musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Violin Concertos

[I] "Violin Concertos"
Shunske Sato, Zefira Valovaa, violin
Il Pomo d'Oro
rec: Feb 12 - 18, 2018, Lonigo (I)
Erato - 0190295633875 (© 2018) (52'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E (BWV 1042); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in g minor (BWV 1056R); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in a minor (BWV 1041); Concerto for two violins, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1043)a

Zefira Valova, Stefano Rossi, Claudio Radoa, violin; Giulio D'Alessio, viola; Ludovico Minasi, cello; Riccardo Coelati, double bass; Federica Bianchi, Anna Fontanaa, harpsichord

[II] "Violin Concertos, Sinfonias, Overture, Sonatas"
Isabelle Faust, Bernhard Forck, violin
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: Bernhard Forck
rec: Dec 2017 & Sept 2018, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902335.36 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (2.23'48")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for oboe, violin, strings and bc in c minor (BWV 1060R); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1052R); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E (BWV 1042); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in g minor (BWV 1056R); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in a minor (BWV 1041); Concerto for two violins, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1043); Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV 182) (sonata); Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21) (sinfonia); Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte (BWV 174) (sinfonia); Overture for violin, strings and bc in a minor (BWV 1067); Sinfonia for violin and orchestra in D (BWV 1045); Sonata for organ [2 violins and bc] in C (BWV 529); Sonata for organ [oboe, violin and bc] in d minor (BWV 527)

Xenia Löfller, recorder, oboe; Michael Bosch, Eleonora Trivella, oboe; Erwin Wieringa, Miroslav Rovenský, horn; Christian Beuse, bassoon; Uute Hartwich, Helen Barsby, Michael Dallmann, trumpet; Bernhard Forck, Kerstin Erben, Gudrun Engelhardt, Thomas Graewe, Uta Peters, Dörte Wetzel, Barbara Halfter, Emmanuelle Bernard, Edburg Forck, violin; Sabine Fehlandt, Anja-Regine Graewel, Annette Geiger, viola; Jan Freiheit, Barbara Kernig, Antje Geusen, cello; Walter Rumer, Michael Neuhaus, double bass; Raphael Alpermann, harpsichord; Friedhelm May, timpani

[III] "Violin Concertos"
Kati Debretzeni, violin
The English Baroque Soloists
Dir: John Eliot Gardiner

rec: Dec 7 - 11, 2018, London, St Jude's Church, Hampstead
Soli Deo Gloria - SDG732 (© 2019) (70'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Concerto for violin, strings and bc in D (after Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in E, BWV 1053) (ed. K. Debretzeni); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1052); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E (BWV 1042); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in a minor (BWV 1041)

Anne Schumann, Iona Davies, Jane Gordon, Oliver Webber, Roy Mowatt, Henrietta Wayne, violin; Fanny Paccoud, Monika Grimm, viola; Marco Frezzato, Catherine Rimer, cello; Valerie Botwright, double bass; James Johnstone, harpsichord


Johann Sebastian Bach's violin concertos rank among the most popular and most frequently-performed instrumental works of the baroque period. There is certainly no lack of recordings, and one wonders whether it is possible to add something substantial to what is already on the market. The good news is that all three recordings under review here have indeed something to offer that is either new or at least not very common.

There was a time when recordings of the violin concertos were confined to the three best-known pieces, listed as BWV 1041 to 1043 in the Schmieder catalogue. However, it was assumed that Bach had written considerably more, as the violin was one of the most common instruments of his time, and he himself was an outstanding violinist. Some of the lost concertos may have been the original versions of the harpsichord concertos which Bach performed with the Collegium Musicum in Zimmermann's Kaffeehaus in Leipzig. In the course of time, several attempts were made to reconstruct some of these concertos, but it has taken some time before they were actually perforned. Today, many recordings of the above-mentioned three concertos are filled up with one of those reconstructions.

The present three recordings differ in what is included. Shunske Sato and Isabelle Faust both recorded the three concertos BWV 1041 - 1043, but Kati Debretzeni confines herself to the two solo concertos. As far as the reconstructions are concerned, Sato and Faust include the Concerto in g minor (BWV 1056R), whereas the latter adds the Concerto in d minor (BWV 1052R). This work is also played by Kati Debretzeni, but she also performs another concerto known in a version for harpsichord: the Concerto in E (BWV 1053). This has been reconstructed as a concerto for oboe in F, but Debretzeni made a version for violin in D. She herself calls it an 'arrangement'; in her liner-notes she states that it "in all probability was never a violin concerto". One may wonder whether such an arrangement makes any sense. It is not comparable with reconstructions, as it does not add something substantial to what we know about Bach's oeuvre. However, it does sound rather well on the violin and as it is published, it seems a nice addition to the baroque violin repertoire.

As far as the reconstructions are concerned, mostly it is not mentioned who is responsible for them. Two of the present recordings are the exceptions: Sato's version of BWV 1056R is especially interesting, as it is from the pen of Bach's first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel. Debretzeni's performance of BWV 1052 is based on the reconstruction by Wilfried Fischer, who published a collection of his reconstructions in 1971.

The Harmonia mundi production comprises two discs. Here the violin concertos are put into a wider context, as Isabelle Faust explains in her notes in the booklet: "I wanted to show the violin in different roles, in as wide a sound palette and as many diverse forms as possible, from trio sonata and sinfonia movement through overture-suite and double concerto to full orchestra with trumpets and timpani. Here too Bach repeatedly finds innovative ways of exploring violinistic possibilities; he uses every conceivable form of expression and places the violin in ever-new relations, according to the context and content of each individual piece." Not in all of these additional pieces the violin plays a solo role, such as the sinfonias to the cantatas BWV 21 and 174. That is different in the sinfonia to cantata BWV 182, which includes solo parts for recorder and violin. The Sinfonia in D (BWV 1045) is assumed to have also been intended as the introduction to a sacred cantata, and probably dates from around 1745. It may be an arrangement of an earlier piece without winds. The violin part ranks among the most brilliant Bach has written.

The six trio sonatas for organ are brilliant pieces, which in all likelyhood were part of the musical education of Bach's eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann. However, it is assumed that they were originally conceived as trio sonatas for melody instruments and basso continuo. There are quite a number of recordings, where they are performed as such. Here we get two of them, performed on oboe and violin (BWV 527) and on two violins (BWV 529) respectively.

The Overture in a minor (BWV 1067) is quite an interesting item. It is one of Bach's most-beloved works in the key of B minor and a scoring for transverse flute, strings and basso continuo. The flute part is one of the reasons for its popularity. In its form it is a kind of hybrid between the French overture and the Italian solo concerto. We know such pieces from the pen of Telemann, who composed overtures with solo parts for the recorder and the viola da gamba respectively. It is assumed that the first conception of this work was intended for violin and was written in the key of A minor. This version has been recorded before, but is still not very common. This recording shows that it is a nice addition to the catalogue of Bach;s oeuvre, and deserves to be better known and more frequently performed.

The performances are quite different in several respects. First, there is a difference in line-up. Il Pomo d'Oro plays with one instrument per part. It results in a strong coherence between solo and tutti: Sato is not so much the soloist as rather the primus inter pares. The English Baroque Soloists and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin are about the same size: 6/7 violins, 2/3 violas, two cellos and one double bass. Even so, as far as the balance between solo and tutti is concerned, the latter is closer to Il Pomo d'Oro than to the English Baroque Soloists. That may be partly due to the fact that the latter is conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. One wonders why such a small ensemble needs a conductor.

A second difference is the treatment of ornamentation. As the reader may know, this is the subject of a debate among scholars and performers. Some argue that Bach has written out the ornamentation, and that performers don't need to add much, if any, to that. Sato clearly has different ideas. He adds quite a lot of ornamentation, in particular in the middle movements. The most striking examples are the andante from the Concerto in a minor and the largo from the Concerto in g minor. Isabelle Faust is not afraid to add anything of her own, but is much more restrained. In comparison, Kati Debretzeni adds hardly anything. Her performances are also pretty strict in the treatment of the tempi, whereas Sato takes some freedom here, sometimes slowing down in his solos. The Akademie für Alte Musik has mostly the faster tempi. Those differences are partly a matter of taste, and not decisive. In the concertos I didn't have the feeling that Faust is too fast or Sato too slow. The most significant difference is the andante from the Concerto in a minor. Faust takes 4'49", Sato 5'08" and Debretzeni 6'40". The latter seems to me far too slow: here the andante turns into an adagio.

With regard to tempo, in some of the other pieces Isabelle Faust and the Akademie für Alte Musik play, I would have liked a slower tempo. In the Sonata in C (BWV 529), the tempi in the fast movements go at the cost of a clear articulation and dynamic shading on longer notes. There the performances don't breathe enough. In the Overture in a minor, some dances are performed with an abrasiveness, which seem to me at odds with their rather galant character. Overall, I also would have liked stronger differences between good and bad notes.

Time to sum up. It is tempting to directly compare these three recordings, and to some extent that is inevitable. However, there are so many recordings in the catalogue that each of them has to compete with quite a lot other performances, many of which are quite good. For those who like a performance in which the material is treated with considerable freedom, there is probably no better performance than the one by Shunske Sato and Il Pomo d'Oro. Although I personally prefer a more restrained approach, I have very much enjoyed their performances. Kati Debretzeni and John Eliot Gardiner follow a more 'classical' route. A clear disadvantage is the omission of the concerto for two violins. On the other hand, the Concerto in E (BWV 1053) may never have been intended for the violin, this version is interesting, and its inclusion is reason enough to consider this recording. Lastly, the broader context of Isabella Faust's programme is a strong argument in favour of the Harmonia mundi set. In addition to the concerto reconstructions, we get here two alternative versions of the organ trio sonatas, which are quite interesting, and the little-known version in a minor of the Overture BWV 1067. In this recording we not only can enjoy the excellent playing by Isabelle Faust, but also fine contributions by Xenia Löffler on recorder and oboe.

If you can afford it, there are good reasons to purchase all three recordings reviewed here.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Shunske Sato
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
English Baroque Soloists
Il Pomo d'Oro

CD Reviews