Bach: Violin Concertos (CD review)

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:

JJP

2 comments:

  1. John! I was going with a simple post of something like"Yeah, Bach IS bitchin!", but Moms says that would be an embarrassment,sooo....
    Congats on your 1000th!

    ReplyDelete
  2. David is referring to this being post number one thousand, a milestone for the site.

    ReplyDelete

John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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