Thomas Zehetmair, violin; Amsterdam Bach Soloists. Brilliant Classics 94666.
This disc has a lot going for it. Thomas Zehetmair is a world-renowned violinist; the Amsterdam Bach Soloists comprise a little over a dozen players from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra; and while they perform on modern instruments, they adhere largely to historically informed performance practice. Thus, we get the best of all worlds: world-class playing; smooth, mellifluous sound; and convincing interpretations.
Bach wrote his two Violin Concertos, No. 1 in A minor, BWV1041 and No. 2 in E major, BWV1042, somewhere between 1717 and 1723, around the same time he was writing the Brandenburg Concertos, so if you hear any similarities, especially in the opening of 1042, you know why.
The program begins with BWV1042, which is probably the earlier of the two concertos, despite its catalogue number. Zehetmair and his players perform it in a lively style, with great flair; the ensemble is precise and spirited; and the reading remains animated without resorting to breakneck speeds. In the slow middle movement Zehetmair sounds lyrically refined; and in the final movement the whole group play as one, with an excellent, uniform response, exuberant and fun.
The program continues with BWV1041, which is probably the last of the specifically named violin concertos, again despite the catalogue number. Here, the entire ensemble begin the main theme, with the soloist quickly taking the lead. Zehetmair tackles it playfully, darting in and out of the accompaniment with a fleet ease. The tutti and solo parts alternate rapidly, and everyone involved appears to be on the same page in terms of the overall joy they bring to the music. In the Andante we find a more solemn or sedate mood, still played with much character. Then comes the finale, possibly the most virtuosic of all the music, with Zehetmair and company in full command. These are first-rate performances in every way.
Accompanying the two violin concertos are two violin arrangements reconstructed from harpsichord concertos, the Violin Concerto in D minor BWV1052 and the Violin Concerto in G minor BWV1056. Since Bach often reused his own material--re-arranging things for other instruments--it is quite possible that he initially wrote these two concertos for the violin in the first place and later transcribed them for harpichord. Whatever, they sound as though Bach had written them specifically for the violin, which is all that counts. Whether or not these transcriptions sound as Bach might have intended or if Bach even wrote the harpsichord concertos themselves is of little consequence when one hears how well Zehetmair and the Amsterdam Bach Soloists perform them. There is an air of authority about the music that pronounces all of it right and proper.
Yes, I would rather the coupling had been the usual Concerto for Two Violins, BWV1043, that we hear so often on these discs, but that’s neither here nor there. We have what we have, and it’s plenty good enough. And, besides, there’s that exquisite Largo in 1056 to consider.
Originally recorded at Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, in 1994 by Edel Classics and released on the Berlin Classics label, Brilliant Classics have re-released it in 2013. The sound is quite transparent, among the best I’ve heard in these works. It’s a small ensemble so we might expect as much. The miking catches the solos in clear, vibrant, natural sonics, without the violin being too far forward. Good dynamics and a quick transient response contribute to the lifelike effect, along with a realistic tonal balance and a fairly wide stereo spread. Like everything else about the recording, the sound is practically ideal.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: