Dec 23, 2013

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:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 for 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 Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. 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 tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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 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. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

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