Friday, April 5, 2013

A Stab At Bach By Master Performers With A Solid Mix: Bach’s Keyboard Concertos

The Good: Excellent balance between piano and strings, Musically interesting with tempo and arrangement
The Bad: Short!
The Basics: With wonderful interweavings between piano and orchestra, the three tracks on this album energize the listener.

After weeks of taking vocal artists like Josh Groban to the cleaners for presenting music that is bland, unimaginative and superlative solely in voice (Closer reviewed here!) and expressing my own limitations and trepidations for reviewing Classical music albums without being an expert (see my review of a Chopin album here!), I'm pleased to have found a Classical album I'm comfortable writing about and have a few things to say that sound like I know what I'm talking about! The album is from the Great Performances series, Bach: Keyboard Concertos Nos. 1, 4, and 5 by Glenn Gould. Interestingly, the spine has it listed as Keyboard Concertos . . . while the front is Piano Concertos . . . Either way, it's a pretty solid classical album.

With nine tracks clocking in at under 49 minutes, Keyboard Concertos are three songs with three movements each (nine tracks) where Glenn Gould is accompanied by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Gould and the orchestra are conducted by Leonard Bernstein for the "Concerto No. 1 For Piano & Orchestra In D Minor, BWV 1052" and by Vladimir Golschmann for "Concerto No. 4 For Piano & Orchestra In A Major, BWV 1055" and "Concerto No. 5 For Piano & Orchestra In F Minor, BWV 1056." Outside my usual problems with the names of classical music songs and the duration (or lack thereof) of this album, there is very little to complain about. I do know that the different movements within the pieces ("Allegro" - Track 1, "Adagio" - Track 2, and "Allegro" - Track 3, refer to the tempo of the piece).

As it stands, the album opens with brisk, energetic strings accompanied by the deeper chords of Gould's piano, making for a striking contrast that is immediately effective for grabbing the listener's attention. The piece continues with the piano dominating with the strings supporting, like a vocalist with background singers. The interesting thing about the first piece is that the two musical groups (piano and orchestra) are not harmonizing. They overlap occasionally with a melody that reinforces the idea that they are playing the same piece, however, much of the song, the strings are off doing their own thing while the piano alternates from the musings with speed in the upper registers to the slower, more forceful chords he plays in the lower registers. The combination between the strings - generally creating an airy sense regardless of what the piano is doing, except during plunging moments that mirror the original theme of the work that pop up again near the end - and the roaming piano creates the sense of a relationship and while the two groups are seldom working together directly, the piece works.

Sitting and listening to the first piece (the first three tracks) is like going on a short journey. The changes in tempo inspired (in me) images of a brief conflict, a fall to Earth, an interaction there that was slow and loving (second movement) and then with an increase in tension the desire to restore the fallen to the sky. The relationship between the instrument combinations (the orchestra is primarily strings - violins and cellos) and the way J.S. Bach divides the piece into essentially two groups playing at the same time works to create this musical concept.

The other two pieces are structured similarly, though "Concerto No. 4" is a faster work. It is filled with movement and the strings dominate much of it with fast bowing and are supported by the piano which moves all around the register. Less extreme in the way the two groups are working off one another and working together, this piece has the two overlapping and creating more universal melodies together.

The second piece is all about movement and it is an energizing work. If Chopin's Nocturnes inspire narcolepsy, Bach's "Concerto No. 4" inspires a rousing start to the day. Similarly, "Concerto No. 5" is a musical endorsement for running away or speeding on the freeway.

All in all, this is a surprisingly upbeat and energetic classical music album and I write "surprisingly" because it's impressive to note there is no percussion section in the orchestra. As a modern person, it's odd to consider music that is so in time, up beat and energetic without the use of drums! But this is.

The fingerwork on the piano parts is sufficiently impressive to engage the listener and the combinations with the strings that seem to be doing equally impressive work are, at work, complimentary. At best, they become the architects of brief melodies within the larger pieces.

All in all, though, this is an album defined by fast fingers, a sense of movement and the need for musical patience that defines great classical music the way a novel will call back to earlier moments near the end. Bach seems like someone I'd like to hear more works from and it's easy to recommend this album for anyone looking to enjoy classical music and get energized!

For other Classical music reviews, please check out my takes on:
Waltzes & Nocturnes - Ashkenazy, Chopin
Pini Di Roma - Respighi, Eugene Ormandy
The Masterpieces Collection: Grieg Volume 4


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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