Bach: The Musical Offering (CD review)

Enrico Gatti, Ensemble Aurora. Outhere Music Arcana A384.

As you probably know, The Musical Offering by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) 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 afterwards presenting the king with his "musical offering," later publishing the variations as the set we now know.

The trouble is, no one is exactly sure about the specifics of the set. That is, it's unclear for exactly what instruments Bach originally intended the work and in what order he wanted the movements played. 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. Nor does it help that the work contains musical riddles, which no one has indisputably solved. So you'll hear a good deal of musical interpretation from the various recordings currently in the catalogue. My own personal favorites are those from Ensemble Sonniere (Virgin) and the Linde-Consort (EMI), both sounding significantly different from one another even though both groups use period instruments.

Now, we get a reissue of a 1999 recording by Ensemble Aurora, a group comprised of four players: Enrico Gatti, violin; Marcello Gatti, traverse flute; Gaetano Nasillo, cello; and Guido Morini, harpsichord. They have their own ideas about The Musical Offering, and while one can hardly argue with their playing, which is excellent, one might not like everything about their rendition of the piece.

It seemed to me as I was listening to the Ensemble Aurora account that the performers are either hell bent for leather or exceedingly somber in their readings--usually both at the same time--with little room anything else. By comparison, both Ensemble Sonniere and the Linde-Consort sound more lively, more sparkling, than Ensemble Aurora yet equally serious and equally refined in their playing. Nevertheless, being different doesn't mean Aurora's view of the work is wrong or wrongheaded, just different. Such is the drawback in making comparisons.

Enrico Gatti
In the accompanying booklet, author Gilles Cantagrel refers to a 1980 article by musicologist Ursula Kirkendale that offers an explanation of Bach's rhetoric and oratorical art in the work. It is this treatise that the Ensemble Aurora seem to have taken to heart and illustrated on the present album. For me, it all seemed too scholarly, both the musical argument and the performance.

The opening Ricercar a 3, taken by the harpsichord, sets the tone for the rest of the piece, and that is at a fairly quick pace. It suggests that the members of Ensemble Aurora appear more interested in simply presenting the musical argument than in entertaining the listener with the lovely melodies involved. As with the rest of the album, the playing is quite fine, though not particularly well nuanced. Meaning it sounds a tad the same and hurried throughout.

The Canons diversi come off pretty well, although again there seems an overriding earnestness about them that rather clouds their overall beauty. The Ricercar a 6, which forms the heart of the piece, like most of the music seems taken too fast, the Ensemble Aurora pushing through it with an eye toward pleasing the mind over the senses.

And so it goes. As I continued listening to the Ensemble Aurora's reading, I continued to long for the fuller, more flowing, more graceful lines of the Ensemble Sonnerie. Still, the Ensemble Aurora provide at least an interesting alternative, one that seems more academic than most others, if that's the kind of thing you prefer.

Given the speeds Ensemble Aurora adopt, there is room left on the CD for two more works: the Sonata in G major for Violin and Basso continuo, BWV 1021, discovered in 1928, and the Sonata in G major for Flute, Violin and Continuo, BWV 1038. These pieces come across as a little more animated than the primary work and probably provide a better idea of what the Aurora players can do when academic constraints don't inhibit them. Even so, there remains a small degree of blandness about the presentations, perhaps heightened by the softness of the sound.

Producer and engineer Michel Bernstein and engineer Charlotte Gilart de Keranflec'h recorded the music at the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud, France in November 1999. Arcana first released the album in 2001 and then rereleased it in 2015. The sound of the solo harpsichord is quite good, if a little close and a trifle thin. Certainly, the sound projects a good presence, with plenty of detail. The sound of the ensemble itself is richer, of course, and a bit on the warm, soft side with a mild resonance. However, the instruments don't appear particularly well positioned for a lifelike perspective; it's more as though they're individually miked and then thrown together on the mixing board. So we get the sense of four separate instruments rather than a single, cohesive group. Nevertheless, the resultant sound is ultrasmooth and round and fairly easy on the ear.

JJP

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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa