There are many apocryphal stories in the classical-music world, but the one in which Frederick the Great challenged Bach to improvise a six-part fugue on a theme of the king's own invention is true, and The Musical Offering was, after a period of further reflection, the result. As with all the works of Bach's later years, the work is both great art and a "teaching piece," which shows everything that he thought could be done with the king's theme. The Trio Sonata based on the theme is the only major piece of chamber music from Bach's last decades in Leipzig, and that makes the work and essential cornerstone of any Bach collection. This performance, led by Neville Marriner, is both polished and lively, and very well recorded. At a "twofer" price, coupled with The Art of Fugue, it's the preferred version of the work on modern instruments.
The appetite for evolving performance practices in Bach’s St Matthew Passion appears undiminished as we have gradually shifted, over the generations, from larger to smaller ensembles and also towards a greater dramatic understanding of the implications of Bach’s ambitious ‘stereophonic’ double choir and orchestra choreography.
Very few conductors have recorded as much Bach as Karl Richter and none can lay a stronger claim to a legacy based on championing the master. Richter's reverence for Bach is evinced by the simplicity, splendor, and grandeur with which he consistently imbued his performances exemplified here by these landmark recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites. In Archiv's original-image bit-processing remastered transfers as well, the sound is better than ever. This is cornerstone Bach that should not be missed.
Norwegian folk musician Sinikka Langeland, singer and player of the kantele (the Finnish table harp) is a distinctly non-traditional traditionalist, redefining "folk" in successive projects. 'Maria's Song' finds her in the company of two distinguished classical musicians - organist Kare Nordstoga and "giant of the Nordic viola" Lars Anders Tomter - and on a mission to restore Marian texts to sacred music, weaving folk melodies in between the timeless strains of J S Bach. Langeland made a lot of friends with her sparkling ECM debut Starflowers: "There are jewels everywhere on this arresting example of ego-free music-making. One of the albums of this or any other year" raved the Irish Times. Where Starflowers brought Langeland into the orbit of jazz improvisers, Maria's Song is a meeting and cross referencing of folk and 'classical' energies, and also a righting of historical 'injustice': Religious folk songs are amongst the most distinctive elements of the Norwegian folk tradition, yet the Virgin Mary rarely appears in them. Once a much-worshipped figure in the Far North she was, as Sinikka puts it, "reformed" away in 1537, so this album brings Maria back into the music. It was recorded in the beautiful Nidaros Cathedral of Trondheim, famous for its Baroque organ heard here.
None of these reconstructions are included in Teldec’s Bach 2000, although the better-known ‘originals’ obviously are. The real newcomer is the Sinfonia, BWV1045 (5'34'') ‘to an unknown cantata’ which – as befits a BWV number that immediately precedes the First Brandenburg Concerto – is rumbustious, festive and thematically likeable. Time and again I could sense allusions to other Bach instrumental pieces, though the soloist’s ceaseless arpeggiating is sometimes a distraction. We’re told it’s authentic (the manuscript source suggests a violin concerto in the making) but something about its harmonic language doesn’t quite ring true, though that reaction might well be due to lack of familiarity.
Since the additional movements of the Roman Catholic Mass (Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Credo) that appear in his B minor Mass were excluded, Bach's four missa breves (short masses) are essentially two-movement Lutheran works. Naturally, Bach being Bach, he subdivided the expansive Gloria into five shorter movements; set the texts as arias, duets, and choruses; and used an orchestra ensemble including strings, flutes, oboes, trumpets, and organ as a powerful and colorful accompaniment. But at the heart of all four works is the austere faith of Martin Luther, and the German reformer's strength, severity, and occasional sentimentality is at the spiritual core of Bach's sacred music.