Sato - Bach Concertos
Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach Violin Concertos (BWV 1041, 1042, 1043, 1056R). Shunske Sato, Il Pomo d’Oro. Erato, (p) 2018; Time: 52:00; Rating: (4.5/5).
This new recording by Sato and members of Il Pomo d’Oro continues a recent trend to record baroque works using a single player per part orchestration. This was done some years ago by Monica Huggett and Ensemble Sonnerie, which at the time, seemed a daring move. The new recording by Marcin Swiatkiewicz from Channel Classics does the same thing with Bach’s harpsichord concertos. The aural effect of using a small ensemble is a tricky one to gauge from a recording. With the twist of a volume knob, I can make five players louder than a full sixty-person orchestra. And that makes recording one per part more lucrative for those involved: payment for the album gets cut up into larger chunks for the payout. But Bach, as might be easily pursuaded, was likely a pragmatic character. And while we may be quite used to hearing them performed with "chamber sized orchestras" the smaller forces still work, and especially with this recording, they work well.
Sato records the three “main” violin concertos by Bach, BWV 1041-1043, joined by Zefira Valova for the double concerto. As a bonus, Sato records a reconstructed version of the harpsichord concerto, BWV 1056, believed to have been originally written for oboe or violin.
Sato and company play with timing, adding small but detectable pauses between phrases. It’s something the Pinnoock/Hogwood generation might never have tried, but for me, these excursions of rubato are stylish and help propel the music. Sato also isn’t shy about using dynamics, especially on longer-held notes. Both these traits are audible in just about every track on the record. And we might argue that using smaller forces makes this all possible, or at least, more convenient.
While I think Sato is certainly a capable player in the faster movements, both technically and when given some interpretive freedom with style, it’s in the slower movements that he makes the biggest (what I might call) improvements over older recordings. In the slow movement of BWV 1041, he pushes the tempo enough to let the movement feel less pedantic and elongated; in fact, it’s written andante and the chosen tempo feels like someone walking and ruminating with a sublime melody.
The E-major concerto’s middle movement in the negative mode can also drag with some performances for me. It starts with the most interesting things happening in the bass and some performances seem to take forever to present the theme. Under Sato’s leadership, Il Pomo d’Oro chooses a much more appropriate tempo, without anything feeling rushed. And he’s come even more out of his shell, embellishing Bach’s line, conveying a fresh reading on what is likely for many listeners an already familiar tune.
In the double concerto, both Sato and Valova meld together quite nicely, even as they go off “record” and add their own melodic embellishments. It’s a great place to also make note of the violin tone used throughout the recording: Sato (and Valova) convincingly play with hardly any semblance of vibrato used, and both violins have a penetrating but warm tone. In some ways the playing (tone production especially) reminds me of the playing by Gottfried van der Goltz; Sato is certainly making the case for more improvisation, more than most baroque violinists contribute.
The finale to the G minor concerto, BWV 1056R, shows off best Sato’s treatment of phrasing. He treats each melodic episode as a phrase group, which I find is the more appropriate way to think about the solo violin part, rather than a perhaps more romantic notion of connecting several phrases together in an arc. And it’s just that diversity in style between phrases that makes his playing stand out. And before the movement’s conclusion, he manages to insert a small little cadenza, which is historically appropriate.
There are many great recordings of Bach’s violin concertos available, even by baroque ensembles (the recent one by Petra Mullejans with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra stands out as an especially good record). If I were to criticize anything about this release I was in want for more transparency and clarity in the recorded sound. A somewhat washed-out sound was captured (which in part helps to convey the ensemble sounding larger than it was) with reverb. The soloists are kept somewhat forward, but with headphones, I’d have preferred a slightly more drier sound, given the small force. That quibble aside, this record captures an excellent and musically engaging performance and represents not only a trend of using smaller orchestral forces, but also of performers tickling us with more ornamentation and improvisational gestures which seem to better capture the spirit of this era’s music.