The album's title, "Violin Concertos," is something of a misnomer. It's much more than that.
In addition to the two familiar Violin Concertos--BWV 1041 and 1042, plus the Concerto for Two Violins--Harmonia Mundi have filled out two discs with everything else that might be considered a Bach violin concerto, including pieces written for other instruments and transcribed (often by Bach himself) for violin. Bach (like many composers of his time) was big on appropriating at least parts of his own earlier work for later compositions, so it's sometimes hard to categorize properly some of his material.
Anyway, the current two-disc set includes not only "violin concertos" but sinfonias, trio sonatas, overtures, and the like. They are all expertly played by German violinist Isabelle Faust, accompanied on selected tracks by violinist Bernhard Forck and oboist Xenia Loeffler, with the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. All the performers play on period instruments, Ms. Faust's a Jacobus Stainer (1658).
Now, here's the thing: How well you take to these interpretations may depend largely on what you expect from a period-instrument ensemble. In the past few decades we have come to figure on some excessively quick tempos and highly expressive styles, the historically informed crowd insisting this is how the music was played back in the day. But Ms. Faust and company may not have heard the news, because while most of it can be exhilarating, they can also play much of this music in a fairly sensitive, even conservative manner. The slower parts aren't dull or routine by any means, but they are often reserved and refined. If you like your Bach played both sprightly and elegantly, these are for you.
The opening concerto is a good example of what I meant previously by everything not being exactly what it seems. The Concerto for Violin BWV 1052R is usually considered a harpsichord concerto, but educated conjecture suggests it may actually be a lost violin concerto. So that's the way Ms. Faust and company play it, with a violin soloist. Then comes the Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 174, familiar as the opening movement of the Third Brandenburg Concerto. Ms. Faust handles it with more élan, more dash, and more ardor than she does the opening number, so it comes off as extra refreshing. I'm not sure if that was her intent, but it works well in any case.
If there was something I didn't care for, however, it was the packaging information. The outside of the three-panel Digipak lists no track info whatsoever. Inside the fold-out, we get a table of contents but without any track numbers, movement breakdowns, or timings. To find out anything specific about the program, you have to go into the booklet itself. And if you want to find more about each selection, you have to go to the part of the booklet in your language--German, French, or English--and then, well, hope to run into whatever you're looking for because instead of the notes referring to each selection as it appears chronologically in the program, the notes seem to discuss items randomly. No big deal, but a trifle annoying.
On the brighter side, the two-disc set contains almost two-and-a-half hours of music for the price of a single disc. So it does represent a good value for the money. And it's very well played and recorded.
Artistic Director Martin Sauer and engineer Rene Moller recorded the music at Teldex Studio, Berlin in December 2017 and September 2018. The first most noticeable thing about the sound is its lifelike characteristics. It has air and space, a realistic ambience, a good sense of depth, and mostly an impressively natural resonant bloom. (I say "mostly" because a couple of selections are perhaps a bit too reverberant). The miking distance is pleasantly moderate, not so close up as many of today's recordings seem to be. Dynamics, too, appear well judged, though with slightly muted impact in some instances, and definition is good without being sharp or bright. It's some of the most pleasing sound I've come across in Baroque music and should satisfy the even the most fastidious listener.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: