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Reviews: Bach: Keyboard Concertos 1 - Hewitt/ACO

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Reviews: 1

Site review by Christine Tham December 31, 2005
Performance:   Sonics:    
This is Volume 1 of a two volume set covering all seven Keyboard Concertos by J.S. Bach, featuring Canadian Pianist Angela Hewitt and the Australian Chamber Orchestra (directed from the violin by Richard Tognetti). Hybrid SA-CD and CD only versions of the two volumes are simultaneously available - in Australia, the CD only version retails for A$25 and the SA-CD version retails for A$35 (prices from Discurio, in Melbourne).

Volume 1 only has Concertos Nos. 1 and 7 (2-6 are on Volume 2), however, it also includes the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major (which has a very prominent keyboard part including several extended solos) and the Triple Concerto in A minor. The duration of the album is 76'58", so there's plenty of music to listen to.

The performances are very engaging, with the piano tone sounding rather light and airy, and the accompanying string intruments doing their best to complement the overall whimsical and cheerful interpretation. "Pretty" is the word I would use, although a cynic may prefer the word "fluffy." The overall feel is a stark contrast to some of the dull and dour "authentic" performances we've been subjected to in recent years, but at the same time the performances (played on modern instruments) appear to be at least influenced by "authentic" phrasing. Angela plays the piano like a piano, and not trying to make it sound like a harpsichord. Thus we do get a sense of flow in the rhythm, as well as contrasting dynamics.

However, I do feel the performances sometimes stray too far into excessive sweetness and I miss some of the "logical" or "mathematical" insights so common to Bach's music that a more austere and cold-hearted interpretation may have revealed. A good comparison here is Murray Perahia's version of No. 7 (Bach Keyboard Concertos Nos 3, 5, 6, 7 with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Sony Classical SS 89690 Stereo SA-CD). Murray strikes a nice balance between expressiveness and harmonic and polyphonic revelation.

The reverse side of the back cover (viewable through the transparent disc holder) features a photo of Angela Hewitt, plus a overhead shot of her and the ACO at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney. But don't be fooled by this photo, the actual performances were recorded at the Verbruggen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music on 4,5 and 9 February 2005 (according to page 6 of the liner notes).

Why is this important? Well, the multi-channel mix is a bit unconventional, and I'm wondering if it's partly due to the recording venue. In terms of imaging, the cello and the piano appears dead front centre, but the violins and violas bleed all the way to the surround speakers, so the overall mix is highly immersive, and I feel as if the players are situated in a wide arc surrounding me. The location of the piano turned out to be caused by phantom imaging - the piano sound is actually shared between front left and right channels, with the front channel reserved for the cello and ambiance. The double bass curiously is almost wholly located in the subwoofer ("0.1") channel - including upper harmonics, which may cause the bass to be localized wherever the subwoofer is positioned in the room.

The multi-channel mix separates out the individual instruments extremely well. In contrast, the stereo mix sounded a bit congested and lacking in clarity. I did not sample the CD layer.