The Return of the Elder J. S. Bach

Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

Perhaps the recording companies have finally ended their desperate attempt to find new audiences by making something out of nothing, i.e., trying to pass off as buried treasure the noodlings of such Baroque nonentities as Locatelli, Geminiani, Biber and that most recently discovered purveyor of lost masterpieces, the unspeakable J.D. Heinichen.

That minor Baroque no longer sells, if it ever did, is indicated by the return in quantity to the monthly release lists of the king of them all, Bach--Papa Johann Sebastian, not his once highly hyped composer sons.

And Bach is Back, not only amid the endless stream issuing from the old-instrument people but in historically informed performances by virtuosos who have made their reputations as mainstream artists.

Making a notable entry into territory previously inhabited only by scholar-specialists is redoubtable violinist Viktoria Mullova. In her dazzling program of Bach concertos (Philips 446 675), Mullova, the soloist, and her handpicked little ensemble, with one player per part, employ modern instruments, played at modern pitch, in a manner that would be unthinkable without the precedent set by the period people.


Mullova and friends execute with rhythmic bite and great rhythmic flexibility, with restrained, expressively employed vibrato and lively, enhancing ornamentation.

The program, which at 52 minutes is somewhat short for a full-priced CD, comprises the two canonic solo concertos, BWV 1041 and 1042; the conjectural violin original of the Harpsichord Concerto in F minor; and the splendid violin and oboe version (with the vivacious Francois Leleux partnering Mullova) of the C-minor Concerto for Two Harpsichords.

Mullova’s Bach gets pride of place here because it was unexpected. There are no surprises, however, in a two-CD set (Denon 78970-71) from the Accademia Bizantina, which doesn’t seem to play anything with less than profound insight, dashing energy and technical aplomb, be it Bach, Respighi or Berio.

The Denon collection offers all the Bach violin concertos, originals and reconstructions (the latter by the group’s imaginative harpsichordist and resident scholar, Ottavio Dantone) played on period instruments, the Ravenna, Italy-based Accademia being--or having been--perhaps the only ensemble extant executing with equal mastery and stylishness on old and modern instruments, depending on the repertory.


The qualification above relates to the fact that the band as constituted on Denon has since lost its charismatic leader and principal violin soloist, Carlo Chiarappa, who had a falling out with his colleagues and departed on the eve of the Accademia’s recent first visit to the United States. What the future holds is uncertain, although the ensemble is at present soldiering on.

Denon has inadvertently paid Chiarappa an even higher compliment than his contributions to these performances deserve, grandly incisive and vital as they are, by failing to credit by name his five fellow soloists, all of them presumably members of the Accademia.

Instrumentalists presuming to mastery of the Baroque idiom today owe a debt to Musica Antiqua Koln, which in the late ‘70s proved to the world that not all practitioners of “authentic” styles were technically deficient dropouts from mainstream music making.

MAK, then as now directed by violinist-violist Reinhard Gobel, presented its repertory with hellish glee and often at breakneck speeds--seldom, however, to the detriment of the music, while exploding the notion that scratched or mis-blown notes and severely sagging pitch were inherent in historical performance.


The group’s recording of Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos, in all its hackle-raising glory, returns to circulation on a pair of mid-priced Deutsche Grammophon Archiv CDs, for the benefit of listeners who may have thought that every secret held by these overexposed staples had long ago been revealed.

The concertos are packaged three to a disc: Nos. 1-3, with Bach’s Suite in C (447 287), and Nos. 4-6 with the Suite in D (447 288).