This Plectra recording documents the result of what some might have thought a crazy idea: a performance of all 15 of Johann Sebastian Bach's concertante works with harpsichord within a single weekend, performed at a new venue, The Barn at Flintwoods, located in Wilmington, DE. The idea was that of harpsichordist Davitt Moroney, who pressed into service a number of his harpsichord-playing friends -- JungHae Kim, Karen Flint, Arthur Haas, and Adam Pearl -- to make this festival concept a reality. For the ripieno, a small band of seven players covered the instrumental parts, about the same size ensemble as Bach himself would have had for his Collegium Musicum concerts held in Leipzig between 1729 and 1741 for which much of this material was either composed anew or recycled from earlier concertos. The solo instruments are all original, ranging from a late sixteenth century harpsichord believed the work of Domenico of Pisaro to a Spanish instrument of unknown make possibly dating to as late as 1725.
For the Plectra recording, two concertos were withheld: the Concerto in A minor for flute, violin and harpsichord, BWV 1044, was not included because its provenance is not quite clear, and the famous Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050, because it is, after all, a Brandenburg concerto and belongs with its siblings. So that leaves 13 concertos and one is repeated; the Concerto in A minor for four harpsichords, BWV 1065, is heard in two versions, with the four harpsichords alone and then with its additional string parts, which are taken more or less straight from the Vivaldi original from which it is adapted. Hearing this well-known concerto without the strings is a revelation; it gains a lot in intensity, color, and drive and sounds a bit more like Bach, as the impasto of Vivaldi's strings, once removed, more visibly reveals the subtle changes Bach made into this music in order to adapt it from four violins to four harpsichords. Moreover, it is a bracing, dynamic performance by these four heavyweights of the harpsichord and worth the cost of the set itself.
There are several strong performances here, such as for the Concerto in C minor for two harpsichords, BWV 1062 (better known as the Bach "Double" violin concerto), or the Concerto in C major for three, BWV 1064. And given that these recordings are based around a heavily booked live event that occurred over a relatively short period of time, there are some things that don't quite work out. The recorders in the Concerto in F major for harpsichord and two recorders, BWV 1057 -- better known in its Brandenburgian guise as the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G, BWV 1049 -- seem to be having a hard time keeping up with Kim and the rest of the ensemble and it is difficult to hear them. Perhaps it was difficult for the recorders to hear themselves, as well; after all, this festival was given in a converted barn, rather than in a tavern as Bach's Collegium Musicum would have played in, with entirely different acoustical properties. However, what one may lose in absolute precision, one also gains with the spontaneity of these performances; they are generally inspired and of the moment. Also, the barn lends an intimate, woody sonority to the proceedings that's quite pleasant and almost smells of smoke from the campfire. Listeners accustomed to standard, commercial studio recordings of Bach's harpsichord concertos as done with medium to fairly large ensembles may need to adjust their ears a bit to the modest resources utilized here, but overall it is a very rewarding set and the relaxed, informal style of the music-making seems very close to what Bach probably heard when he and his sons originally played these concertos.