The Kuijken family (the brothers Barthold on transverse flute, Sigiswald on violin and Wieland on viola da gamba) are well known musicians and ensemble directors from Belgium whose forte is Baroque and Classical era music played on authentic instruments. One of the ironies of our period instruments era is that putative authentic instruments are often modern reproductions while the much despised "modern" instruments are often one hundred year old (or more) originals. So the entire matter of authenticity is often reduced to a question of string or reed type and musical technique. Authenticity in music is truly a chimera with the matter much debated to this day. On this splendid (though abbreviated) DVD, the Brothers Kuijken are assisted by Robert Kohnen on harpsichord in a fine performance of Bach's Musical Offering BWV 1079.
Johann Sebastian had arrived in Potsdam on 7 May 1747 after a lengthy (two days and a night) and difficult journey from Leipzig. He was responding to a personal summons from Frederick the Great: the flute playing monarch anxious to hear "Old Bach" improvise upon, properly temper and break-in his large collection of organs, clavichords and harpsichords. It was a selfish Royal summons for Bach was 62, quite elderly for the time, and ill. His sight was failing and, sadly, he had only 3 years to live. But the King was the employer of Bach's famous son Carl Philipp Emanuel, chief harpsichordist in Prussia's Royal Kapelle. So that was that. Bach came as summoned. The King had Johann Sebastian come to the palace as soon as he arrived, still in his traveling clothes. Patience was not a kingly virtue in Prussia in 1747. When Bach arrived he was presented with a fiendishly difficult "Royal theme" and asked to improvise upon it. Bach effortlessly produced a three-part fugue. As the assembled glitterati oohed and aahed, the King eagerly asked Bach for a six-part fugue on the crabbed theme. Bach had never even written a six-part fugue, let alone improvised one to such a spare, chromatic melody. He demurred: calmly improvising on a theme of his own making, producing six-part textures and, at the end of the evening, politely promised to work on the task at home. Two months later, Bach sent Frederick the music now known as The Musical Offering. It is a masterpiece of structured counterpoint: a musical monument of the Baroque era. Hugely demanding, performances are uncommon. This DVD is a splendid release that all lovers of Bach and the Baroque will savor.
All four musicians are superb. Baroque era music is in their blood. As one would expect, this is an historically informed performance. No vibrato, tempos are swift, an objective rather than introspective musical dialog between equals. Bach's musical architecture is presented joyfully by four craftsmen happy in the sheer pleasure of making music. Inner voices are clear and distinct, crisp melodic line upon crisp melodic line. Their sound is never muddy, their Baroque sonorities earthier than their modern counterparts. What a pleasure it is to watch and to hear such musical professionalism! Old Bach would be pleased to learn what has become of his "Right Royal Theme".
The DVD was recorded live at the Altes Rathaus during the Leipzig Bach Festival on 28 July 2000. The picture format is NTSC 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. It is crystal clear. Sound formats are PCM stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. Both are splendid with the Dolby providing greater space around the instruments and rear ambiance from the room. The region code on my edition is 0 worldwide. Running time of the disc is 54 minutes. A thin booklet is enclosed.
A great Bach masterpiece beautifully performed. The disk is short but the music glorious. Most strongly recommended for everyone.