Bach: Harpsichord Concertos Nos. 1-7; Concerto for Flute, Violin and Harpsichord; Brandenburg Concerto No. 5; Italian Concerto. Murray Perahia, piano and conducting the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Sony. $24.99 (3 CDs).
Despite the current penchant for labeling them as “keyboard” concertos, Bach’s seven solo concertos were written for harpsichord and should be properly labeled as such. They can be played on other instruments, to be sure, but the “keyboard” label is intended to make it seem somehow authentic to perform them on a full-size, modern concert grand piano – and this is distinctly not all right in anything approaching historical terms. That does not mean that piano performances are bad as a foregone conclusion, however. The best of them – and those by Murray Perahia are definitely among the best – have a strength and validity all their own. They are inauthentic in every possible way, and blurring the distinction between what Bach wanted and what modern pianists choose to provide does no one any favors: Bach was actually familiar with very early versions of the piano, but never wrote or arranged anything for the instrument. The choice to use a large-scale modern piano for Bach’s delicately scored concertos is therefore one of hubris from the start – for all that well-played piano versions have charms all their own.
The first piano version of these concertos to make a strong impact was that of Glenn Gould, now more than 50 years old. It may seem sacrilegious to say so, but Perahia’s renditions are better. Gould was a clear, careful and cerebral interpreter, and his Bach has many striking moments and is frequently revelatory. But Perahia’s is warmer and altogether more satisfying for anyone interested in hearing these pieces on a modern piano. Furthermore, Perahia is an intelligent and clever editor of the concertos: this is a case in which the dual roles of soloist and conductor make possible some very attractive music-making indeed. For example, in the finale of Concerto No. 5, Perahia changes a bowed two-note string figuration to a pizzicato one, thus giving the piano the legato element and letting the strings provide the plucked effect that Bach intended to have in the harpsichord. True, this takes the movement even farther from Bach’s intentions than does the use of the piano; but once you accept the piano as the solo instrument, this emendation makes perfect sense – and is sonically delightful. Perahia also seems to want to reinforce plucked elements of these scores by including a theorbo, but this is a less happy alteration, since the sound of the bass lute is frequently almost absent and never prominent enough to make a significant difference in the overall sonic environment generated by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
From a purely interpretative standpoint, the second disc in Sony’s new three-CD compilation – containing concertos Nos. 3, 5, 6 and 7 – is the highlight. The playing of both Perahia and the orchestra is warm and assured, the interpretations effective and highly communicative, the lyricism brought out in ways that stretch Bach here and there but never to the breaking point. Details are elegantly produced, and the balance between orchestra and piano – which can easily be thrown off, because a modern concert grand is so much weightier than Bach’s intended harpsichord – is beautifully managed, with Perahia paying as much attention to his role as conductor as he does to that of soloist. There is not only style but also joy in Perahia’s playing, and anyone who gets past an initial reluctance to accept these works on piano will find this CD a real pleasure.
The disc of concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 4 is almost as good. Recorded slightly earlier (this entire three-CD set is a reissue of recordings made nearly a decade ago), these performances are a touch more tentative, as if conductor/soloist and orchestra had not quite reached a complete comfort level with each other. The theorbo is even less audible here, and Perahia’s playing, although still exciting, pushes more into Romantic-era traditions that simply do not belong in Bach. This is not to say, though, that the CD is less than enthralling: Perahia is a thoughtful as well as superbly skilled musician, and the flair and delicacy with which he handles these concertos will be more than enough to make this CD as attractive to many listeners as that of concertos Nos. 3, 5, 6 and 7.
The third CD in this set, though, is a mistake, or at best a curiosity. It is neither stylistically nor interpretatively justifiable, no matter how well Perahia plays on it. The Italian Concerto sounds fine in an overdone way, and Perahia’s technique is, as always, at a very high level. But it does not sound stylistically appropriate at all, and the other two works on this CD are worse. The delicate balances of the least known of these concertos – that for flute, violin and harpsichord, BWV 1044 – are obliterated by the modern piano; and this work (a rearrangement by Bach of older harpsichord and trio-sonata material) simply sounds askew. And using a modern concert grand in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 – which in many ways deserves to be called the first harpsichord concerto ever written – is simply bizarre. It does not matter how well Perahia plays the work, because what he is playing sounds like a Stokowski-era attempt to bring that “old-fashioned” Bach into modern times through grotesque bloat and overindulgence in the capabilities of instruments of which Bach knew nothing. Perahia gets away with a modern-piano rendition of the solo harpsichord concertos through his intelligence, musicality, splendid technique and obvious involvement in the music. But the third CD in this set is a throwaway: fanatical Perahia fans will undoubtedly enjoy it, and certainly the playing is excellent, but this is Bach as played in the days before anyone even knew what authentic Baroque music sounded like. It is simply inappropriate, and not really justifiable, in the 21st century. By all means buy this set for Perahia’s subtle and warmly embracing view of the solo concertos; but it is probably best to consider the third CD here as either a throwback or an aberration.