Bach: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Also, sinfonias, overture, sonatas. Isabelle Faust, violin; Bernhard Forck, violin; Xenia Loeffler, oboe, recorder; Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902335.36 (2-disc set).

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.

Isabelle Faust
And so it goes. The playing is precise but never aggressive, the manner often varying between strikingly invigorating and finely reserved. Contrasts and stresses are kept to an appropriate minimum, though not passively so. Indeed, when occasion arises, the tempos and variations are well up to the task. There's nothing stuffy about these performances, even if they're not among the most imaginative you may have heard. All of which may please a lot of dedicated Bach fans who have become tired of hearing Bach's music being twisted this way and that.

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:

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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 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 W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I 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 an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.
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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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