Bach: Keyboard Concertos (CD review)

Concertos for Keyboard and Orchestra, BWV 974, 1052, 1054, 1056, 1058, 1065. Alexandre Tharaud, piano; Bernard Labadie, Les Violon du Roy. Virgin Classics 50999 070913 2 2.

Whenever I hear the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) played on a piano rather than a harpsichord, I tend to forget it's Bach. I'm not sure if this is good or bad; it's just not Bach to me. However, in this case, it works well enough. French pianist Alexandre Tharaud uses a modern piano for these performances, accompanied by Les Violon du Roy playing on modern instruments with Baroque bows. The result is a modern interpretation of eighteenth-century works using near period-performance practices, making it a hybrid concoction that nevertheless delivers an enjoyable listening experience.

Les Violon du Roy consist of about fourteen performers on violins, violas, cellos, and double bass. They provide excellent support for Tharaud's smooth, suave, polished, yet lively readings. His playing is often spectacularly virtuosic as he approaches the fast outer movements nimbly and vigorously, all the while producing suitably serene, relaxed central slow movements. Indeed, because the modern piano he plays sounds so rich and sonorous, these Adagios and such appear quite Romantic rather than Baroque. So, as I say, we get a little of everything in these Bach pieces, which no doubt would have delighted Bach no end.

The album's core works are the Concertos for Keyboard and Orchestra BWV 1052, 1054, 1056, and 1058, written between 1720 and 1730. Although Bach intended them for harpsichord, he transcribed them from previous violin concertos. Reworking his older material into new pieces was nothing new for Bach or for most Baroque composers who knew a good thing when they heard it, even if it was their own. So, what we have here are compositions that started life as violin concertos, which Bach then turned into harpsichord concertos, and which Tharaud here plays on the piano. "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever," wrote Mr. Keats. He might have had Bach in mind.

Incidentally, BWV 1054 may remind you of Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto, the composer again knowing a good thing when he heard it; and the Adagio of BWV 1056 is as sweet and delicate as anything Bach ever wrote. Just saying.

In addition to the four keyboard concertos, Tharaud includes the Adagio to the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974, which Bach fashioned after an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello. It's lovely and haunting and makes a splendid centerpiece for the program. Then Tharaud concludes the album with the Concerto for four Keyboards and Orchestra in A minor, BWV 1065, which Bach transcribed for harpsichord from a concerto for four violins by Vivaldi. Here, through the magic of multitrack recording, Tharaud plays all four parts himself, the piano positioned on different areas of the stage to simulate their being played simultaneously with the band. Anyway, it makes for a fascinating piece of music, and Tharaud pulls it off effectively enough, the piano parts thoroughly and seamlessly integrated into the ensemble.

Virgin recorded the album at Salle Raoul-Jobin, Palais Moncalm, Quebec, Canada in October of 2010. For most of the pieces, Tharaud asked that the piano be placed to the rear of the other players so that it would appear as a part of the group rather than a standout solo instrument in the front of the ensemble as we normally hear it. Not only does this offer an attractive musical configuration, it seems remarkably humble and unpretentious of Mr. Tharaud to suggest such an arrangement. Most soloists would want to be front and center. Whatever, the piano displays a warm, mellow, resonant sound, with the violins, violas, and cellos decidedly brighter, as they should be. The setting is lightly, pleasantly reverberant, giving the music a welcome ambient glow. It's all very clean and clear in a highly listenable manner.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa