Considering all the elements that make up an effective and longstanding Bach recording -- including adherence to the score, style, virtuosity, tempo relationships, sound, emotional involvement and projection of Bach's humanity -- this two disk set of Bach's harpsichord concertos comes about as close to perfection as anything I've heard in three and one-half decades listening to and singing Bach.
The main character in this drama is harpsichordist Igor Kipnis, one of the most exquisite Bach proponents of the 20th century, and the way he plays the harpsichored in these recordings, which were made over a span of years from 1967-70.
Kipnis' virtuosity is apparent right from the beginning when, in BWV 1052, he handles the virtuosic passage near the end of the first movement with great aplomb -- one hand carrying the meoldy while the other carries the beat.
Later on, Kipnis exposes Bach's everlasting humanity with remarkably humane execution of, first, the Largo in BWV 1056 and, afterward, the Andante of BWV 1058. Compared to the ultra-intellectual Concerto No. 1, these are two of Bach's most romantic creations. Kipnis demonstrates he knows how to manage any Bach passage to say exactly what the composer was trying to put forward. This, in my opinion, is the signature skill of any Bach player.
There are a few things I don't like about theis set. I did not care for that first movement repeat in BWV 1053 nor do I care much for the occasional romantic ritard Marriner uses in the accompaniment. I also think Marriner misses one or two expressive or scintillating turns in the score I've heard from other conductors and bands.
These are small complaints, however, that do next to nothing to diminish the overall polish and bloom of this beautiful set and the way it makes relevant to 21st century ears Bach's 16th and 17th century message. No better Bach playing can be imagined.
Overall, I enjoyed Marriner's accompaniment and his relationship to the soloist. Their collaboration creates a solid middle ground between the too romantic excesses of the 1950s and the Speedy Gonzales work of many authenticists in the period performance practice crowd.
The near four decade old sound is beautiful -- close but not in your face, lively without being oppressive, and so realistic you may think the players are living in your speakres. When I played this on the "Matrix" capacity of my 5.1 receiver and system, it was like having a concert in my living room with some players in the right, center and left speakers.
In deference to people like Murray Perhaia and Angela Hewitt, who have been releasing recordings lately of Bach harpsichord concertos played on the modern grand piano, I beleive this is the preferred way to hear these works in their entirety if you want to hear the essentail message of Bach and his time transposed to our time.
While these players both have done the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 on piano in recent recordings, you hear pretty much the same thing here in BWV 1057, the harpsichord concerto accompanied by two recorders. If you compare the piano versions to this one, you'll see the difference is not simply a matter of changing instuments (which Bach would no doubt have approved), it is a matter of changing mores and messages. The change, then, is more about the performers than the composer or the music.
This set has been hailed by critics worldwide and was rated the No. 1 harpsichord rendering of these concertos in the most recent American Record Guide overview of Bach keyboard works. It is difficult to imagine another set that could top this one for playing, sound and humanity.