In the notes to his fine new disc of Bach’s keyboard concertos, pianist Peter Seivewright launches into a spirited and lengthy essay regarding the works. The reader might suspect that he is about to begin a defense of the use of piano over the harpsichord in performance, since he uses the former in this recording. Instead, the topic is the origin of the concertos in Bach’s oeuvre, specifically Seivewright’s strongly held belief that four of the seven concertos were in fact originally keyboard works, not transcriptions of lost violin concertos as many musicologists have suggested. He has some interesting points to make, not so much in the form of hard evidence to support his claim as criticism of the weak case made by scholars. I won’t take a firm position here, although I should note that he fails to mention that the emerging consensus these days is that two of them were composed as woodwind concertos, not violin concertos. Ultimately the argument seems, well, academic, since none question the existence of the concertos in Bach’s hand, whether they are his first thoughts or not.
Tempos are on the moderate side, a bit slower than average in the outer movements and a tad quicker in the middle movements. The pianist’s readings are clear, precise, and exhibit an admirably cogent structural overview. He keeps the textures light, uses scant pedal, and isn’t afraid to submerge himself in the orchestral fabric, most notably in the second movement of the D-Minor Concerto. My favorite is the perky A-Major Concerto, which proceeds with good humor and lyrical charm, minus the caffeinated rush that has been the style the last decade or two.
Since the exact scoring of Baroque concertos (especially with regard to number of players on a part) involves a bit of guesswork, the personnel is always worth noting from the outset. The Scottish Baroque Soloists is a small chamber group rather than a chamber orchestra, with single string players on modern instruments and guitar on the basso continuo part. The result is a transparency normally heard only in Baroque instruments, but transferred to a modern setting. Since the guitar is relatively quiet and one of the five strings is a double bass, the balance might strike some as shy in the middle range. It is a surprising but workable effect, though the listener shouldn’t expect much dynamic contrast from the six-person “orchestra” in the tuttis. More importantly, all the players are sensitive and fully committed to Seivewright’s vision. If you are a fan of these works (who isn’t?) and enjoy sampling a wide spectrum of realizations, you’ll want this disc for your collection.