Bach to basics

Now the 'authentic' <i>vs</i> 'traditional' debate is largely redundant, we can appreciate the merits of both approaches to Bach, says Rob Cowan
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The Independent Culture

Pan back 20 or so years and the "authenticity movement" was a divisive force hellbent on confronting anyone who begged to challenge its influence. How things have changed. Nowadays, one-time early music gurus conduct Romantic music romantically and symphonic conductors take hints from the period-instrument lobby. And yet the earnestness of those older documents, or at least of those that had something new to say, still fascinate.

Pan back 20 or so years and the "authenticity movement" was a divisive force hellbent on confronting anyone who begged to challenge its influence. How things have changed. Nowadays, one-time early music gurus conduct Romantic music romantically and symphonic conductors take hints from the period-instrument lobby. And yet the earnestness of those older documents, or at least of those that had something new to say, still fascinate.

Reinhard Goebel's early digital Bach recordings from the 1980s, for example – lithe, attenuated and often alarmingly swift – helped alter our perceptions of (in particular) the Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites. True, Nikolaus Harnoncourt had already brought baleful period wind textures and rough-cut pre-Classical strings to the same repertoire, often with stimulating results, but Goebel's Bach was refreshingly outspoken and, more often than not, better-played. DG has packed a healthy chunk of it into an eight-CD budget-price set, including the Suites, the Brandenburgs and a comprehensive range of violin, gamba and flute sonatas, the last two featuring, respectively, Jaap Ter Linden and Wilbert Hazelzet.

Effective sampling is simple. Try the whirling finale of the Third Brandenburg (Wendy Carlos had nothing on this) or the intimacy of the Second Suite, scaled down to chamber-size proportions. The majority of fiddle sonatas have Goebel bowing a sleek, free-flowing solo line above the equally unfettered harpsichord playing of Robert Hill. No rivals from the "authentic" sphere are quite as imaginative and the range of repertory is very wide, including two sets of violin sonatas (BWV1014-1019 and 1020-26) and two sets of flute sonatas (BWV 1030-2 and 1033-5), where other less comprehensive surveys include only one set of each.

The Suites and Brandenburgs are also central to a cheap Bach collection of French Record Club recordings from the 1960s by the Saar Chamber Orchestra under the much-respected Karl Ristenpart. Talk about different worlds! Where Goebel dispatches his phrases with what seems like the mere flick of the wrist, Ristenpart's Bach is stately, rhythmically emphatic and conventionally expressive, which means plenty of the period-player's traditional bête noir – vibrato. But it's all so musical.

There are no chamber works programmed, but Accord adds a majestic orchestration of Bach's crowning contrapuntal testimony, The Art of Fugue, where the closing "Contrapunctus" – originally left unfinished and presented here with its cliff-hanging last phrase intact – sounds like a gothic Bach orchestration by Stokowski or Respighi. Both collections programme the dramatic but relatively unfamiliar Triple Concerto (BWV1044), and Ristenpart adds the concertos BWV1062 and BWV1065, for two and four harpsichords respectively.

His line-up of soloists is formidable: the flautists Michel Debost and Jean-Pierre Rampal; Maurice Bourge playing cor anglais; the cellist André Navarra (not that you hear much of him); the trumpeter Roger Delmotte; the harpsichordists Fritz Neumeyer and Robert Veyron-Lacroix – all front-rankers, pre-eminent in their day. Unlike DG's immaculately engineered collection, this sonically dusty set warrants a little special pleading on technical grounds: some recordings are in stereo, others in mono and there's the odd minor tape blemish. But the playing attests to a sincere, unselfconscious brand of musicianship that, in the case of The Art of Fugue especially, yields deeply satisfying results.

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, Suites, chamber works – Musica Antiqua Köln/Reinhard Goebel (DG Archiv 471 656-2, eight discs)

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, Suites, Art of Fugue, etc – Saar Chamber Orchestra/Karl Ristenpart (Accord/Discovery 465 893-2, six discs)

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