Album reviews: Bach & Zelenka

By William Dart

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CD cover: Bach, Ouverturen. Photo / Supplied
CD cover: Bach, Ouverturen. Photo / Supplied

Bach's four Ouverturen or Orchestral Suites are a shining testament to the fact the great master did not spend his life sequestered in an organ loft. Scholar Gilles Cantagrel has suggested Bach may have played these works with his Leipzig musicians in the town's smoke-filled Zimmermann Coffee House, although with such musical exhilaration on offer, who would need caffeine for an artificially induced high?

Freiburger Barockorchester comes up with all the lift needed for these dance suites, in which the German Bach so brilliantly assumes the grace and elegance of the fashionable French style.

This Harmonia Mundi recording does full justice to one of the world's finest and busiest Baroque orchestras - also featured on Rene Jacobs' magnificent new recording of Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera.

Ceremonial splendour is afoot in the opening pages of the first D major Suite offered, but an underpinning lilt soon breaks into a merry dance of an Allegro. The B minor Suite - for just flute and strings - is probably the most familiar.

Check out favourites and sample the chattering Badinerie to be astonished as flautist Karl Kaiser pushes ornamentation to the brink of improv.

Much of the recording's appeal comes from well-primed wind players, with particularly tasty bassoon in the C major Suite.

Later, the celebrated Air on the G string, for strings alone, reveals a miracle of shading, when cellos do so much with a few beats of semiquavers leading to a welcome reprise.

There are more woodwind delights in a new Linn recording of Sonatas by Bach's near contemporary, Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745), played by the Ensemble Marsyas with violinist Monica Huggett.

Perhaps it is Zelenka's Bohemian background that gives the music its punchy earthiness but I suspect this Scottish group, with its vibrant double reeds and strumming harpsichord, has something to do with it as well. Surrender to the flying syncopations and saxy bassoon of the CD's second F major Allegro, and you may hear hints of jazz to come, centuries before it turned up in New Orleans.

Stars: 5/5
Bach: Ouverturen (Harmonia Mundi)

Stars: 4/5
Zelenka: Sonatas (Linn, both through Ode Records)

Verdict: "Life is a merry and stylish dance in new recordings of familiar and less familiar Baroque masters."

- NZ Herald

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