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

Bach Violin Concertos

Screen Shot 2013 03 18 at 11 33 16 PM The Freiburger Barockorchester has recorded four concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach: BWV 1043, 1042, 1041, and 1064R. The soloists are Gottfried von der Goltz, Petra Müllejans, and the triple violin concerto adds Anne Katharina Schreiber. ℗ 2013 Harmonia Mundi France. From my many recordings featuring the soloists, I've found von der Goltz to be a most clean player, who adds just a touch of feeling to a phrase; Müllejans might be my favorite among the two, capable at times, of pushing the emotional envelope. Here, the two are featured in the double violin concerto, and each take a solo concerto, before concluding with a reconstruction of Bach's C-major harpsichord concerto (here transposed into the key of D major). If you're like me, you probably already own most of these concertos already. My collection includes the well-sold set by Simon Standage and the English Concert with Elizabeth Wilcock; I later added the AAM under Manze with Rachael Podger. Musica Antiqua Köln never recorded these works. Monica Huggett has, with Ensemble Sonnerie, in a 1-per-part orientation. In my collection, Huggett is joined by Musica Alta Ripa and Café Zimmermann. The triple concerto has also been done by the AAM under Hogwood. Lots of "competition."

Concerto d-moll à 2, BWV 1043

The first movement bounces, which I find interesting. The harpsichord clearly cuts through the orchestral texture, and the two soloists sound different enough; one has a thinner tone than the other. The middle movement is slow (I prefer the tempo adopted by Manze and Podger in their well-played Proms video on YouTube). These soloists play the lines very cleanly, with just the right amount of vibration for my taste. The harpsichord plays with its lute stop on. The sound of the orchestra is large; despite the depth of sound, the two soloists come across very clearly in the foreground. The last movement could have some more push to the tempo, for my taste. The playing all around is well done, but I'd only wish it didn't sound quite so "clean," by which I mean, it comes off as a studio recording, perhaps just a tad "safe." With Fabio Biondi, I often get the sense he's taking a few "chances" with his playing. With the FBO, it's well done, but almost just too perfect. Is that possible? Or has my taste gone all Italian? As a comparison, listen to Fabio Biondi's Bach Concertos album from 1999. His reading is of a different set of concertos, but his read of the BWV 1052 arrangement is simply arresting.

Concerto E-dur à 1, BWV 1042

Again, the harpsichord comes across really clear in the ensemble. I noticed this in the earlier concerto, but with headphones, I'm suspicious of what makes this so; the sound is almost "clacky." The chosen tempo for the first movement is spot-on, and von der Goltz is the soloist. He has a beautiful sound to his lower register. His intonation is also very true. The whole enterprise comes off easily, making it sound easy for the ensemble. This probably means it has been well-rehearsed. Right before the recapitulation, Bach gives an opportunity to insert a cadenza, which hardly anyone ever does. Von der Goltz takes a liberty, but it's short lived before the tune starts-up again. He does contribute some ornamentation and extemporization at the theme's final go, which is nice, but like in the first concerto, it comes across so well-done that it left nothing "to chance." I know, that's perhaps not a fair comment in a studio recording. The middle movement is a hard one to endure for me; this one clocks-in at 6:09. The soloist's phrasing doesn't sound "typical," and in fact, he pushes the theme a little bit, preventing the orchestra from dragging. The third movement is a very happy one, and FBO again nails a really strong tempo. Drama really never develops between the soloist and orchestra, despite a few opportunities Bach provides. Von der Goltz always sounds strong against his band's playing.

Concerto a-moll à 1, BWV 1041

This is my favorite of the violin concertos by Bach, it's probably the minor key. The chosen tempo allows Müllejans to articulate everything very clearly and cleanly. The sound of her instrument blends a little more than her colleague's; like her colleague, she adds a few ornaments for the audience's interest, but different is her articulation style, which is less detached. The middle movement has a real shape to the opening, it feels as if some giant is the one driving the repeated bass notes, and somehow its lumbering is pulling things down with the help of gravity. I am not sure it's the only solution to the phrasing, but it works okay. The soloist's line is somehow free from this stretching and pulling, which is nicely done with mild dynamics. The concluding gigue closer kicks up the drama a bit with the chosen tempo, and for once, the FBO is turning up the excite-o-meter. It's a nice set-up for Müllejans, who is up to the task of tackling the solo with the speed behind her. The momentum isn't omnipresent, but the FBO lays on volume during the break before the recapitulation. I don't care for how they handle the transition; again, they hint at a cadenza, but slow things down too far in the process. Things improve by the end, with Müllejans clearly heard above the other strings with the repeated figure. It carries Bach's intent for drama, but somehow the orchestra out-does the drama by the end on their own—having stolen it from the soloist.

Concerto D-dur à 3, BWV 1064R

This is one of the few major-keyed concertos by Bach that kind of swings in a strong way. The FBO get that, but I could have gone for a faster opening tempo. There's also some real opportunity for some sass from the bass line, but these folks don't indulge Bach's tease as nearly as far as I would have taken it. The orchestra and violins are again well-captured and it is easy to tell the trio apart from their backers. Despite the clean playing and well-captured sound, the whole lot just sounds a little bit too safe. The middle movement clocks-in at 5:40, which feels like a decent tempo at the start, but ultimately feels too slow by the end; I felt the soloists could have pushed the lines a bit for some more flexible interplay. I also felt the band could have backed-off a little in terms of their volume. I think of all the concertos recorded, this is the most finely wrought. The final movement comes across at a good, fast tempo, but if they can play it cleanly this fast, why not up- the tempo in the first? This final movement reveals just what technically-talented these players are, you rarely hear soloists play so solidly throughout their range. Hats off, too, to the recording team from Harmonia Mundi for capturing the sound as clearly as they do. At about 2:28 into the movement, the real fireworks start, and that part is what makes this a favorite of mine. The playing from 3 min-3:20 or so into it is very strong, too. But the playing is so strong and clean, that we never get a sense that the soloists are under any duress. And that duress, I'm afraid, is what builds the drama. I'd hate to fault anyone for playing so well, but my preferred performance is by the Academy of Ancient Music. Their tempo for the final movement is not as ambitious, and the recording isn't perhaps as luxurious, but the drama that Bach wrote into the music comes across in those difficult passages. The bass is also cleaner in the texture, which I think, helps with the articulation with our own feet as we listen. You simply feel these violinists are on the edge a bit more, which comes across more daring and dramatic. I am most upset, however, that they didn't take the opportunity to add some extemporization where Bach provides the outlet. Come on, when you just made it through all of that challenging material, let's really show off something… instead they took it safe and took Bach's hook back into the main theme. Oh well.

(BWV 1041 opening) Taking comparisons further, Monica Huggett's release from just a few years ago suffers from a less-clear recording. Recording or not, the solo instruments employed by the Germans speak better in the upper registers. (BWV 1041 opening) AAM under Manze's sound is compressed from the orchestra, yet he emerges very clearly apart from the ensemble. He's also got some interesting articulations under this sleeves. (BWV 1041 opening) English Concert under Pinnock with Standage has a clearer-sounding opening than either Huggett or Manze. Standage also comes across clearly, if not thin, but with a good tone. His lower register sounds a little "mushy" compared to his clear upper range. The EC offers some dynamic contrasts, but not nearly to the degree that the AAM under Manze does. (BWV 1041 opening) Café Zimmermann pushes tempo fast. The sound is clear, especially so from the bowed bass in my right ear. There's not as clear separation from the soloist with the rest of the ensemble. (BWV 1041 opening) Musica Alta Ripa goes back to a more reasonable tempo adopted by the others, with a really rich sound to the recording. The orchestra sounds small and in the background, while the soloist (Ursula Bundies) comes across clearly and cleanly in the texture. Nothing controversial. Going back to the FBO's new recording, the orchestra by itself is not nearly as clear or upfront as some of the others, at least with headphones on. They do offer some of the nicest sounding violins for the solos, at least tonally speaking.
It's hard to pick any one favorite, from concerto to concerto! There's a lot to enjoy among a lot of different, available recordings. The thing you may be interested in knowing is if there's anything significantly different in these new performances. The playing, technically, would be hard to beat. If I had only one recording to enjoy, this could be it. But that said, I'd really be a happier listener if I felt this recording was closer to a "live performance," where I felt some chances were being taken. Instead, they went for planned perfection. This is a tradeoff: do you make a record that is even enough to survive repeated listenings? Or do you capture that one special performance that took some stylistic chances? Most ensembles record safe, and play it looser in the performance hall. The only problem is, I don't have any recordings that do that with Bach's three violin concertos. As a bonus with this record, we get BWV 1064R, which has not been as popular in recordings. So, this new release for me isn't perfect. But as a single release of Bach's violin concerti, it may be the single strongest record released yet on historical instruments.

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