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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041 [13:49]
Violin Concerto in D major, after BWV 1053, arr. Kati Debretzeni [18:39]
Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042 [16:06]
Violin Concerto in D minor, after BWV 1052 (arr. Wilfried Fischer/ Kati Debretzeni) [21:40]
Kati Debretzeni (violin), English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. 7-11 December, 2018, St Jude’s Church, Hampstead, London

The latest Bach release from Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists puts Kati Debretzeni, the orchestra’s long-serving leader, front and centre. Not only does she feature as soloist in all four concertos but also as arranger or co-arranger of two of them.

Two violin concertos by Bach have come down to us: The A major, BWV 1041 and the one in E major, BWV 1042. The A minor is a thoroughly engaging work, as is the present performance of it. The first of its three movements is suitably sprightly and Kati Debretzeni’s violin sings out in the cantabile passages while elsewhere her passagework is admirably defined. In the Andante she spins a most affecting line and Sir John, accompanying with fine attention to detail, ensures that the orchestral bass line is ideally firm. The third movement is gigue-like and I love Kati Debretzeni’s comment, referring to its triple-time metre, that the gigue is “one for a three-legged dancer!” The performance is rhythmically taut but the tautness doesn’t inhibit high spirits.

The opening movement of BWV 1042 shows off Kati Debretzeni’s energetic technique. The slow movement is an Adagio, whereas the corresponding movement in BWV 1041 is an Andante. The difference is readily apparent in that the music of the E major concerto’s slow movement is more profound. Kati Debretzeni is just as compelling as she was in the A minor concerto’s slow movement. The concerto is rounded off with a dance movement which calls for no little virtuosity. The present performance is such that the music definitely has a smile on its face.

In a short preface in the booklet, Sir John Eliot Gardiner says that the Bach violin concertos “reveal an ebullient sense of invention and rhythmic exuberance in their dance-based outer movements and a hushed intimacy in the sublime slow movements.” These two performances amply confirm that judgement.

The D minor concerto is an arrangement by Wilfried Fischer (b. 1938) of the keyboard concerto BWV 1052. Some scholars believe the concerto began life as a violin concerto (now lost) and was later arranged by Bach as a keyboard concerto; if so, Fischer’s arrangement might be said to be a “homecoming”, I suppose. Though the arrangement used here is the work of Fischer, Ms Debretzeni is also credited. In her booklet notes she makes reference to “small liberties take to make it [Fischer’s arrangement] more idiomatic”. I presume these “small liberties” to which she refers are her work. The first two movements, she writes, were incorporated into the Cantata Wir müßen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen, BWV146 and the recording sessions took her back to 2000, her inaugural year as leader of the EBS, and the celebrated Bach Cantata Pilgrimage (review). The music of the opening movement, strongly projected here, strikes me as rather severe and the EBS strings cultivate – deliberately, I’m sure – quite an astringent tone. The movement is characterised by busy passagework and I think the busy nature of the writing is accentuated because only strings (and a harpsichord continuo) are involved. To be honest, I found that all this passagework became rather too much of a good thing and there are times – for example around 2:45 – where the music, though energetic, seems becalmed and not really getting anywhere. There’s no doubting the energy and virtuosity of the performance but in this guise, I don’t think the movement quite works for me. The severity is, to some extent, carried over into the slow movement. This is a searching Adagio and it’s very expressively played by Ms Debretzeni. The finale is much more extrovert and it receives a very spirited performance. Since this concerto is placed last on the disc, this movement makes for a bracing virtuoso conclusion to the programme.

Kati Debretzeni herself is the arranger of the Violin Concerto in D minor which she has fashioned from the keyboard concerto in E major, BWV 1052. She writes about the work she undertook in some detail in the booklet. The opening movement’s music is happy and lively and I find it entirely convincing in this violin concerto format. The central movement is a slow, lilting siciliano Kati Debretzeni tells us that it was this movement which first drew her to make her arrangement. Hearing her play it with poise and expression I can understand why she was so attracted. The last movement is another example of Bach the dance composer. It’s an effervescent composition which, in this guise, features a very active violin part, though the contrasting central section has music for the soloist that is more cantabile – and chromatic – in nature.

This is a very enjoyable and skilfully performed collection of concertos. The EBS numbers just a dozen players (3//3/2/2/1 plus harpsichord) and the scale seems ideal to me. Gardiner gives his soloist admirable support throughout. The recorded sound is very pleasing: engineer Mike Hatch has delivered excellent clarity and has given the soloist just the right degree of prominence. Not content with offering expert and highly engaging playing in all four concertos, Kati Debretzeni herself has written the excellent and engaging booklet notes.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ David Dunsmore