Bach: Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079

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LABELS: Alia Vox
WORKS: Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079
PERFORMER: Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall
Bach’s Musical Offering was the outcome of the composer’s famous and well-documented visit to the court of Frederick the Great in May 1747. It consists of two ricercars, ten canons and a trio sonata, all inspired by an ‘exceedingly beautiful theme’ seemingly provided by Frederick himself. Later in the year, the Musical Offering appeared in print, yet Bach’s intended order of performing the individual pieces has long been controversial, prompting his 19th-century biographer Spitta to describe them as a ‘strange conglomeration… lacking not only internal connection but also external uniformity’. We now know that this is nonsense and that Bach’s concept should be understood as anything but haphazard. Recent scholarship, furthermore, has discerned a theological undercurrent in which the contrasting virtues of instruction and entertainment above all serve to glorify God. Few if any of the currently available versions precisely correspond with another either in respect of sequence or instrumentation; Jordi Savall, unlike all his rivals, prefers to begin with an unadorned statement of the ‘Thema regium’ played by a single flute, Frederick’s instrument. This is an addition to Bach’s score which makes an effective prelude to the three-part Ricercar which follows. The remainder of the work offers a pleasing symmetry with the Trio Sonata and the six-part Ricercar (harpsichord) centrally positioned to provide focal points, and the same Ricercar, this time orchestrated, reintroduced as a conclusion. A version by Ensemble Sonnerie (Virgin Veritas) adopts a similar pattern with the Ricercars though in reverse, ending the work with Bach’s breathtaking original for solo harpsichord. Both releases are rewarding as are more conventional approaches by the Kuijkens with Gustav Leonhardt (Sony Seon), and Musica Antiqua Köln (DG Archiv); but the playing of Le Concert des Nations perhaps outshines all of them. Nicholas Anderson