AOM Logo July 2001

J. S. Bach: Keyboard Concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 4

Murray Perahia, piano
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

Sony SK 89245

Playing Time: 53:04

Marvin Segal

Record Cover

These concertos, although probably derived from earlier material written by Bach, represent a new departure in the form of the keyboard concerto. The most important innovation was the freeing of the left hand from its usual task of doubling the bass line of the continuo, thereby allowing the solo keyboard a much more florid contrapuntal line. A second keyboard instrument, or -- as in the present performance -- a large bass lute known as the theorbo, was added to the continuo to take over the job of doubling the bass and filling in the figured-bass harmonies. The result was a concerto featuring much greater flexibility and independence for the solo keyboard instrument.

These performances, featuring Murray Perahia as both soloist and conductor of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, take full advantage of this freedom. The playing is filled with energy, and displays Perahia's usual combination of precision, careful attention to phrasing, and great musical sensibility. He has great sensitivity to the character of the music, and the playing is very musical and alive. In short, it is just what we have come to expect from Perahia.

The reason why I cannot commend this disk without reservation probably has more to do with a personal quirk of mine than with anything else. I am by no means a lover of original-instrument performance, and I have no problem at all with Bach's solo music played beautifully on a modern piano; indeed, I am a great fan of the work of Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt, and Perahia himself, to name just a few. But there is something about the use of a piano rather than a harpsichord, when coupled with an orchestra in a baroque concerto, that sounds dreadfully out of place to me.

It's not that the powerful modern instrument overwhelms the rest of the orchestra; Perahia is far too great a musician to allow that to happen, and his touch is impeccable. The problem seems to be that, for me, the combination of orchestral and piano timbres carries with it the irresistible suggestion of the music of a later period: Beethoven perhaps, or even Rachmaninoff. When Bach concertos are played, I long to hear the razor edge of the harpsichord, and the duller tones of the piano simply won't do, regardless of who is playing. It just doesn't sound baroque.

To those not afflicted with this particular bias, I can certainly recommend this disk. Although it may not have quite the same sparkle as the Mozart piano concertos Perahia recorded for CBS in the late 1970s with the English Chamber Orchestra, the playing is first-rate all around, and the collaboration between orchestra and soloist, as might be expected when the soloist is also the conductor, is seamless. The recorded sound is good if not perfect.

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