Johann Sebastian Bach (1665-1750) wrote eight concertos for harpsichord, the final one unfinished. On this present album, harpsichordist and conductor Francesco Corti and the period-instrument ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro offer four of those concertos: Nos. 1, 2, 4, and 7. They make a commendable team performing commendable material.
First, who is Francesco Corti? From his Web page, "Mr. Corti was born in Arezzo, Italy, in a musical family in 1984. He studied organ in Perugia, then harpsichord in Geneva and in Amsterdam. He was awarded at the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in Leipzig (2006) and at the Bruges Harpsichord Competition (2007). As a soloist, he has appeared in recitals and concerts all over Europe, in the USA, in Latin America and in New Zealand. Since 2015 he conducts regularly Les Musiciens du Louvre, and since September 2016, he is professor of harpsichord and thorough bass at the Schola Cantorum Basilensis."
Second, who are Il Pomo d'Oro? From their Web page, "The ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro was founded in 2012. It is characterized by an authentic, dynamic interpretation of operas and instrumental works from the Baroque and Classical period. The musicians are all well-known specialists and are among the best in the field of historical performance practice. The ensemble so far worked with the conductors Riccardo Minasi, Maxim Emelyanychev, Stefano Montanari, George Petrou, Enrico Onofri, and Francesco Corti."
Third, what are Bach's harpsichord concertos all about? From Wikipedia we learn that the exact dates of composition for the eight concertos remain uncertain, the first of them perhaps transcribed from an earlier organ concerto. Bach originally intended them "as a set of six, shown in the manuscript in Bach's traditional manner beginning with 'J.J.' (Jesu juva, 'Jesus, help') and ending with 'Finis. S. D. Gl.' (Soli Deo Gloria). Aside from the Brandenburg Concertos, it is the only such collection of concertos in Bach's oeuvre, and it is the only set of concertos from his Leipzig years (1723-44)." What's more, musical historians generally agree that Bach's harpsichord concertos are the first concertos written specifically for the harpsichord. So, whether you like them or not, they have some musical significance.
In fact, Corti has studied these scores for quite some time and thoroughly researched their history. As a stickler for historic accuracy, he probably plays them as Bach might have wanted. Again, whether that delights you or bores you is a purely subjective matter. I found their music making exhilarating.
Why "exhilarating"? Well, you have to remember that Corti and his accompanying ensemble are all versed in historical instrument practice, meaning that, depending on your interpretation, quick or slow. They tend to take the opening and closing Allegros lickety-split. These are offset with some fairly light, leisurely central movements, giving the concertos plenty of character but perhaps not always to the satisfaction of the listener used to more traditional performances. Regardless, it's hard not to respond positively to the zesty tempos and graceful contours of Corti's performances and the uniformly virtuosic playing of everyone involved.
Incidentally, if No. 7 in G Minor sounds familiar, it should. Bach based it on his own Violin Concerto in A Minor. What's more, he probably intended it to be the first concerto in a set of six but apparently changed his mind about the whole thing.
Executive producers Renaud Loranger, Gesine Lubben, and Giulio d'Alessio and recording producer Jean-Daniel Noir made the album at the Gustav Mahler Hall, Kulturzentrum, Toblach in March 2019. Unlike many of Pentatone's releases, which have been in multichannel SACD, this one is in standard two-channel stereo PCM only, with no mention of SACD anywhere.
The sound is exceptionally clean, with good definition, body, and detail. My only "however" is that it seems fairly one-dimensional. That is, while there is ample space around the instruments, they all appear to be in a straight line across the speakers. Nevertheless, the harpsichord is well integrated into the ensemble, neither too far out front nor buried within the other instruments, although it does sound a bit wider than it should. Still, as I say, not bad.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: