Here are two CDs which share three Bach keyboard concertos played on the piano but take a different approach to performance and accompaniment.
Nick van Bloss begins with Bach’s A major Concerto BWV 1055 . You can straightaway enjoy the blithe effect created by the creamy, smooth tone and easy, nonchalant fluency he finds in its opening movement; this notwithstanding the ebullience of the predominantly semiquaver line in the right hand. This is well complemented by the cheerful and lightly crisp articulation of the orchestra. A dense, busy texture is delivered with a gusto which never becomes hectic. In the Larghetto slow movement the strings have a dreamy, faraway quality at first. There’s then a growing tragic intensity in Parry’s sensitive pointing of their succession of quaver/crotchet leaps and descents. These are sweetly sad and them the piano plies an unbroken melody whose bluesy elements are clearly revealed by van Bloss. Here fluency doesn’t restrict the expressiveness of the cantilena. In the finale a similar continuity is appreciable: you could say it’s one long, bristling flourish from the piano. From the orchestra an element of heady abandon emerges as the movement lurches around in tipsy celebration. How vibrantly the strings articulate the ornament of the second note mirroring that of the piano part. It’s the ornamentation and demisemiquaver work in the piano that creates the movement’s fundamental fervour.
Peter Seivewright ends his CD with this concerto. He plays with an ensemble of solo strings plus double bass and guitar to boost the continuo line. The atmosphere is more intimate, still closely recorded. The drier Glasgow acoustic and more even balance of piano and strings suits this approach. The same can be said of the more dominant piano of the Nimbus recording to its more standard concerto soloist/orchestra model. Seivewright’s playing is rather steadier. The opening movement doesn’t therefore have the flow of van Bloss/Parry. Seivewright and Angus Ramsay don’t sweep you away, but you note more the structure of Bach’s argument. Seivewright finds more contrast as that argument progresses, pointing its different characteristics. In the outer movements of all the concertos he leaves the opening to the strings, apart from here the very first flourish, entering at the piano’s initial elaboration of the theme (tr. 10, 0:21 and tr. 12, 0:31). This points the opening solo entry more and makes it more akin to, say, a Mozart concerto. I prefer the involvement of the piano from the outset as in van Bloss’s account. Again in the slow movement Seivewright’s phrasing is more marked, so the shape of the piece is clearer. The piano melody is delivered with more poise – it’s more like an aria – with an intensity that more closely matches that of the accompaniment. The Seivewright/Ramsay finale is more homely than the van Bloss/Parry, less virtuosic, but the piano still skips along with plenty of liveliness.
Seivewright begins his CD with the G minor Concerto BWV 1058 and presents its opening Allegro in sinewy articulation against strings. There’s considerable, lively energy here and a rugged swing. But van Bloss is faster, timing at 3:42 against Seivewright’s 4:05 and thereby more swinging still. He’s rather lighter in tone yet with a turbulent verve, again with a headiness of progression and Parry makes more appreciable the interplay between soloist and orchestra because its forces – larger than Ramsay’s chamber ensemble – give it more personality to meet the soloist on equal terms. In the following Andante van Bloss is smooth and laid back. He brings a beautifully flowing line with the orchestra left to supply the edge of solemnity. Seivewright offers a more shaped and expressive cantilena, very much a soulful aria. Ramsay’s weeping solo strings are more personally in emotive accord. To the finale van Bloss brings both rigorous precision, which enhances its momentum, and a playful bounce. Seivewright is steadier and more refined, but this allows the piano to display more wit.
In the E major Concerto BWV 1053 opening movement van Bloss brings an element of rugged muscularity of propulsion, vigorous, flourishing. This is well counterpoised by Parry’s defter strings in the myriad of contrapuntal exchanges. Seivewright, on the other hand, is more lightly articulated and playful against an ensemble that is more intimate, exploratory with a less distinctive overall sense of direction. The following Siciliano from Parry is a silkily veiled dance after which van Bloss’s solo elaboration, presented with great clarity, gives it a reflective, jocular cast. This seems a touch jarring, but van Bloss is right to direct attention to the strangeness of a movement which contrasts an extrovert form, a dance, with a soloist’s more inward musings. Seivewright and Ramsay are more comfortable in their contrast of emotive, lachrymose strings and a cooler, more limpid piano solo unmistakably an aria. The result is that the whole movement has more character. In the finale van Bloss/Parry (tr. 12) are frolicsome and frothy, though with the episode featuring a chromatic rise from 2:02 broadening things out more freshly for a spell. Seivewright/Ramsay, if not as scintillating, are again more lightly articulated, smoother, quite blithe and comely. They manage to be more relaxed in manner though not in pace.
Now to consider the concertos van Bloss and Seivewright don’t share. Seivewright plays the D minor Concerto BWV 1052 . I’m afraid I didn’t take to this account. In the opening movement the piano sounds furtive, as if engaged in abstract doodling and the scale seems too small for the nature of the work. Contrast the busy, purposeful engagement of the 2000 recording by Murray Perahia, piano director with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields (Sony 88697742912). Perahia fully exploits the tension the piano’s sequences create, the offbeat strings’ interjections excite and what a marvellous climax to the movement Perahia and the orchestra achieve together. Seivewright’s slow movement finds the piano cowed, the accompaniment thrust into a limelight it finds tedious to sustain where Perahia is searingly reflective in this ‘aria’ of huge tessitura. Seivewright’s finale, with sprightly strings, is nicely done as a chamber piece but the piano should surely be more commanding. Perahia gives us a maelstrom of swirling energy.
Van Bloss plays two additional pieces: first the D major Concerto BWV 1054 . In the first movement he is playful yet maintains momentum well, though for me he over bounces the attack of the opening motif. As ever there’s fine interplay with the orchestra and its evident involvement to enjoy. Perahia recorded this concerto in 2001. His opening movement is smoother but also jollier yet he also maintains a seamless vein of lyricism and provides more light and shade than van Bloss. The slow movement, gauzy and wistful, is beautifully realized by van Bloss. The left hand piano melody is fastidiously balanced against the right hand decoration. Still the emotion of the central section is kept cool. Perahia makes the whole movement an arioso of considerable eloquence born of suffering. The pathos of the paring down of its centre is especially effective. To the finale van Bloss brings a healthy robustness, but alongside this Bach with bluster Perahia is more graceful, carefree and dance-like.
Van Bloss also plays the F minor Concerto BWV 1056 . In the opening movement (tr. 13) he supplies a creamy fluency as a freewheeling contrast to the dour, stolid tutti at the outset. An especially pleasing moment comes from 2:50 when the left hand adds the movement’s main motif to the right hand’s melodic flow. Perahia’s lyricism in this movement in his 2000 recording is both more seamless and tense yet also more varied in tone and texture, but van Bloss’s blunter contrasts are just as valid. The Largo slow movement is one of Bach’s loveliest cantilenas. It comes from van Bloss in a bright, clean line married with an absorbed, musing manner, toying with, yet very fastidious in, its ornamentation. It’s cool and graceful, perhaps a mite chintzy. Perahia is more velvety, makes the ornamentation lighter yet more integral to the line. In the Presto finale (tr. 15) van Bloss and Parry wittily point the interchange between piano and orchestra from the orchestra’s echoing the end of the piano’s first phrase. Van Bloss’s icy descending trills, for example from 0:59, are also enjoyable. Nevertheless I prefer the niftier pace (2:58 against van Bloss’s 3:19) and lighter tone throughout achieved by Perahia and his accompanying strings.
Both Seivewright and van Bloss contribute articulately and forcefully to their CD booklets. Seivewright challenges the idea that Bach’s keyboard concertos were simply arrangements of works for other instruments while van Bloss charts his own approach to the range of problems faced by performers using modern instruments. His CD is the more striking. Van Bloss’s own distinctive style is well matched by Parry’s orchestral verve. Seivewright is more reflective yet is also complemented by Ramsay’s expressive chamber ensemble. For a more rounded and eloquent approach to Bach concertos played on the piano Perahia remains for me unsurpassed.
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