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Bach’s Musical Offerings
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering), BWV1079 (arr. Raaf Hekkema) [40:48]
4 Canons, BWV1087 (arr. Raaf Hekkema) [4:27]
Canonische Veränderungen (Canonic Variations) über Vom Himmel hoch, BWV769 (arr. Raaf Hekkema) [22:22]
Calefax (reed quintet)
rec. Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem, the Netherlands, June 2020. DDD/DSD
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview
PENTATONE PTC5186840 SACD [67:39] 

There are, proverbially, many ways to skin a cat. I haven’t tried that, but I have listened to some of the many ways there are to perform Bach’s Musical Offering, ranging from the organ and a small, minimalist group to a chamber orchestra. Then you can throw caution to the winds and re-arrange the music for a reed quintet. At this point, both lovers of ‘traditional’ Bach in the manner of Karl Münchinger and outright period-instrument fanciers should probably get someone to tie them down in their chair, like Odysseus tied to the mast to hear the Sirens, but for the opposite reason.

The Musical Offering was Bach’s answer to the musical challenge which Frederick the Great threw at him when he visited his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, at the royal court. There’s no doubt that Frederick was musical – a talented flautist, as exemplified on a Naxos recording of his music (Naxos Late 2020), he employed a number of musicians, of whom CPE was but one. If you missed Music for a King, compositions for the Prussian court, you may be too late for the physical product; it seems now to be download only (CCS41819, Florilegium). That very fine programme of music by Quantz, the Grauns, CH and JG, Muthel, Benda, Fasch and CPE Bach opens with the three-part Ricercar from the Musical Offering.

Having praised the period-instrument Florilegium and the BIS recording of the Offering from the Japan Bach Collegium and Masaaki Suzuki (Retro Late 2020), you might expect me to throw my hands up in horror at the Pentatone recording on modern instruments – even including a lupophone, illustrated in the booklet, in case you didn’t know what it was. In fact, I rather enjoyed the experience, though I don’t expect to make this recording my regular port of call for this elusive masterpiece. Elusive, but well caught in these performances.

The booklet is well worth reading, not least for the suggestion that Bach was simultaneously poking fun at the new empfindsamer Stil of the younger composers in Frederick’s employ and stressing the importance of the fugue – not the royal favourite musical form – and the older styles with erudite Latin titles.

On the whole, I think Bach would have approved of the arrangement and the performance, including the rather boogie-woogie rendition of Thematis Regii Elaborationes Canonicae III (track 8). It’s no coincidence that jazz musicians love Bach and that arrangements like those of the Swingle Singers work so well.

The Offering alone would make a rather short CD or SACD, so, as with most recordings, Calefax add arrangements of other Bach compositions, notably the Canonic Variations on the Christmas chorale Vom Himmel hoch, with its allusions to other music for the period, including his own Christmas Oratorio. If anything, that would be a more welcome coupling for most listeners than the ‘Goldberg’ canons, for harpsichord alone, on the BIS recording. Again, it’s well realised - I’m just not too sure of the ‘penny whistle’ sound which briefly rounds off the final variation and with it the whole programme.

The fourteen variations of this work held deep numerological significance for Bach – apply numbers to the letters of his name and add them up to see why. He had chosen to wait to become a member of the learned Korrespondierenden Sozietät der musicalischen Wissenschaften in order to become member No. 14, and the form of the canonic variations held especial significance for him, as exemplified by his choosing to hold the score of such a composition for the Hausmann portrait, reproduced in full in the booklet and in detail on the front cover.

Calefax have made several recordings for Pentatone. Richard Kraus welcomed Hidden Gems ‘for brilliant wind playing and intelligent musicianship’ – review – and that’s equally true of this Bach release. Only those without open ears and minds need steer clear.

Brian Wilson

Oliver Boekhoorn (oboe, oboe d’amore & cor anglais)
Ivar Berix (clarinet & E-flat clarinet)
Raaf Hekkema (soprano & alto saxophone)
Jelte Althuis (basset horn & bass clarinet)
Alban Wesly (bassoon)
with Arthur Klaassens (lupophone & cor anglais)

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