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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Concerti a violino certato"

Amandine Beyer, violin
Gli Incogniti
Dir: Amandine Beyer

rec: January 15 - 19, 2007, Paris, Église St Marcel
ZigZag Territoires - ZZT 070501 (© 2007) (57'06")

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

Amandine Beyer, Alba Roca, Flavio Losco, violin; Marta Paramo, viola; Marco Ceccato, cello; Baldomero Barciela, violone; Anna Fontana, harpsichord

Considering the prominent place of the violin in the baroque era it is rather surprising that only two violin concertos and a concerto for two violins by Bach have come down to us. There is general agreement, though, that he has written more, and that at least two of the concertos now known as works for harpsichord and strings were originally composed as concertos for violin.

The Concertos in a minor and in E were for some time thought to be composed in Cöthen or Arnstadt, but there is reason to believe they were written in Leipzig. But the Concertos in d minor and in g minor were definitely written before Bach moved to Leipzig. It is there where he must have transcribed them for performances by the Collegium Musicum. There have always been doubts about whether Bach was the composer of these concertos. Ludwig Finscher, for instance, suggests the Concerto in d minor could be an arrangement of a work by another composer. He also refers to the assumption the Concerto in g minor could be an arrangement of a concerto by Vivaldi or some other Italian composer, but he thinks it is most likely an original composition by Bach.

When I received this disc I had already read good things about it, so my expectations were high. But having heard it I am amazed about the positive response it has received. Even if I am very critical about a recording I always try to find at least something positive to say, but that is very difficult here. Actually this is one of the ugliest performances of Bach's violin concertos I have heard in a long time.

So what exactly is wrong with it? First of all: the sound of the ensemble, and in particular the solo violin. If I had heard the Concerto in d minor on the radio, not knowing who were playing, I had assumed some violinist was trying to play as "authentically" as possible on his modern violin with metal strings, but to no avail. Knowing that Amanda Beyer and Gli Incogniti are playing period instruments with gut strings I'm just puzzled why they produce such a "modern" sound. In particular the solo violin sounds very different from other recordings with baroque violin. It has to be said that the recording technique doesn't help: apparently the microphones have been very close to the strings of the solo violin. The first time I listened to this recording with headphones, and it was terrible. The second time I used my speakers, and the sound was only slightly better, but still very unpleasant.

But then there is the interpretation. The solo violin is too prominent, and I wonder whether this is the result of an artistic decision or a matter of recording technique. In solo concertos of the baroque era the solo instrument is nothing more than a primus inter pares, and shouldn't stand too much apart from the tutti. But that is exactly what is the case here.

Amanda Beyer is well aware of the need to differentiate between 'good' and 'bad' notes – the former should be emphasized, the latter should get less attention. But that doesn't mean the bad notes should become practically inaudible as they are here. Even with my headphones on I hardly could hear them.

Even though most movements in baroque concerti have indications like 'allegro' or 'adagio', dance rhythms are everywhere. The rhythmic pulse is an essential feature of this kind of repertoire, and has always to be preserved. As a listener one has to feel the dance rhythm. Those who are acquainted with the interpretations of Gustav Leonhardt know what I mean, as he is an absolute master in the subtle realisation of the rhythm in baroque music. But in this recording dance rhythms are hardly discernible.

The fast movements are taken at high speed, and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as they don’t sound hurried and restless. But here they do exactly that. In addition, in the adagio of the Concerto in E the harpsichord is obtrusive and the repetition of arpeggios is just annoying. The andante is not a slow but a moderately fast movement, and in this recording the andante of the Concerto in a minor is definitely too slow.

Like I said, I find it difficult to say anything positive about this recording. The only thing I can think of is that the Concertos in E and in a minor are slightly better than the first two concertos on this disc. But it is too little and too late to save this interpretation as a whole.

After listening to this disc I turned to a much older recording of the same four concertos by Thomas Zehetmair and the Amsterdam Bach Soloists (Berlin Classics, 1988). They play on modern instruments, but according to the principles of the historical performance practice. In every respect their performances are superior to this recent recording. They play Bach's concertos with subtlety and grace, whereas this recording by Ms Beyer and Gli Incogniti is rough and often aggressive. As a result, Zehetmair's interpretation is very expressive, something this new recording is most certainly not.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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Amandine Beyer

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