April 15, 2021


Bach: Harpsichord Concertos Nos. 1-7, BWV 1052-1058; Italian Concerto, BWV 971. Ivor Bolton and David Ponsford, harpsichord; Ivor Bolton conducting St. James’s Baroque Players. Alto. $12.98 (2 CDs).

Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr: Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera (Six Partias for violin solo). Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin. Athene. $18.99.

     Although the Bach performances on a new two-CD release from Alto are not themselves new, they demonstrate quite clearly that very fine, idiomatically played Baroque music continues to sound fresh and clean for decades after it is recorded. The seven harpsichord concertos in which Ivor Bolton is both soloist and conductor of St. James’s Baroque Players were recorded in 1987; the Italian Concerto, with David Ponsford as soloist and Bolton again conducting the same ensemble, is a performance from 2000. These readings use reproductions of Baroque instruments (built in 1982 and 1993, respectively), but the quality of such reproductions has been exceptionally high for decades, and the sound of Bach’s music comes through on them with all the clarity and historical awareness that a listener could want. The single-harpsichord concertos are actually arrangements by Bach of earlier works for other instruments (some known, some lost), transcribed down a tone when necessary to accommodate the limitations of the upper end of the keyboards to which Bach had access. Yet these concertos fit the harpsichord beautifully, both in terms of the sound of the solo instrument and in the way the solo and tutti sections relate to and complement each other. Bolton is highly sensitive to this aspect of the music, both as harpsichordist and as conductor: the careful balance of harpsichord and ensemble is one of the major pleasures of these readings. Another is the care with which the slow movements are presented: they are sensitive, expressive and warm, but always clearly within the boundaries of Bach’s time. This is especially evident in BWV 1054 (in D), whose slow movement is marked Adagio e piano sempre and gets a very high degree of emotional commitment here; and in BWV 1053 (in E), whose central Siciliano is particularly lovely. Another highlight of this set is the rich sound of BWV 1057 (in F) – a transcription of Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 – in which the instrumental interplay is especially rich. The three minor-key concertos – BWV 1052 in D minor, BWV 1056 in F minor, and BWV 1058 in G minor – are all played with effectively dark hues that create a sense of additional depth without ever overdoing the emotion. Even the comparatively straightforward, Vivaldi-esque BWV 1055 (in A) is a work of considerable standing here. And the Italian Concerto – an original composition rather than a transcription – is filled with striking tonal contrasts and variations in volume that turn it into an impressive showpiece. These recordings, even decades after being made, are among the best available performances of Bach’s solo-harpsichord concertos, both in interpretation and in the sound quality with which they are presented.

     Sound quality is also a major attraction on a new Athene disc featuring just about the only surviving music by Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr (1663-1722): a very extensive (more than 80-minute) set of six Partias (partitas) that date to Bach’s time (1715) and stand as a little-known early example of the Baroque dance suite. There is some uncertainty about their instrumentation: their full title ends with the words Con Basso Belle imitante, which could mean they were written for violin and basso continuo or could mean they were intended for solo violin incorporating textures resembling those of a basso. Either way, the bass part – if it existed – has been lost, and Peter Sheppard Skærved plays the pieces strictly on a violin. And what a violin it is: a 1629 instrument by Girolamo Amati (1561-1630), with the warmth and splendidly even tone for which Amati instruments have long been renowned. This disc is actually the fourth in a series focusing on specific great violins, the first three having featured a 1570 Andrea Amati, a 1647 Niccolò Amati, and a 1685 Antonio Stradivari. As an inevitable result, the focus here is as much on the instrument as on the performer and the music being played. The music is nevertheless very worthwhile indeed. The Partias begin and end with works in A, with the sequence between those bookends being B-flat, C minor, D, and G minor. Although not connected thematically, the six pieces are parallel examples of the dance-suite form, and all of them are very finely made and quite challenging to perform. Unlike the more-familiar solo-string works of Bach, Vilsmaÿr’s are collections of pieces that are very brief indeed, often less than a minute apiece. The first and second partias include 10 movements each; the third and fourth have nine each; the fifth has eight; and the sixth contains 10. The dance forms will be familiar to listeners who know Baroque suites, although some spellings are slight variants of the usual ones: saraband, gavott, menuett, passpied, ciaccona, rigodon, guique, and so forth. The fourth suite contains a dance form about which nothing substantive is known, labeled brunada, and the third includes a highly emotional Aria Lamentevole that is one of the distinct highlights of all the partias. Aside from this one movement, little in these works is particularly substantial, yet taken as a whole, they exhibit a degree of seriousness that takes them beyond the “salon music” of their time into a realm with a greater sense of drama. It is especially noteworthy – and has a great deal to do with the sound of these works – that the six partias call for the violin to be tuned four different ways. The tunings result in tone that ranges from quite dark (the C minor partia) to very bright (the D major). Skærved is more than a virtuoso performer of these works: he is a guide for listeners to music with which they will likely be unfamiliar, and a guide as well to the marvelous capabilities of an absolutely top-notch violin that dates to more or less the same time as the music heard on this exceptionally interesting CD.

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