Murray Perahia, piano/conductor, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Sony Classical SK 89245 (Nos. 1-2 & 4, recorded May 2000, 53:04) & SK 89690 (Nos. 3 & 5-7, recorded May 2000 and May 2001, 54:02)
Integral recordings of piano concerti by Beethoven and Brahms litter the landscape, but complete sets of Bach's are still comparatively rare, and many music lovers live out their lives without hearing concert performances of all of the latter. That's because several of them dominate the repertoire, and that repertoire, as projected by far too many orchestras, rarely includes any music by Bach. For this reason, Murray Perahia's mostly complete set, on two CDs sold separately, is a welcome addition to the catalogs. Purists will probably pass these new entries by, for the artist uses a modern piano and his band uses current, as opposed to period, instruments. Yes, there's a theorbo in the mix, and yes, the forces are hardly of symphonic size and scope, but these are in effect contemporary readings that Bach could never have imagined, even after overdosing on caffeine at Zimmermann's coffeehouse. There is some competition. Two all-digital series, one featuring Schiff and another involving Gavrilov and the same orchestra Perahia uses (but under Marriner's direction), have garnered acclaim, while the harpsichord crowd had to choose between the late Igor Kipnis's renditions (with Marriner and The London Strings, the ensemble that eventually became the ASMF) and those of Gustav Leonhardt. Glenn Gould's performances are heard from time to time on all-classical radio stations; for our money, they are non-competitive and are especially so now, given Perahia's accomplishments.
These concerti are important, historically, because Bach in effect invented the piano concerto as we know it. It would appear that the Fifth Brandenburg, with its prominent keyboard part (and dazzling first movement cadenza) served as the model for what was to come. "Model" is the operative word when discussing Bach, for many of the surviving works are based on other scores or figure in compositions that came after them. Listeners who know only the First Keyboard Concerto, in D Minor, but who are familiar with the more-often-played concerti for solo violin, are in for some real treats. As annotator George B. Stauffer reports (clearly basing his work on the research of Bach cataloguer Wolfgang Schmieder), the G Minor Concerto (S.1058) is a reworking of the First Violin Concerto (S.1041), and the D Major one (S.1054), of the Second Violin Concerto (S.1042). Perhaps the most astonishing work among the seven is S.1057, in F, which is a major resetting and expansion of the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, portions of which are likely to produce jaw-drops among first-time listeners that parallel those elicited by Mahler's orchestration of the familiar Air for (or on) the G String. The themes of several of the others turn up in church cantatas (listed in the notes). Fans of the celebrated Josef Szigeti and collectors of LPs will also know that among that violinist's most fascinating recordings is a "reconstruction" of the D Minor Keyboard Concerto (conducted by Casals, no less!) that was intended to restore the lost original version.
So how does Perahia play? Anyone who knows his recent recordings of the English Suites and Goldberg Variations won't have to be told that these performances reflect the artist's long study of the scores, his breathtaking musicality and his technical accomplishments. Sony has managed outstanding sound — we've come a long, long way in terms of engineers' abilities to capture the piano realistically. One could quibble about the short CDs, and it's a fact that more music could have been fit onto them. Had MDG been the publisher, chances are good that the alternate version of the D Minor Concerto (prepared by C.P.E. Bach) and the works of which only fragments survive would have rounded out the offerings. Still, Sony's production is so good, and Perahia's playing, so convincing, that few listeners are likely to object. Readers who know these scores, or think they do, owe it to themselves to investigate these CDs, which should on purely musical grounds captivate even the most dyed-in-the-wool historical performance fanatics. And now if Perahia can only clone himself, there are all those other concerti for multiple keyboards that await modern recordings of such quality.