Bach: Complete Keyboard Concertos (CD review)

Also, Bach-Vivaldi: Two concertos. Julia Zilberquit, piano; Saulius Sondeckis, Moscow Virtuosi. Warner Classics 2564 63686-9 (2-disc set).

First, a word about Bach’s “complete” keyboard concertos. The “complete” business isn’t quite true, as Bach actually wrote not only the seven harpsichord concertos we hear on the present set but three more concertos for two harpsichords, two concertos for three harpsichords, and another concerto for four harpsichords. Additionally, he wrote miscellaneous other concertos in which the harpsichord plays a supporting role. All the same, this Warner set contains the seven Bach concertos for solo harpsichord, which we now know as the “keyboard” concertos because even though Bach originally wrote them for harpsichord, performers for years have also been playing them on the organ, fortepiano, and, as performed here, piano.

Next, a word about the solo artist, Julia Zilberquit, a Russian-born American who has won acclaim as an orchestral soloist, recitalist, chamber musician, and recording artist. The New York Times hailed her as “an outstanding soloist” following a 2012 Carnegie Hall concert with the American Symphony Orchestra. She has recorded several albums that have also garnered good reviews and performed worldwide with the Moscow Virtuosi, among other leading ensembles. She graduated from the Moscow Gnessin School of Music and Juilliard School and currently lives in New York with her husband and two children.

Finally, a word about the recording and its record company. As you know, in 2013 Warner Classics bought EMI Classics and are now starting to reissue some of EMI’s older recordings. But this isn’t one of them. The Zilberquit set derives from a recording session in 2001, the discs released the next year by American Heritage Society. The folks at Warner Classics reissued the set in 2013 on their own label. Don’t ask.

To complicate things further, the set begins and ends not with any of Bach’s seven original keyboard concertos but with a pair of works he transcribed for organ and orchestra from originals for two violins, cello, and orchestra written by his inspiration in concerto matters, Antonio Vivaldi. Ms. Zilberquit further arranges the two pieces for keyboard (in this case piano) and orchestra. In between the Bach-Vivaldi-Zilberquit arrangements, we get the seven purely Bach keyboard concertos. Almost, except, as I say, that Ms. Zilberquit plays them on a modern piano, and the accompanying Moscow Virtuosi perform them on modern instruments. Close enough; it’s still enjoyable music, well played.

On disc one of this two-disc set you’ll the aforementioned Bach-Vivaldi Concerto in D minor, BWV 593, for keyboard and chamber orchestra, transcribed by Ms. Zilberquit. Following that are Bach’s own Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052; Concerto in E major, BWV 1053; and Concerto in D major, BWV 1054. On disc two we find Concerto in A major, BWV 1055; Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056; Concerto in F major, BWV 1057; Concerto in G minor, BWV 1058; closing with the Bach-Vivaldi Concerto in A minor, BWV 596.

Probably the most popular item in the collection is the first one, BWV 1052, which Bach may have based on a now-lost violin concerto he wrote previously. Bach and his contemporaries often reused their own material and that of others. There were no copyright laws back then, and people considered imitation a high form of flattery. Note, for instance, that Shakespeare and his pals a century or more earlier based almost all of their plays on stories and histories already well known. It was sort of a custom of the times, whereas today we value originality above all. Anyway, Ms. Zilberquit approaches BWV 1052, as she does the others, with a dramatic flair that makes the music perhaps even more serious than it really is. Her manner displays a robust tension and release and exudes both a thoughtful intent and a feeling of playfulness at the same time. These are, in fact, qualities she exhibits throughout the set, and I found them most attractive. All nine concertos resonant with lively good will and, in the case of the slow middle movements, a keen sense of poignancy, tranquility, and reflection.

The Moscow Virtuosi under the direction of Maestro Saulius Sondeckis provide Ms. Zilberquit a precise and sympathetic accompaniment, the soloist and orchestra sharing almost equally in their musical duties but with Ms. Zilberquit coming out perhaps a nose ahead. It is her playing, after all, that you will remember most when you've finished listening, and you'll find it quite accomplished.

Incidentally, if you recognize much of this keyboard music, especially BWV 1057, from Bach's Brandenburg Concertos among other things, remember that he and his friends were fond of reusing their own material. Waste not, want not, I suppose.

The packaging is a simple fold-over cardboard case with the discs slipping into the front and back sleeves. Unfortunately, this doesn’t provide any place for the booklet notes, written by Ms. Zilberquit, except in one of the sleeves with a disc. This makes getting the notes or the disc a little difficult to get out without dropping one or the other or scratching the disc. A minor concern in any case.

Producer Vadim Ivanov and engineer Vitaly Ivanov recorded the music at The Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, Moscow in September 2001. Everything is a little close, yet it's also warm and smooth so it's still comfortable on the ear. The piano is front and center, of course, but not really in our face, and when the full ensemble comes in, Ms. Zilberquit sounds nicely integrated into the group. Depth of field appears moderate, dynamics are adequate, object definition is a tad soft, and frequency extensions meet the occasion. It's good, though not audiophile, sound.

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

JJP

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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