BACH: Keyboard Concertos = Concerto in D Minor; Concerto in D Major; Concerto in F Minor; Concerto in G Minor – Lucia Micallef, pianoforte/ European Union Ch. Orch./ Brian Schembri – Divine Art

BACH: Keyboard Concertos = Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052; Concerto in D Major, BWV 1054; Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1056; Concerto in G Minor, BWV 1058 – Lucia Micallef, pianoforte/ European Union Ch. Orch./ Brian Schembri – Divine Art dda-25128, 61:59 (3/30/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Here, two Maltese musicians collaborate (28-29 April 2014) in the music of Bach, recorded at St. John’s Smith Square, London. Bach contributed seven complete solo concertos which survive on a manuscript dating from 1737-39, while Bach served as Cantor of St. Thomas’d,  Church in Leipzig. The concertos were probably composed for performance at Zimmermann’s coffee house by members of the Collegium Musicum with Bach at the harpsichord.

Bach’s oeuvre comprises some of the earliest keyboard concertos to have been written. The liner-notes (Anthony Burton) mention the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto and Handel’s Organ Concertos which were written in London as other early examples of the form. Likely, all Bach’s keyboard concertos – based on Vivaldi’s paradigm of the concerto format – were transcriptions that the composer made from his earlier works for other instruments, particularly the oboe and the violin.

Schembri’s European Union Chamber Orchestra opts for a sound that appears a compromise between “authentic” and contemporary sonorities, certainly transparent enough to allow Micallef’s pearly articulation to shine through while allotting Bach’s often pungently chromatic textures their due. The resonant string line in the D Minor Concerto first movement lends ample support to the keyboard’s hypnotic repetitions of the ritornello motif.  The G Minor Adagio extends a somberly serpentine theme not far from the Ligeti piece –Musica ricercata – that haunts Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The four-part harmony of the supporting strings sighs in the manner of anguished naiads in a lyric stream of sadness. The bouncy, fluid  realization of Bach’s 12-bar ritornello for the final Allegro conveys a joie de vivre that remains within sober limits, unlike the famed Gould/Mitropoulos collaboration in Amsterdam.

The Concerto in D Major proffers us an arrangement of the familiar E Major Violin Concerto, BWV 1042. The left hand of the keyboard part has undergone significant support from by arpeggios and tissue from the original orchestral part of BWV 1042. Micallef thoroughly relishes the various flourishes and episodes of melodic, arioso filigree that mark the opening Allegro. We can feel the Vivaldi touch even as Bach expands the rich tapestry of the ternary development. The application of extended melos applies to the B Minor Adagio e piano sempre, which borrows further melodic tissue from the ritornello. The clever Allegro finale synthesizes a passepied rhythm with a rondo format, a witty combination of symmetry that appears to be inventively spontaneous. Micallef and Schembri deliver a most congenial rendition.

Ever since I heard Clara Haskil and then Gina Bachauer in the compressed F Minor Concerto – alongside that of Edwin Fischer’s abd Agi Jambor’s classic renditions – the diaphanous wiles of this affective work have mesmerized me. The Allegro ritornello theme alternately marches and dances in plastic rhythm. Pure magic inhabits the A-flat Major Adagio whose procession permits variety of the bass line under an exquisite vocal line and its trill. Little string pizzicatos, antiphonal interruptions, and deft counterpoint make the Presto finale a persistent delight.

The G Minor Concerto arranges the A Minor Violin Concerto, BWV 1041 from Bach’s Coethen period for pianoforte realization. The piano right-hand duplicates the violin original, while the left adopts the low string part with added fioritura. The Vivaldi formula enjoys a new sonority as Bach alternates ritornello fragments with solo banter. Micallef sings plaintively in the B-flat Major Andante over a throaty ostinato in the strings. The contrapuntal antics of the 9/8 Allegro assai, a hearty gigue, virtually hop, skip, and jump to the lyrically alert sensibilities of our enthusiastic principals.

—Gary Lemco

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