JS Bach: Musikalisches Opfer

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Challenge
WORKS: Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079
PERFORMER: Ton Koopman (harpsichord); members of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
CATALOGUE NO: CC 72309

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If ever there was a fugue subject begging to be spared the ornamenting attentions of the embellisher’s art it’s the so-called Royal Theme on whose noble edifice Bach constructed his Musical Offering – a theme so statuesquely expressive and cunningly contrived that Schoenberg thought it couldn’t possibly be by Frederick the Great, but suspected the hand of CPE Bach bent on wrong-footing his father.

‘Papa’ Bach does mark a trill at the cadence, but Ton Koopman’s itchy fingers have succumbed to temptation only nine notes in. It’s not quite akin to pencilling a moustache on the Mona Lisa, more like overloading her with excess jewels that detract from her natural beauty. It doesn’t augur well.

Yet in the event this irresistible recording has no difficulty in answering the work’s greatest challenge: how to marry science and artifice with real expressive immediacy. Played with telling clarity and suppleness by members of Amsterdam Baroque, the canons never sound dry or academic, but lead the ear inexorably forward to the Musical Offering’s towering twin achievement – the trio sonata and six-part Ricercar, designed to look in opposite directions and triumph in both.

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Dynamic, purposeful, endlessly alert to the twists and turns of Bach’s contrapuntal ingenuity (yet suave and pleading in the Andante), the Amsterdamers discharge the Sonata in two versions of the Ricercar: a spacious ensemble reading, then Koopman and Tini Mathot, pungent and exhilarating on two harpsichords. Counterpoint lessons were never so infinitely absorbing! Paul Riley