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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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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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa