The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
, February 2008
The good people at EuroArts must have had a hard time choosing what NOT to include in this very impressive anthology, recorded in 2000. I wish it could be called an unqualified success - as most of it is indeed - yet as a whole, that would not be quite so. The Bach oeuvre is so immense, it might be likened to an attempt to condense the bible into a more compact version and call it 'essential'.
The Brandenburg Concertos as peformed by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra led by Gottfried von der Goltz are a joy to behold. The musicians play on their feet, which allows more freedom of movemnet and the ability to really "dig in" with each phrase, enhancing the expressivity of each of Bach's ideas. This has to be one of the best baroque orchestras I've ever heard. The palatial setting for the recordings is visually and acoustically magnificent.
The Mass in B minor was recorded live at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, with the Thomanchor and Gewandhaus Orchestra under the direction of Georg Christoph Biller. Soprano Ruth Holton is the only female soloist: the alto part is sung by Matthias Rexroth, with tenor Christoph Genz and Klaus Mertens, Bass. The Thomanchor as well consists of boys only. The setting - visually and acoustically - is perfect, and the perfromace simply out of this world - certainly the best version of the work that these ears have ever heard.
Given the extraordinarily well executed Brandenburgs and the Mass, the third DVD, of the Well-Tempered Clavier, is not all that satisfactory. Without going into the everlasting argument about whether this music should be played on harpsichord (as intended) or on piano (as has become increasingly accepted), the performances (of Book I only) are divided between two pianists - each playing a dozen preludes and fugues - and whose styles differ completely. Andrei Gavrilov's reading is strung together from at least half a dozen different takes in different settings at the New Art Gallery in Walsall. Gavrilov wears his shoulder-length hair in various styles along with a variety of wardrobe items, and a ring with a plum-sized rock that is switched from one hand to another. These distractions do not help his performance of the first twelve preludes and fugues of Book I. There is no denying Gavrilov's technical mastery, but in the slow movements especially, his playing sometimes comes across as near-static.
By way of contrast, Joanna McGregor, who tackles the remaining twelve, is an altogether different treat. Her pefromance, like Gavirolv's, is made up of different takes, with similar changes of attire and hairdos, and recorded at the Palau Guell in Barcelona. But her Bach sings, and dances, and is much more subtly nuanced.
The fourth DVD features baroque keyboardist and scholar Ton Koopman. It is divided into two parts: in the first, he plays three well-known chorales, the popular Fugue in G minor, and the famous Toccata in D minor, (but without the fugue!). The instrument used is the equally famous great 1714 Silbermann organ at the St.Marien Cathedral in Freiberg, Saxony, that Bach is known to have played (which brings to mind C.P.E.Bach's melancholic rondo 'Abschied von meinem Silbermannischen Claviere', composed when he sold the instrument). In this segment, one is privileged to observe up close what audiences at organ concerts never see - Koopman's fancy footwork on the pedals. How one man can play three different melodies all at once just boggles the mind!
The second part is titled 'At Home with Bach', and consists of various instrumental and vocal selections, featuring once more the excellent baritone Klaus Mertens. Koopman plays the solos and accompanied pieces on harpsichord and organ. In it, Bach is revealed as a great miniaturist, and the mellifluous tenderness expressed in songs like 'Willst du dein Herz mir schenken' bring to mind Schubert, a century hence.
The sun bursts forth in the dozen plus selections played by the German Brass. These ten virtuosos perform unbelievable feats of musical acrobatics that must be seen - literally - to be believed. At the end, the final notes of the great Toccata and Fugue in D minor provide a fitting exit in a blaze of glory for this remarkable group.
In sum, this may not be the quintessential Bach, but it comes pretty close!