- Ton Koopman and Members of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra: Johann Sebastian Bach: Musikallisches Opfer BWV 1079 on Challenge Classics (2008)
- Masaaki Suzuki - Bach Collegium Japan: J.S. Bach: Musiklaisches Opfer on BIS (2017)
The story of Bach’s Musical Offering is an interesting one. I’ve dedicated two podcast episodes to pieces from this collection, and also enjoyed a book that focuses on the work, Evening in the Palace of Reason) which acts, if you will, as very extended liner notes to the context behind the work.
Ton Koopman has twice recorded the work; the one referenced here is his later recording. Ton Koopman was also a teacher to Masaaki Suzuki, and some commentators have drawn notice to the similarity in some of their harpsichord playing. I thought looking at the two recordings together in a review would be interesting.
The music is divided, if you will, into three sets: the ricercars (fugues, one in 3 parts and one in 6); the canons, and the trio sonata. And the whole thing is linked together with the use of a “royal theme,” supposedly the fugue subject suggested by Frederick the Great when Bach went to visit his court, where his son had employment as the main keyboard player.
Could old Bach be tricked or out-foxed? Frederick gave him an almost impossible chromatic theme to work out into a fugue. And Bach attempted to do so live, without preparation.
“Thank you, sir. Now how about in six parts, now.”
Bach supposedly was not satisfied with his result in the six-part fugue, so after arriving back in Leipzig, he set about to have printed this collection as a gift, “a musical offering” to the King. It’s all very interesting because we don’t know what Frederick thought, but we do know his musical style preference was probably not ideally-aligned to Bach’s more old-fashioned contrapuntal style.
Koopman is not afraid to “ornament the hell” out of the music. Does it need it? There are many of the opinion that a lot of Bach is fine as it’s written; obviously Koopman doesn’t agree. He peppers the piece with a significant amount of ornamentation, especially so in the two ricercars. For me, I love it. It’s unexpected, at first, and there’s a little bit of tongue-in-cheek humor at play too. I picture Koopman this musical nerd who is finding the crannies to fill and relishing his solutions.
Koopman’s harpsichord is closely miked, which I like.
Koopman’s collaborators (in the canons especially) come off as less confident and energetic as those in the Suzuki recording. Both employ flute and violin as voice instruments.
Suzuki plays the ricercars much closer “to the book.” As a piece of contrapuntal art, two very densely written, I can understand why he might take the position of thinking the score was more than adequate.
The sound of the solo harpsichord is far more distant, even more thin, than the one in Koopman’s recording. His recording also includes additional music: The 14 canons on the Goldberg Variations theme, BWV 1087, and the flute sonata, BWV 1038. BWV 1038 its played here as a trio sonata with violin and flute, and as far as Bach works go, is very forward-styled.
Suzuki’s ensemble playing with the violin and flute is well-captured in the recording and features strong players. Both recordings have good performances of the trio sonata.
Monica Huggett some years ago recorded BWV 1079 and her recording stood out because of how she pushed the limits with the canons (they were left as puzzles to solve, and they tried a few more combinations) and the colors she employed with wind instruments. It’s been a favorite recording of mine.
These two are like minded. As far as the recordings go, Koopman for me is the more interesting interpreter. Yet Suzki’s recording presents a wider variety of music. The inclusion of the Goldberg canons (BWV 1087) is nice; it’s a short work and won’t be presented on its own. They are interesting pieces and survive because they were jotted down on a small amount of extra staff paper. Bach submitted the canons for his induction into a learned musical society around the same time he would have been finishing his contrapuntal masterpieces, BWV 1079 and BWV 1080, the Art of Fugue.