dance and the Menuets swing, but there is also the opportunity for some delightful ornamentations in the Polonaise, and there’s a rakish swing to the Badinerie.

The Trio Sonatas are very different beasts to the concertos, and rightly so. There is a sense of lightness and bustle to the outer movements, particular in BWV 529, while there is more delicacy and refinement to BWV 527. However, both demonstrate what is gained when the violin and oboe combine, and that comes into its own in the “double concertos” with orchestra. BWV 1060 is particularly fine, its slow movement sounding like a love duet, and its finale possessing both tripping lightness and clean determination. The Sinfonia from Cantata 21 also has a beautiful, almost bel canto quality to it, and 182’s is remarkably persuasive. 1045’s, on the other hand, crackles with electricity, the violin holding itself against the-brass-and-percussion-heavy texture. The Sinfonia from Cantata 174, most familiar as the first movement of the third Brandenburg Concerto, is a total joy, particularly the staccato horns that sound like bubbles popping in mid-air.

Only in the Double Violin Concerto did I wish for a bit more forthrightness from the soloist(s), particularly in the great Largo movement, whose famous main theme is one of Bach’s most inspiring, lyrical outpourings, and I wish the violinists had had a little more spotlighting in order to give the theme its due.

This quibble aside, though, this is a remarkable and refreshing look at Bach’s works for violin and orchestra, a daring reimagining of his canon that celebrates his violinist’s skill and, perhaps most remarkably of all, makes you believe that these reconstructions just might be genuine.

Simon Thompson