musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Violin Concertos

[I] "Violin Concertos BWV 1041-1043"
Gottfried von der Goltzbef, Petra Müllejansaef, Anne Katharina Schreiberf, violin
Freiburger Barockorchesterabef
Dir.: Gottfried von der Goltz, Petra Müllejans
rec: April 2012, Freiburg, Paulussaal
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902145 (© 2013) (61'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Petra Müllejans, Gottfried von der Goltz, Martina Graulich, Kathrin Tröger, Peter Barczi, Beatrix Hülsemann, Christa Kittel, Brigitte Täubl, Regine Schröder, violin; Werner Saller, Ulrike Kaufmann, Annette Schmidt, viola; Guido Larisch, Stefan Mühleisen, cello; Andrew Ackermann, double bass; Torsten Johann, harpsichord

[II] "Concertos"
Viktoria Mullova, violinabcd; Ottavio Dantone, harpsichordd
Accademia Bizantinaabcd
Dir.: Ottavio Dantone
rec: Dec 1 - 5, 2012, Bagnavacallo (Ravenna), Sala Oriani
Onyx - 4114 (© 2013) (60'31")
Liner-notes: E/D/F (longer version)
Cover & track-list

Alessandro Tampieri, Paolo Zinzani, Ana Liz Ojeda, Stefano Rossi, Laura Mirri, Ulrike Fischer, violin; Diego Mecca, Alice Bisanti, viola; Marco Frezzato, Paolo Ballanti, cello; Nicola Dal Maso, double bass; Ottavio Dantone, harpsichord

Concerto for violin, strings and bc in a minor (BWV 1041)a; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E (BWV 1042)b; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in D (after Concerto in E, BWV 1053)c; Concerto for violin, harpsichord, strings and bc in c minor (after BWV 1060)d; Concerto for 2 violins, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1043)e; Concerto for 3 violins, strings and bc in D (BWV 1064R)f

The instrumental music of Johann Sebastian Bach is a part of his oeuvre which raises many questions. It is known for sure that a large part was written during his years in Weimar and Cöthen where he was expected to compose instrumental music in his capacities as Konzertmeister and Kapellmeister respectively. However, the amount of music which has been preserved from these years is rather small, especially considering that a large part of his chamber music seems to have been written in Leipzig. It is mostly through arrangements, also from his Leipzig period, that a number of concertos for one or more solo instruments are known. This has inspired scholars and performers to try to reconstruct the originals, which have enriched the repertoire with several fine concertos for the violin, the oboe and the oboe d'amore.

The two discs reviewed here take the original concertos for violin as their starting point. The Freiburger Barockorchester plays the two solo concertos and the concerto for two violins. In addition we hear one of the above-mentioned reconstructions: the Concerto in D (BWV 1064R) has been preserved in an arrangement for three harpsichords in C. Viktoria Mullova and Ottavio Dantone have confined themselves to the two solo concertos. The two other concertos cannot be considered 'reconstructions': the Concerto in E (BWV 1053) is known as a harpsichord concerto, but was probably originally written for the oboe d'amore as Dantone admits in his liner-notes. "I immediately thought of transcribing it in D major, not only because the brighter key suits the violin, but also because in my opinion its central movement, a Siciliano, is one of the most beautiful, astounding musical creations of all time, with a glorious melody that lends itself perfectly to the violin."

The Concerto in c minor (BWV 1060), which has come down to us in a scroring with two harpsichords, is often played in scorings for other instruments, especially oboe and violin. "Viktoria and I have been working together as a duo for several years, during which time we have recorded and often performed the sonatas for violin and harpsichord. We thus felt that it would be particularly interesting to find a piece we could play together with the orchestra." The Concerto BWV 1060 was considered the most suitable piece for this purpose.

The basic principles of these two recordings are clearly different. Dantone doesn't present 'alternative reconstructions', and he doesn't pretend to. These are arrangements to the liking of the artists. There is nothing wrong with that: arrangements of all sorts were very common in Bach's time. These arrangements could be interesting in regard to repertoire, and the Concerto BWV 1053 works quite well at the violin. I am less convinced by the version of BWV 1060 presented here. However, that is probably partly due to the recording in which the balance between the violin and the harpsichord is less than ideal.

This is one of the disappointing aspects of the disc by Mullova and Dantone. The sound is rather subdued; in the adagio from the Concerto in E (BWV 1042) it is even quite dull. In comparison the Freiburger Barockorchester is far better recorded and as a result it has much more presence. However, the difference can also be explained by the instrument Viktoria Mullova plays. She has made various recordings of baroque music with period instrument ensembles, and this seems to indicate that she plays a baroque violin. In fact, she uses a modernized violin with gut strings. A real baroque violin is richer in overtones than Ms Mullova's instrument. In various episodes the effect is clearly noticeable, for instance in the andante from the Concerto in a minor where the short notes are rather uncomfortable; they would sound much more natural on a baroque violin. Ms Mullova also uses more vibrato in some slow movements than the soloists of the Freiburger Barockorchester.

The latter are more consistent in their addition of ornaments in the repeats. That in itself is a matter of debate. One could argue that Bach has written out most of the ornamentation and that it is hardly necessary to add even more. Also open for debate is the number of players involved: both ensembles play with more than one instrument per part.
Overall the playing of the Freiburger is clearly better from stylistic point of view. So far my favourite recording of Bach's violin concertos was the one by La Petite Bande, with Sigiswald Kuijken and Lucy van Dael as the soloists. This new recording by FBO deserves its place beside the older one, even though it is different in various ways. The performance of BWV 1064 is especially impressive; the solo parts in the fast movements are quite demanding, and these are played here brilliantly. This is definitely the best recording of this version for three violins that I know.

There are just two points of criticism in regard to FBO's recording: there should have been a clearer differentiation between the good and the bad notes in the middle movement from the Concerto in d minor (BWV 1043). The basso continuo in the andante from the Concerto in a minor (BWV 1041) is a bit ponderous; the Accademia Bizantina is more elegant here, without losing the rhythmic pulse. The choice of tempo in this movement is also debatable; I know a recording with Reinhard Goebel (not commercially available) who played it much faster, and I found that very convincing. After all, this is not an adagio or largo.

On balance, Mullova and Dantone are mainly interesting for the arrangements of the Concertos BWV 1053 and 1060. Musically speaking they are less convincing, and in the original violin concertos the Freiburger Barockorchester clearly comes out on top.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Viktoria Mullova
Accademia Bizantina
Freiburger Barockorchester

CD Reviews