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CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Violin Concertos

[I] "Violin Concertos"
Alina Ibragimova, violin
Dir: Jonathan Cohen
rec: August 8 - 10, 2014, London, Henry Wood Hall
Hyperion - CDA68068 (© 2015) (69'02")
Liner-notes: E/F/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for violin, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1052d); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E (BWV 1042); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in g minor (BWV 1056g); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in A (BWV 1055R); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in a minor (BWV 1041)

Bojan Cicic, Pablo Hernán Benedi, Hilary Michael, Colin Scobie, Huw Daniel, Jane Gordon, Michael Gurevich, violin; James Boyd, John Crockatt, viola; ' Piroska Baranyay, Sarah McMahon, cello; Judith Evans, double bass; Thomas Dunford, lute; Jonathan Cohen, harpsichord

[II] "Violin Concertos BWV 1041-1043 & 1060R"
Antoine Torunczyk, oboea; Bjarte Eikeb, Fredrik Fromc, Manfredo Kraemerd, Peter Spisskye, violin
Concerto Copenhagen
Dir: Lars Ulrik Mortensen
rec: March 31 - April 4, 2011, Copenhagen, Garnisons Kirke
CPO - 777 904-2 (© 2014) (55'10")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E (BWV 1042)c; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in a minor (BWV 1041)c; Concerto for 2 violins, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1043)be; Concerto for violin, oboe, strings and bc in c minor (BWV 1060R)ad

Fredrik From, Peter Spissky, Marie-Louise Marming, Stefanie Barner, Antina Hugosson, Gabriel Bania, Elisabeth Enebjörn, violin; Torbjörn Köhl, Rastko Roknic, viola; Thomas Pitt, Mime Yamahiro Brinkmann, cello; Moni Fischaleck, bassoon; Mattias Frostenson, double bass; Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord


Only recently I reviewed two recordings of Bach's violin concertos. At that time I didn't have access to the two discs which are under scrutiny here. In the case of the CPO disc I didn't even know it existed. The rear inlay gives 2014 as the year it was produced but only a couple of weeks ago it landed on my desk. I would have liked to include these two in my recent review as it would have changed the picture considerably.

The discs released by CPO and Hyperion are different as far as the choice of music is concerned. Obviously they both offer the two famous solo concertos BWV 1041 and 1042. But whereas Lars Ulrik Mortensen added the double concerto BWV 1043 - making his programme the most 'conventional', so to speak - Alina Ibragimova and Jonathan Cohen confined themselves to the concertos for one violin. This means that the double concerto is omitted and we get three reconstructed concertos instead. These are best known as harpsichord concertos. They are not the first to play BWV 1052 and 1056 as violin concertos, but I can't remember having heard BWV 1055 with violin.

Let us start with the latter category. There is unanimity among Bach scholars that the harpsichord concertos are arrangements of pieces for another scoring. The liner-notes of both recordings reviewed here refer to the insecurity about the time the concertos have been written. For a long time it was assumed that they were composed in Cöthen, but Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has cast doubt on this assumption and believes that some may have been written in Leipzig. That doesn't make any difference as far as the matter of arrangement is concerned. The Concerto in d minor (BWV 1052) is generally considered to have been conceived as a concerto for violin. There are different opinions on the Concerto in g minor (BWV 1056); in his liner-notes to the Hyperion disc Richard Wigmore calls it "something of a scholarly minefield". It is interesting to note that in the autograph score of the harpsichord version it is in the key of f minor, but in Bach's revised version is was transposed to g minor, the same key in which this concerto is played here. There are arguments in favour of this concerto being originally scored for violin, but also for a scoring for oboe. It has been recorded both ways previously. It is probably impossible to decide which is most close to the truth. I have heard both versions and don't really have a preference.

The Concerto in A (BWV 1055) is a different matter. Wigmore mentions that scholars have generally agreed that it started life as a concerto for oboe d'amore but adds that "while the solo part lies lower than that of the other concertos on this recording, the concerto works equally well reconstructed for violin". Here I beg to disagree. Having listened to this version I am not convinced that this is what Bach intended. It is exactly the low tessitura of the violin part which I find very unnatural. I can't believe that Bach would confine himself to the lower regions of the violin's range. Never I had the impression that this piece was meant as a violin concerto.

I have to add that the performance doesn't help. Generally I certainly have enjoyed Alina Abragimova's playing and she is definitely a fine violinist who deserves the accolades given to her in the press. But I don't particularly like her tone. The booklet includes a biography which says that she performs on modern and period instruments. But it also mentions that she plays a violin of c1775, without specification. I therefore suspect that she uses the same violin in all the repertoire. She certainly uses gut strings here, but a modernized violin with gut strings is not the same as a real baroque violin. This could explain that her tone is notably different from that of the soloists on the CPO recording.

There is difference of opinion on the issue of ornamentation. Some scholars and interpreters believe that Bach has more or less completely written out the ornamentation and that one should add little or nothing. However, it is hard to believe that the long lines in the solo part in several concertos - for instance the larghetto from BWV 1055 just discussed - have to be played as written. These really beg for the addition of at least some ornamentation but hardly anything is added here. In the slow movements Ms Ibragimova plays too much legato, with little or no differentiation between good and bad notes. The fast movements come off best, although sometimes the tempi are too fast. That is the case, for instance, in the closing allegro assai from the Concerto in E (BWV 1042) which sounds hurried. The speed goes at the cost of a clear articulation and there are too few dynamic accents. On a positive note: the opening movement from BWV 1052 receives a very dramatic performance which does justice to its character.

There is little difference in the line-up of both ensembles. Either of them includes seven violins and two violas. The main difference is the presence of a lute in Arcangelo. From a historical point of view its participation is questionable. There seems no evidence whatsoever that the lute was used as a basso continuo instrument in Bach's music. In this recording it has too much presence: in particular in the slow movements it takes almost a solo role, for instance in the andante from the Concerto in a minor (BWV 1041), especially as Thomas Dunford plays with quite some ornamentation. It is one of the reasons Concerto Copenhagen's recording is to be preferred.

That is my general conclusion from the comparison between the two interpretations. Fredrik From - the principal violin of the ensemble - may be lesser known but his performances of the solo parts in BWV 1041 and 1042 is simply superior to Alina Abragimova's. In fact, these are some of the best performances of Bach's violin concertos I have heard. That goes for From - and his colleagues in the other concertos - but also for the ensemble as a whole. The tempi are always spot on. The andante from BWV 1041 is rightly taken as a moderately fast and not as a slow tempo. The articulation, dynamic accents, a clear distinction between good and bad notes, a fine realisation of the rhythmic pulse giving these performances a dance-like character - it is all there, and make this disc a winner in every respect. The two violins of Peter Spissky and Bjarte Eike in the double concerto blend perfectly. The largo ma non tanto is given a sublime performance which reminds me of La Petite Bande's recording - with Sigiswald Kuijken and Lucy van Dael as the soloists - which up until now was my favourite for this concerto. The closing allegro is given an energetic performance. The ornamentation is moderate and tasteful, although probably not entirely consistent. It seems that there is considerably more ornamentation in the slow movement from BWV 1043 than elsewhere.

In addition to the three violin concertos we hear one of Bach's best-known pieces, the Concerto in c minor (BWV 1060R) for violin and oboe, another reconstruction of what is known as a concerto for two harpsichords. Over the years I have heard many recordings which I didn't particularly like. For some reason it is always in danger to drag on. But that is very different here. One could argue that the adagio is a touch too fast, more like an andante. It didn't bother me; this is one of the first performances of this piece I really like. Manfredo Kraemer and Antoine Torunczyk are outstanding players who give a fine account of the solo parts.

These discs are not really competitive: the programmes are too different. The reconstructions speak in favour of the Hyperion disc; it is interesting to hear these concertos from a different angle. I am not convinced about BWV 1055 on the violin but if you are specially interested in Bach this is certainly something to investigate. But if you look for a really good recording of the standard violin concertos by Bach, Concerto Copenhagen is one of the very best available. I shall certainly return to it if I want to listen to these concertos.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Alina Ibragimova
Peter Spissky
Antoine Torunczyk
Concerto Copenhagen

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