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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa