WORKS: Symphonies WV 351, 413, 418, 438 & 441
PERFORMER: L’Orfeo Baroque Orchestra/Michi Gaigg
CATALOGUE NO: 999 450-2
Anner Bylsma’s first ever ‘period instrument’ recording, my first choice for over 15 years, was finally toppled by Jaap ter Linden. I delighted in his improvisatory response to the Preludes, the ‘fantasy style’, second nature to a German organist. Equally, Bach knew intimately the nature of French courtly dance, and his dance movements retain resonances of their historical origins.
These two new recordings represent the two poles of interpretation. They’re strangely mixed – Wispelwey plays a Baroque cello yet takes a Romantic, personal view of his role. Rattay, on a ‘modern’ instrument, leaves Bach’s often stark lines to speak more for themselves.
I mostly prefer Wispelwey’s Preludes, the first, fast and free, the fourth understating suspense until its dramatic change of mood, but the sixth, an Italianate concerto-like movement, needs a stronger motoric pulse. Wispelwey’s flexibility weakens the structure.
Of the dances, Rattay’s are light-footed and regular. Wispelwey’s slow Sarabandes are spellbinding, particularly the sixth where, despite using Bach’s required five-string cello, he merely touches chords, creating transient harmony within our aural memories. Elsewhere, his thoughtful freedom creates balletic rather than social dances. The sixth gigue is simply too wayward, technically fearsome first-beat chords extended to create a 7/8-time witches’ sabbath. Rattay lacks the extra string, an additional challenge which is audible though never troublesome. Rasping open strings occasionally dislocate his lines. Otherwise, both cellists bring superb techniques to meet Bach’s unique demands.
While neither performance moves my benchmark, each reveals yet more riches within these unfathomable masterpieces. George Pratt