Bach: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Violin Concertos BWV 1041 and 1042; Concerto for Violin and Oboe; Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin BWV 1016 and 1017. Janine Jansen and friends. Decca B0019301-02.

When I first received this album, I asked myself, Didn’t I already review this thing? I mean, didn’t Janine Jansen record the Bach violin concertos years ago? I must have been thinking of someone else, Hilary Hahn, perhaps, Julia Fischer, Anne Akiko Meyers, or Lara St. John. Or maybe it’s just that I assumed a violinist of Ms. Jansen’s stature had already done them. In any case, Mr. Jansen is a fine violinist, and I enjoyed her zesty, alert Bach interpretations.

In fact, she never fails to provide anything but stimulating, energetic, compassionate performances of whatever she’s performing, and the Bach is no different. This should come as no surprise as the Dutch violinist and violist has been playing and studying the violin since she was six. In 2001 she appeared with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, performing the Brahms Violin Concerto, and in 2005 she opened the BBC Proms. She has toured internationally, recorded a number of albums for Decca, and plays on a “Barrere” by Antonio Stradivari, on extended loan from the Elise Methilde Foundation.

Following her customary recording practice, Ms. Jansen plays with a small ensemble of accompanists, this time a group of friends: Ramon Ortega Quero, oboe; Jan Jensen, harpsichord; Boris Brovtsyn, Cindy Albracht, Fredrick Paulsson, Julia-Maria Kretz, Tijmen Huisingh, and Monica Urbonaite, violins; Nimrod Guez and Pauline Sachse, violas; Maarten Jansen, cello; and Rick Stotijn, double bass.

Anyway, about the program: Bach wrote his two Violin Concertos, No. 1 in A minor, BWV1041 and No. 2 in E major, BWV1042, between 1717 and 1723, about the time he was writing the Brandenburg Concertos, so if you hear any similarities, especially in the opening movement of 1042, you know why. Ms. Jansen begins the music with BWV1042, probably the earlier of the two concertos despite the catalogue number. Here, she exhibits an incisive technique, pacing the work at a reasonably zippy pace yet never so fast as we hear from many period-instruments’ groups. She observes tempos that should keep most listeners involved and inspired. She also maintains a style that eschews too much flourish or ornamentation, preferring to keep herself pretty much in accord with the surrounding ensemble rather than completely dominating it. In this regard, it’s a somewhat self-effacing performance with wonderful tone, a performance that serves the music well.

Ms. Jansen’s rendering of the opening Allegro is bracing without being in any way hurried. The central Adagio is haunting enough if a tad less inspired than, say, Menuhin's rendition. Still, a minor quibble. The little Allegro assai that concludes the piece seems less weighty than the preceding movements, but that is hardly Ms. Jansen's fault, and she handles it in an appropriately playful fashion.

Next comes the Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, which is, for me, a more dramatic work than 1042, with a lovelier central section, an Andante of exceptional strength. Here, Ms. Jansen seems to take great care to ensure the work's structural integrity. The entire composition seems of a single piece, with the violin, too, taking its part within the music's structure rather than overpowering it. So, we've got vigorous yet relaxed readings of both concertos, ultrasophisticated yet with no undue ostentation. While perhaps one may sense a certain hesitancy in regard to ultimate tension and characterization, the readings more than compensate with their sheer comfort level and beauty. Besides, it's always a pleasure listening to Ms. Jansen's virtuosity on the violin.

The couplings for the album do not include the more-usual choice, the double violin concerto. Rather, it includes, first, the Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060, a reconstruction of a transcription of a double harpsichord concerto. It is quite rhapsodic for a Baroque composition, and the oboe contributions sound particularly pleasing.

The final tracks on the program contain the Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin Nos. 3 and 4, BMW 1016 and 1017. These are lovely works of four movements each, alternating slow and fast sections. Although Ms. Jansen's violin is clearly in the fore, for that matter the two players share the music almost equally. It's all quite charming, actually, and I can't imagine a listener not responding favorably to the interpretations.

Decca’s recording team made the album in Andreaskirche, Berlin, Germany, in June of 2013. A pleasant ambient bloom goes a long way in making this a most-realistic and most-listenable experience. There is not a lot of depth to the ensemble, yet the degree of hall resonance helps make up for it. The sonics are very smooth, slightly warm, and, while not exactly audiophile in their transparency, quite natural. Ms. Jansen's violin sounds nicely integrated into the ensemble, and as with the performances it never dominates her companions but becomes a part of the whole.

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 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.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa