The keyboard concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach have been part of the staple repertory of pianists for over a century, as they provide examples of early music by an iconic figure. Of course, the original instrument was almost certainly a harpsichord, and even an early fortepiano cannot be ruled out for the time they were written, somewhere in the 1730s. At least, that is the date of the principal manuscript from which they are drawn. Still, there is something interesting to be gleaned with a modern piano and modern strings, though the contention that these provide “a better balance than all but the largest (and least authentic) harpsichords” must be taken with a huge dose of salt. Moreover, the works also represent some sort of transcriptions themselves; for example, the D-Major Concerto (BWV 1054) had its origins in a violin concerto.
In general, period instruments provide a more subtle and clear idea of what Bach probably intended, but using modem instruments probably has its proponents as well. The textures are indeed rather fuller, and Bach’s somewhat relentless music does fit well into a more modern context. One cannot go down the road of supposition that Bach might indeed have preferred them, had he been magically transported to St. John’s Smith Square where this disc was recorded last year. But certainly the performances are clean and distinctive. One can certainly see the benefit of having a small chamber orchestra of only 15 players against a rather powerful modern piano to bring out a more modern concept of Bach’s works. The orchestra playing is extremely precise, sounding as if they are fewer in number than they are. Lucia Micallef’s playing does occasionally tend to be a bit mechanical, though this is in part caused by the rolling sequences of Bach’s music, and she acquits herself quite well. She is quite precise and fits the orchestral accompaniment so that it sounds chamber-like rather than a fuller, thicker orchestral texture that one might expect.
My personal preference still remains with period instruments, such as the wonderful, crystalline performances by Aapo Hakinnen and the Helsinki Baroque. If one is looking for what Bach might sound like in a more modern venue, then this is a disc that will serve that purpose quite well.
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