Bach: The Musical Offering (CD review)

Arrangement for flute, violin, and organ by Helmut Bornefeld. Hannelore Hinderer, organ; Peter Thalheimer, flute; Sabine Kraut, violin. Carus 83.460.

So, what was the occasion for an arrangement of Bach’s Musical Offering (Das Musikalische Opfer, BWV 1079) for flute, violin, and organ? Well, actually, it’s unclear for exactly what instruments Bach originally intended the work. Indeed, the composer himself wrote out the Trio Sonata for flute, violin, and basso continuo, writing the other sections possibly for solo fortepiano, although small chamber ensembles often handle the canons these days. It was the dedication of a new choir organ at the Stadtkirche Schorndorf, Germany, in 1976 that brought about the new arrangement by the instrument’s designer, Helmut Bornefeld. On the present, 2013 album, the Stadtkirche’s current organist, Hannelore Hinderer, flutist Peter Thalheimer, and violinist Sabine Kraut perform the work.

As you may know, The Musical Offering is a set of fugues and canons and such that Bach based on a musical theme King Frederick II of Prussia gave him. It came about during a meeting between Bach and Frederick in 1747, the meeting taking place because Frederick employed Bach's son C.P.E. Bach as a court musician. Frederick wanted to show off a new musical instrument, the fortepiano, which he had recently obtained. The King challenged Bach to improvise a six-voice fugue on a theme he gave him, which, eventually, Bach did, about two months afterward presenting the king with his “musical offering,” later publishing the variations as the set we now know.

The arrangement for flute, violin, and organ works well enough, although I wouldn’t want it as an only recording of the work. The arrangement provides variety by including some movements for solo organ, some for flute and violin only, and some for all three instruments. And, certainly, the three performers in the work do their job supremely well. Above all, they appear to enjoy the music and enjoy playing it. Their responsiveness carries over to the listener.

In addition to the Stadtkirche organ, the performers use a wooden Boehm flute and a period violin with gut strings and baroque bow. It’s a valuable combination of instruments that probably would have pleased and impressed Bach.

However, despite the best intentions of arranger Bornefeld and the enthusiastic performances of Hinderer, Thalheimer, and Kraut, it remains the Sonata sopr’il Soggetto Reale that Bach originally wrote for a keyboard, flute, and violin trio that stands out in the set. Although here, again, it’s hard to tell which keyboard instrument Bach proposed for the basso continuo--harpsichord, fortepiano, or organ. (Scholars are also uncertain as to Bach’s order for the music as well as the instrumentation, except the Trio, and also debate the meaning of the various puzzles the composer worked into the score, but that’s another story.) The present arrangement places the Trio in the penultimate position, followed by a concluding six-part Ricercar on organ.

Whatever, the four-part Trio shines as the centerpiece of The Musical Offering. With Hinderer, Thalheimer, and Kraut giving it their best, the music sounds most graceful, beautifully flowing, harmonious, melodious, and wonderfully realized all the way around. It is spectacularly good.

If there is any drawback to the disc, it’s that it contains only about fifty-one minutes of music. Of course, as I’ve often said, it’s the quality and not the quantity that counts. Therefore, if you enjoy Bach’s Musical Offering, you get your money’s worth.

Carus-Verlag recorded Bach’s Musical Offering at Stadtkirche Schorndorf in May, 2012. The organ solos sound sweet with their resonant church acoustics, yet remain clear and ultra clean, with a rich lower register. The duets sound realistic enough, with a moderate distance between the players, especially so with the organ, and a lifelike separation between the flute and violin.  In the trios the instruments stand clearly apart while sounding well integrated as a whole. The perspective makes them loom a little large, giving the music an added dimension and weight. Overall, the sonics are broad, warm, and sonorous.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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 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.
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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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