Recording of the Week,
Isabelle Faust plays Bach Concertos
Today's Recording of the Week sees Isabelle Faust return to the Bach odyssey that has already earned her so many plaudits – her recording of the Violin Sonatas with Kristian Bezuidenhout won a slew of awards, and her accounts of the solo Sonatas and Partitas are among the benchmark recordings of these works. Tackling the Violin Concertos is a logical next step, but there’s an added treat in store on this album: tucked in among the concertos proper is a selection of sinfonias, overtures and trio sonatas, many of which represent the first performances of the reconstructed original versions of works that have become well-known in another guise.
From the very first notes of the first track – the concerto BWV1052R, often performed as a harpsichord concerto but showing clear traces of an initial conception with the violin in mind – Faust’s style is immediately recognisable. The first movement traverses a huge emotional and dynamic range, between moments of magical stillness and muscular double-stopping, with the closing bars particularly punchy. In the third, Faust’s technical prowess comes to the fore, with some intimidatingly acrobatic bowings executed with total assurance.
Immediately after this concerto closes there is what I can only call a “do not adjust your set” moment. The music coming out of my speakers caused me to stop and check the track-listing – surely this was the opening to the third Brandenburg Concerto? Here Faust and her collaborators, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under Bernhard Forck, present the first of their reworked gems: the sinfonia to the cantata Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte is, indeed, the opening movement of Brandenburg 3, but with the wonderful addition of two horns and three oboes to flesh out an already luxuriously rich orchestral texture. I have a soft spot for large-scale Baroque music like this; Gottfried von der Goltz and the Freiburger Barockorchester’s similar treatment of Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, which initially slipped under my radar last December is, likewise, an utterly glorious sonic experience. I have to confess I almost prefer this version, with its expanded palette, to the more mainstream Brandenburg incarnation.
One problem with double-length albums is that when they’re really good, as this one is, it’s difficult to find room to praise everything that merits it. Faust’s duet with oboist Xenia Löffler in the sinfonia to Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis is definitely a standout moment; this three-minute work manages to strike a balance that’s almost paradoxically perfect, full of pathos while at the same time steering clear of mawkish melodrama. Elsewhere there’s consistent evidence of Faust’s musical thoughtfulness – the selection of an expansive, unhurried tempo to open the Double Concerto BWV1060, and the refusal to wallow in this concerto’s well-known Largo, both bespeak a musician who has stripped these works right back to the score and worked her way back up from there rather than allowing herself to be swayed by other considerations.
Isabelle Faust’s approach in performance has always been one of scrupulous loyalty to the composer’s wishes rather than of self-aggrandisement. This album perfectly combines what for me are the two key facets of her musicianship – that sense of being a messenger for the composer, and her profound scholarship and research. The reinvented “extras” that dot the album between the concertos are not only fascinating musicological artifacts brought back to vivid life for the first time – though they are certainly that – but genuinely feel as though they belong in this programme rather than being mere curios. The reconstructions, particularly of the trio sonatas, are so natural that it’s easy to forget that they are reconstructions at all; one would hardly guess that these pieces had ever existed in any other form. This is surely due to Faust and Forck’s decisions in extrapolating and piecing together the existing material, and to the conviction and sensitivity with which they present the end result.
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