London Concertante

Bach: A Musical Offering, BWV 1079

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The Musical Offering, BWV 1079, is unique among Bach's works, if indeed the term "work" is appropriate to describe it at all. "Collection" might be a better word. The Musical Offering arose during and after a visit by the aged Bach to Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1747. The king, who played the flute, gave Bach a theme of his own composition and challenged Bach, whose skills as an improviser were legendary, to turn it into a fugue on the spot. Bach managed a three-voice fugue (impressive in itself), but said he would have to deliver the requested six-part fugue later. He complied in fine style, with a Latin dedication whose first letters spell out the word "Ricercar," the form that was the immediate ancestor of the fugue. Along with the three-voice fugue, which may represent what Bach actually played in Frederick's presence, he added a trio sonata with lead flute part based on the king's theme and, as a bonus that really suited himself most, a group of canons and fugues containing puzzles and riddles that display his contrapuntal technique at its most abstruse. Except for the trio sonata, he left few hints of what instruments he had in mind, a situation similar to that of his swan song, the Art of Fugue, BWV 1080. Further, the trio sonata does not necessarily have to be placed at the end as it is here. Some realizations include sections played by a full orchestra or employ contrasting groups to break up the dense series of fugues and ricercars. The present performance by the London Concertante under Nicholas Jackson is modest in scope, sticking to the basic trio sonata group of flute, violin, cello, and harpsichord and reducing it to trios, duos, or the solo keyboard. This makes for an initially less colorful presentation, but Jackson's conception fits the work's meditative, intellectual conception and can be recommended to those desiring to immerse themselves in its complexities. Alternate solutions are provided for one of the puzzle canons, whereas most performances choose one solution or the other. The treatment of the trio sonata is a little curious: one wonders why Jackson chose to use a plain harpsichord for the specified basso continuo, an unusual procedure, where by simply adding the cello as usual he could have rounded out the disc with his entire ensemble. The Musical Offering is framed with two reconstructed works: a Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV 1059, assembled from fragments by Gustav Leonhardt, and a Trio Sonata in D minor, BWV 527, arranged from an organ original by Jackson himself. There are flashier, more imposing versions of all this music, but this one has the flavor of how it might have been played by musicians in Bach's own time who decided to crack open his book of contrapuntal mysteries and try to grasp them.

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