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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Concertos for one, two & three violins

[I] "Violin Concertos"
Zsolt Kalló, violin
Capella Savaria
Dir: Zsolt Kalló
rec: April 19 - 20, 2014, Szombathely, Bartók Concert Hall
Hungaroton - HCD 32749 (© 2014) (56'11")
Liner-notes: E/D/H
Cover & track-list

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)

Beáta Szöke, János Császár, Zsuzsanna Tamás, Balász Bozzai, Emöke Szep, Imre Simkó, György Bognár, violin; Gábor Rác, Judit Orosz, viola; Csilla Vályi, Ágnes Pálkövi, cello; László Feriencsik, bassoon; György Janszó, double bass; Attila Völgyi, archlute; Rita Papp, harpsichord

[II] "Concertos for One, Two and Three Violins"
Portland Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Monica Huggett
rec: Oct 7 - 11, 2013, Marylhurst, OR, Marylhurst University (St Anne's Chapel)
Portland Baroque Orchestra - PB501 (© 2015) (75'06")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E (BWV 1042)c; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in a minor (BWV 1041)b; Concerto for 2 violins, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1043)de; Concerto for 3 violins and bc in D (BWV 1064R)abc; Concerto for 3 violins, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1063)abd (ed. Huw Daniel)

Monica Huggett (soloa), Carla Moore (solob), Rob Diggins (soloc), Jolianne Einem (solod), Robin VanDyke Dubay, Adam LaMotte (soloe), Holly Stern, Janet Strauss, violin; Victoria Gunn, Karen Vincent, viola; Joanna Blendulf, Tanya Tomkins, Gretchen Claassen, cello; Curtis Daily, double bass; Elliott Figg, harpsichord


For a long time Bach's oeuvre for solo violin(s) and strings was confined to the three concertos which have the numbers 1041, 1042 and 1043 in the catalogue of his works. However, it was generally assumed that his harpsichord concertos are arrangements of concertos which were first written for other instruments: the violin, the oboe or the oboe d'amore. Only in one case have both the original and the arrangement been preserved: the Concerto for two harpsichords in c minor (BWV 1062) is a reworking of the Concerto for two violins in d minor (BWV 1043). Several attempts have been made to reconstruct other concertos and these are available in various recordings.

The two discs which are the subject of this review include four reconstructions. Zsolt Kalló plays the Concerto in d minor (BWV 1052R) and the Concerto in g minor (BWV 1056R). The former is one of Bach's best-known harpsichord concertos in the same key; the latter's harpsichord version is in D major. Whereas there is little disagreement that BWV 1052 was originally conceived as a violin concerto there are diverging opinions on BWV 1056. Some assume that the first version was for violin, but others believe it was rather intended for the oboe. The largo points in the latter direction as it is taken from the sinfonia which opens Cantata BWV 156 (Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe), scored for oboe, strings and bc.

The best-known of the two reconstructions which the Portland Baroque Orchestra included in its programme is the Concerto in D (BWV 1064R) which today is part of the standard repertoire of baroque orchestras. Some may have one or various recordings in their collection, for instance by the Freiburger Barockorchester. If they listen to the performance by the Portland Baroque Orchestra - or rather members of it - they will notice quite a few differences. This version is a 'pasticcio' of various reconstructions, and one of the main differences is that here the ripieno parts have been omitted. If you know this concerto it will probably take time to get used to this version.

The Concerto in d minor (BWV 1063) is far less common in a version for three violins. I don't know whether it has been recorded before in a reconstruction of what may have been the original scoring. There are some differences of opinion about what that original scoring might have been. Jude Ziliak, in the liner-notes, states that "[the] three solo parts are both unequal in prominence and differing in figuration, which might indicate that they were written for unequal instruments". Christopher Hogwood made a reconstruction for violin, transverse flute and oboe, by analogy with a concerto by Johann David Heinichen. I don't know if that has ever been recorded; certainly I haven't heard it. This was also the first time that I heard this concerto for other instruments than three harpsichords, and so far I am not really convinced by the results. Maybe it is just something one has to get used to, but I had other experiences with the concerto BWV 1064 which sounded very natural to me when I heard it for the first time on violins.

This is the only concerto which is not available in many other recordings. The question is: are the performances of the other concertos good enough to compete with what is already on the market? Unfortunately the answer is negative.

I am very disappointed about the interpretations by Zsolt Kalló and the Capella Savaria. I don't like Kalló's tone very much; in high positions he produces a shrill and ugly sound, especially in the first movement of BWV 1056R. The tempi are sometimes too fast; that goes in particular for the opening movement from the Concerto in E which is rather superficial. This tempo goes at the cost of a clear articulation and a differentiation in dynamics and between good and bad notes. In general these performances are too straightforward and not very speech-like. I find the line-up questionable: a smaller ensemble would have been preferable. I can't see any need for the participation of a bassoon. Also debatable is the use of a an archlute in a piece by Bach - or of any plucked instrument, for that matter.

Unfortunately there is little reason to be enthusiastic about the Portland Baroque Orchestra's disc either. It certainly is a fine ensemble - I have positively reviewed a disc with oboe concertos by Bach - and the soloists are excellent musicians in their own right. However, it was only the Concerto in E (BWV 1042) which really satisfied me. In others I found the sound rather unpleasantly sharp, especially in the Concerto in a minor, but the same goes for the above-mentioned reconstruction of BWV 1063. The Concerto in d minor (BWV 1043) is only slightly better; here I would have preferred a clearer articulation in the solo parts in the largo ma non tanto and a stronger differentiation between good and bad notes.

The fact that I don't like the sound of the ensemble is probably partly due to the recording. The acoustic is pretty dry, and there is hardly any reverberation. The miking seems also a bit too close.

To sum it up, the disc of the Portland Baroque Orchestra is interesting for the two reconstructions but is musically not really satisfying. The Hungaroton disc is not really up to the competition.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Capella Savaria
Portland Baroque Orchestra

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