Dunedin Consort - J.S. Bach: Violin Concertos - MusicWeb International

'Bach Violin Concertos' can mean many different things: in this case the two solo concertos and the double with the reconstructed violin-and-oboe version of BWV1060. That's a very different programme than, for example, on Alina Ibragimova's recent recording with Arcangelo for Hyperion of the two conventional solo concertos plus plausible reconstructions of BWV1052, 1055 and 1056. The Hyperion gives a slightly more generous coupling than the new Linn recording but it leaves you without the Double Concerto. The Linn programme is more conventional: the classic Arthur Grumiaux recording, with Herman Krebbers in the Double Concerto and Heinz Holliger on BWV1060R, still a clear recommendation among modern-instrument versions, offers exactly the same programme. Among outstanding period-instrument versions Masaaki Suzuki, with soloists and the Bach Collegium of Japan also offers the same combination on a very fine recording (BIS-CD-961). 

Cecilia Bernardini may be less famous than Alina Ibragimova. She's the leader of the Dunedin Consort and leads and directs other modern- and period-instrument groups, rather than a well-known soloist, but that's not necessarily a disadvantage in performing the Bach concertos where the violinist is more a first among equals than a showy virtuoso. I very much enjoyed hearing her contribution to this recording and I need hardly add that she receives first-rate support from John Butt and the other members of the Consort.

For a comparative version of BWV1041 I listened to the Grumiaux recording. Surprisingly for a modern-instrument version first released on LP in 1978 there's little to choose in terms of tempo and, more importantly, overall impression and communication between that and the new Linn recording. Perhaps that's partly due to the fact that another violinist, Arpad Gerecz, was directing and that the Solistes Romands, otherwise unrepresented in the current catalogue, rose to the occasion. The sound is a little shrill - no match for the Linn - but otherwise it's a credit to Bernardini and her supporters that she offers, if not quite a modern classic to sit beside the Grumiaux, something just as stylish.

The opening movement of BWV1060R starts in sprightly fashion without sounding breakneck: if anything both it and the adagio are taken slightly more steadily than on most recent recordings, such as Lars Ulrik Mortensen with Concerto Copenhagen (CPO). The first movement is almost as slow as and the adagio slightly slower than the now classic Teldec recording which forms part of the USB complete Bach Edition, still available and good value at around £165 for the equivalent of over 150 CDs. Things have moved on since that older recording, one of the earliest on period instruments, was made and, good as it is and only seconds slower, it sounds a little four-square by comparison with the Edinburgh team. Alfredo Bernardini in the oboe part also contributes in no small way to the success of the new performance.

The 1973 Teldec recording features Alice Harnoncourt as the violin soloist, with Jürg Schaeftlein (oboe), Walter Pfeiffer as second violinist in the Double Concerto and the Concentus Musicus directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The slight squareness of the opening of BWV1060R is compensated for by a brisk but affectionate account of the slow movement but the finale again shows signs of the Harnoncourt manner in a jaunty but slightly over-emphatic performance. I know that many listeners dislike that manner but for me it's a more than acceptable way of performing these concertos. I still turn with enjoyment to these performances of BWV1041-3, though I can see why many are unable to take the heavy 'bulges' in the reconstructed BWV1056R which completes the programme.

Walter Pfeiffer is a very worthwhile second soloist on Teldec but Huw Daniel also gives a very fine performance on the new recording. The classic account of the Double Concerto came from the Oistrakhs, father and son on DG, still available on Originals (2 CDs), Regis - and even on vinyl. Their rapport is something very special but Bernardini and Daniel are hardly far behind.

On BIS, with Natsumi Wakamatsu supporting Ryo Terakado in the Double Concerto, the opening of the first movement sounds a little hurried at first but the pace soon settles down, though overall the tempo is a little faster than on Linn. The second movement on BIS is a shade slow - leaning more to the largo marking than to the ma non tanto qualification. I can't complain when the result is so beautiful - more than usual this movement reminds me of the Handel 'largo' - but the new Linn seems to me to strike a more apt pace. Much as I like the BIS recording, the Dunedin team seem to have the advantage. Alice Harnoncourt and Walter Pfeiffer stress the largo even more at 7:06 (BIS 6:44; Linn 6:18).

If I say that Butt's way with Bach is far less controversial than Harnoncourt's, that should not be taken to mean that these performances are bland. I'm slightly less bowled over than by his recordings of the Magnificat and Christmas Cantata (Recording of the Month, also one of my Recordings of the Year), the b-minor Mass and the St John Passion (Recording of the Month) but not by much. The only reason why I have not considered this for Recording of the Month is that it doesn't cast quite as much new light on the music as those earlier Linn releases or the new Brilliant Classics Vivaldi Op.8, a very special performance of The Four Seasons and the other concertos of Il Cimento dell'armonia e dell'invenzione.

The Teldec recording is no longer available separately, even as a download, but it does point up one shortcoming on the Linn recording, which runs for less than an hour as against 73 minutes for the Teldec. That's why I downloaded the new album in the 16-bit format, though I could easily have obtained the 24-bit as a review copy. The 16-bit sounds fine and is reasonably priced at £10: £18.00 for the 24-bit does seem excessive when the equivalent SACD is likely to sell for £13 from Linn, or less from some dealers. On past experience it should outshine even the 16-bit which I reviewed.

Grumbles about pricing apart, which affect only the download not the SACD equivalent, this is as good a way as any to get to know these wonderful concertos and a worthy successor to John Butt's earlier recordings of Bach with the Dunedin Consort. To prefer them overall to Masaaki Suzuki and his team on BIS and to Arthur Grumiaux on Decca, however slightly, is indeed high praise.

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