Egarr really knows how to make a harpsichord bristle...
Matthew Shorter 2002-11-20
Harpsichordist Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music have chosen a small band for this complete recording of Bach's Harpsichord Concertos. With only four single strings, theorbo (bass lute), continuo and occasional doubling of the cello by double bass, the harpsichord shines through without recourse to an aggressive choice of stops, and the tutti band can play unrestrainedly without drowning the soloist.
The result is so effective that it's often hard to believe there isn't at least a chamber orchestra in action. Maybe we have the quality of the instruments to thank - a combination of period pieces and reconstructions proudly listed in the sleeve notes and including a double bass older than the composer himself!
The orchestral effect also arises from the generosity of the Academy players, never indulging themselves at the expense of the quieter and less flexible solo instrument, even when the temptation is great, as in the soaring suspensions of the Larghetto in BWV 1055 - instead they allow the natural liquid sound of the period instruments to emerge. But though unaffected, these are highly expressive and persuasive accounts.
Egarr really knows how to make a harpsichord bristle, and the forces are at their best in contrapuntal final movements such as those of BWV 1058 or BWV 1057, in music which seems to capture the sound of genius at work in raw cerebral form.
The sheer gusto of the semiquaver runs in the third movement Allegro of BWV 1055, tossed back and forth between harpsichord and violin, is irresistible. Nor is Egarr shy of jaw-dropping virtuosity where the music demands (as in the outer movements of BWV 1057). He can also be beautifully expressive, witness the spacious desolation of the Adagio in BWV 1052.
The Academy's sense of rhythm often brings out an unaccustomed balletic quality, refreshing music grown soggy through repeated use. It's good to hear the first movement of BWV 1054 with less bounce and more thrust.
Occasionally this reforming zeal betrays a military tendency, as in the Andante of BWV 1058 or the opening Allegro of BWV 1057. And although the recording balance is generally superb, some clumsy edits mar the closing Allegro of BWV 1053. Not that this will stop this excellent double CD from becoming the new benchmark recording of these Concertos.