I love music.

I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

A Musical Offering

Imagine being invited over for an evening, and your host, a wealthy man, whom you ought to respect due to his high social standing, and the fact he's your son's boss... He invites you to improvise at the piano, because he's heard you're quite the musician. You sit down to play, but he thinks this is to easy. He wants to push the limits. He gives you a tune to improvise upon, and it's chromatic. Being worth the rumors told about you, you set out and improvise a 3-part fugue based on the theme... wow, all are impressed. Who are you, another JS Bach?

Bach's Musical Offering, BWV 1079, was offered, at Bach's expense, as a gift to Frederick the Great in Potsdam after being invited to perform for the king. It contains two ricercares, one a 3, and one a 6. In addition are various sundry canons based on the chromatic theme, and to boot, a trio sonata for violin and flute. It just so happens the 'royal theme' is embedded in there too. And so the Musical Offering stands as one of Bach's supreme works in contrapuntal design, written near the end of his life.

JS Bach: the Musical Offering, Ensemble Sonnerie, (p) 1996 Virgin Veritas

I'm not always sugar-sweet happy on what Ensemble Sonnerie does. Some of their releases, honestly, were a bit staid. However, this disc stands out (along with their recording of the Fontana sonatas) as one of their best. Certainly got a lot of people's attention. From the JS Bach website: For those who appreciate a creative approach to a great work, this CD offers the most enjoyable interpretation of this masterpiece I have ever heard. The wealth of instruments brought to this recording, all period instruments, help to give voice to the work's profound intricacy, an intricacy often difficult to discern when played on just one or two harpsichords.

I agree! This work took on new meaning for me with the colorful palette of sound offered by three flavors of oboe, bassoon, gambe, tenor viola, and violin, flute, and harpsichord. All performed by some of London's (and Europe's) better period-instrument specialists. What makes the recording so special are the "extremes" reached in the performance of the canons.

The trio sonata is well played too, with sensitive contributions from Monica Huggett and Wilbert Hazelzet.

Above all else, I enjoyed the instrumental performance (in addition to the solo harpsichord version) of the Ricercare a 6. Webern arranged this movement for orchestra and the comparison of the two is striking.

A well performed, and extremely enjoyable release.

Bach: The Musical Offering Davitt Moroney, See, Holloway, ter Linden (p) 1987 harmonia mundi France

My first recording of this work is performed by another suite of celebrated European baroque specialists. Reissued several times, it remains in the catalogue in the guise seen to the left. While less colorful and extrovert than the Huggett release, it offers a compatible trio sonata and a better reading of the ricercares on harpsichord.

Two harpsichords are used here for the canons. While well matched in timbre, the result is mostly musically unsatisfying. Perhaps for the academic pursuits of score the double harpsichord version has merit, but I'd much prefer a more inventive approach, as the one offered by Sonnerie is a crowning example. I often go-back to this recording as a point of comparison.

Clean recording, just performances. Outdone and outmoded, however, by the inventive creativity borne in the Huggett/Sonnerie release above.

This review first appeared online in December, 2004.

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