Bach: Toccata and Fugue (CD review)

Also, various other orchestral selections and transcriptions. Jonathan Carney, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Philharmonic Masterworks RPM 28900.

German organist and composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote music for practically every instrument, ensemble, and occasion of his day, with the preponderance of material for the organ, as one might imagine. The present album offers a sampling of his most-popular output, a few of the pieces adapted for modern orchestra. Although it makes one wish for longer or more-complete Bach material, one cannot deny the attraction of the works or their presentation.

Things start off with Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor for solo organ, only the disc never names the soloist. This seems a pity, he or she is so very good. The performance is at once vivid, lively, colorful, and exciting. Wonderfully recorded, it's a thrilling experience.

Next is the Cantata No. 51, "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen." Here we get only the opening movement, with again exciting and engaging contributions from trumpet and soprano, the soloists again unnamed. Then, there's the Cantata No. 140, "Wachet auf," the most-familiar movement done up in an arrangement for modern ensemble. It's lovely, with Maestro Jonathan Carney letting it glide along like a dove on wing.

Carney's way with the Allegro from Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 is light, lilting, and completely charming; as is the "Air on the G String" from the Orchestral Suite No. 3. Like the other selections on the program, there is nothing old-fashioned about the interpretation, yet Carney takes his time and allows the music to unfold easily, without getting all crazy on us as some so-called "authentic" performances do.

The Allegro from the Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor follows, where we find both Bach and Carney in a dramatic mode, with Carney making the most of the situation in a rousing rendition. In contrast, the Cantata No. 208, "Sheep may safely graze," is bucolic, pastoral, and perfectly delightful under Carney's deft, dexterous, graceful direction.

Continuing on, we get the last three movements of the Suite No. 2 in B minor for Flute, Strings and Continuo. It is chirpy, bouncy, and perhaps for Bach a little flamboyant; it is also quite infectious. Alas, the poor flutist goes unnamed.

We couldn't have a representative selection of Bach's music without the Cantata No. 147, "Jesu joy of man's desiring," no doubt one of the composer's most-familiar works. Carney gives it a romantic, close to sentimental treatment that is, nevertheless, considerably attractive.

The album ends with the Allegro assai from Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. It provides a properly chipper conclusion to the festivities. As I said earlier, all of this material makes one want to hear the conductor, orchestra, and soloists in longer, more-complete pieces by Bach. These highlights only serve to whet one's appetite.

The sound, produced in 2007 and released by Allegro Corporation in 2011 in the Royal Philharmonic Masterworks Audiophile Collection is big, sparkling, big, powerful, big, wide-ranging, big, dynamic, big, and did I mention big? Even played softly, the music gives one the feeling of a spacious orchestral presence or a huge, spacious organ or whatever. While the upper midrange is a tad forward and the upper bass a mite thick, the overall effect is smooth and realistic, especially with the inherent ambience of the acoustic providing so pleasant a bloom.


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