In his long and fascinating liner notes, pianist Seivewright discusses the “historical musicology” that places many of Bach’s keyboard concertos as transcriptions of concertos for violin, and carefully discusses and to some extent debunks that theory, yet nowhere does he discuss historical performance practice or why his recording of these works so evidently rejects many of its principles.
Stylistically, at first, these performances sound like not only pre-HIP versions of Bach, but also pre-Glenn Gould and Helmuth Rilling performances. Listening to them, I have a sense of deja-vu, as if I were hearing better-recorded, cleaner, but stylistically similar versions of Eduard van Beinum’s performances of the early 1950s. Yes, it’s a chamber orchestra, but the string sound is satiny and sleek, even less dynamically contrasted than the Vienna Philharmonic string section behind Bronoslaw Huberman in the 1930s (though less heavy in texture). Seivewright’s playing is sensitively shaped, pearly in execution, and tries its best to make his modern piano sound like a fortepiano, yet the small dynamic range makes the performances sound almost like a chamber-music concert.
But is this bad? And is it conceptually wrong? I’m not convinced of this. Although these are not the kind of performances I normally respond to in Bach, I’ll be the first to admit that there is a certain historic rightness to them, depending, of course, on the 18th-century venue and forces being used. We have become so used to Bach keyboard concerto performances that not only sparkle and zip along, but also hit one over the head with their sharp accents and right angles. Yet this was not necessarily the performance practice of J. S. Bach’s time, but more the practice of Carl Philipp’s and J. C. Bach’s era. Indeed, I have long maintained that the kind of explosive Sturm und Drang one hears from many Baroque conductors and orchestras today was really a product of the Mannheim School, which came about after Bach’s lifetime. This is one reason, for instance, that I questioned the wonderfully exciting but historically wrong approach to Baroque castrato arias recorded by Cecilia Bartoli. She’s terrific, virtuosic, and exciting, but she’s giving us a post-1770 vision of pre-1750 music.
Thus I commend your attention to this disc and its chamber-music-like delineation of these oft-explosive concertos. (It’s worth noting that Seivewright played a recital of Bach’s music in 2003 as part of the International Bach Academy in Boston.) The longer this CD went on, in fact, the more I liked it and the more I was convinced that his approach to Bach’s keyboard concertos is not only valid but interesting within the context of the time of their conception. I should also like to note that the Scottish Baroque Soloists give us just about the most beautiful straight-tone string sound I’ve ever heard.