Bach: Keyboard Concertos (CD review)

Concertos for Keyboard and Orchestra, BWV 974, 1052, 1054, 1056, 1058, 1065. Alexandre Tharaud, piano; Bernard Labadie, Les Violon du Roy. Virgin Classics 50999 070913 2 2.

Whenever I hear the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) played on a piano rather than a harpsichord, I tend to forget it's Bach. I'm not sure if this is good or bad; it's just not Bach to me. However, in this case, it works well enough. French pianist Alexandre Tharaud uses a modern piano for these performances, accompanied by Les Violon du Roy playing on modern instruments with Baroque bows. The result is a modern interpretation of eighteenth-century works using near period-performance practices, making it a hybrid concoction that nevertheless delivers an enjoyable listening experience.

Les Violon du Roy consist of about fourteen performers on violins, violas, cellos, and double bass. They provide excellent support for Tharaud's smooth, suave, polished, yet lively readings. His playing is often spectacularly virtuosic as he approaches the fast outer movements nimbly and vigorously, all the while producing suitably serene, relaxed central slow movements. Indeed, because the modern piano he plays sounds so rich and sonorous, these Adagios and such appear quite Romantic rather than Baroque. So, as I say, we get a little of everything in these Bach pieces, which no doubt would have delighted Bach no end.

The album's core works are the Concertos for Keyboard and Orchestra BWV 1052, 1054, 1056, and 1058, written between 1720 and 1730. Although Bach intended them for harpsichord, he transcribed them from previous violin concertos. Reworking his older material into new pieces was nothing new for Bach or for most Baroque composers who knew a good thing when they heard it, even if it was their own. So, what we have here are compositions that started life as violin concertos, which Bach then turned into harpsichord concertos, and which Tharaud here plays on the piano. "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever," wrote Mr. Keats. He might have had Bach in mind.

Incidentally, BWV 1054 may remind you of Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto, the composer again knowing a good thing when he heard it; and the Adagio of BWV 1056 is as sweet and delicate as anything Bach ever wrote. Just saying.

In addition to the four keyboard concertos, Tharaud includes the Adagio to the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974, which Bach fashioned after an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello. It's lovely and haunting and makes a splendid centerpiece for the program. Then Tharaud concludes the album with the Concerto for four Keyboards and Orchestra in A minor, BWV 1065, which Bach transcribed for harpsichord from a concerto for four violins by Vivaldi. Here, through the magic of multitrack recording, Tharaud plays all four parts himself, the piano positioned on different areas of the stage to simulate their being played simultaneously with the band. Anyway, it makes for a fascinating piece of music, and Tharaud pulls it off effectively enough, the piano parts thoroughly and seamlessly integrated into the ensemble.

Virgin recorded the album at Salle Raoul-Jobin, Palais Moncalm, Quebec, Canada in October of 2010. For most of the pieces, Tharaud asked that the piano be placed to the rear of the other players so that it would appear as a part of the group rather than a standout solo instrument in the front of the ensemble as we normally hear it. Not only does this offer an attractive musical configuration, it seems remarkably humble and unpretentious of Mr. Tharaud to suggest such an arrangement. Most soloists would want to be front and center. Whatever, the piano displays a warm, mellow, resonant sound, with the violins, violas, and cellos decidedly brighter, as they should be. The setting is lightly, pleasantly reverberant, giving the music a welcome ambient glow. It's all very clean and clear in a highly listenable manner.


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