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Reviews: Bach: A Musical Offering - Zacher

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Reviews: 2

Review by Fugue December 29, 2009 (2 of 3 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Simply put, this is a superb recording on all accounts! Zacher, a champion of new organ music, has created a new "realization" of this piece that hopes to clarify Bach's original intent. A lofty claim! Without the score, I can't tell what all he did, but I certainly like what I hear! If the small ensemble uses period instruments, they are more robust in tone than usual. The recording has startling clarity and spaciousness. If you have enjoyed Jordi Savall's recording, give this one a try. It's at least as good, if not better. The perspective is a bit closer than Savall's, but there is plenty of air and bloom. Zacher places the movements in a different order, most notably the Sonata. In addition to fine sonics and performances, it also includes a very detailed set of notes.

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Review by Jonalogic May 2, 2011 (2 of 3 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
This is the only extant recording of this piece currently available on SACD.

I approached it with a touch of trepidation. Although I love the Musical Offering, the fact that this is a new (1999) ‘realisation’ of the piece by the musicologist and organ player Gerd Zacher gave me pause for thought.

On the other hand, Bach is such a transcendent genius that his music retains its essence whether played on a jazz ensemble, as Muzak in a lift or even (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_CDLBTJD4M )* played by a falling ball on a tuned xylophone-style ramp in the middle of a Japanese forest…

So, how does the ‘realisation’ turn out in practice? This diverse and episodic collection of canons, sonatas and ricercars is based on a ‘Royal Theme’ allegedly presented by King Frederick the Great of Prussia (amongst other things a fine flautist) to JSB. Beloved of musical scholars, musicologists and Times crossword puzzle aficionados, it can at first seem a bit dry.

Cutting aside some of the wackier aspects of the copious notes (Hebrew numerology, anyone?) and giving the recording a damn good listen shows three main deviations from conventional performing practice:

1) Placing the canons at the heart of the work and repeating with them different instrumental combinations. I can see the logic of this and it bothers me not one whit.

2) Use of a changing rhythmic musical pulse in the playing, primarily as an expressive device. This rubato is standard practice in later classical and romantic genres, of course, but first exposure here in this Bach piece is, I must confess, a bit of a shock. However, it grows on one as the piece progresses. One distinctly positive aspect of its use is the lightening of textures and ritenuto (deceleration) at the end of the canons seems to make them fade off into infinity. A nice effect; this accent on the 'perpetuo’ aspect of the canon form makes musical as well as aesthetic sense.

3) A drastic re-ordering of the piece. In theory, this really shouldn’t matter too much. After all, just every recording of this piece I have encountered puts the fugue, ten canons, sonata and two ricercars in different order. However, they all place the sublime and justly famed ricercar a six at the end of the piece. Zacher does not and for me, at least, this jars. The second ricercar is self-evidently the musical condensation and summation of the piece, and placing it in the middle just doesn’t work.

So much for breaking convention. I think it’s a matter of swings and roundabouts, overall, but purists may well agree to differ.

Other aspects of this recording are less contentious. The playing (on modern instruments) is unfussy and of high standard. Auditioned on the SACD stereo layer, the sound is clear and airy, albeit a bit too close for my taste.

A clear and equivocal rating of this recording is never going to be straightforward. So, recommendable, but be aware of the provisos and comments before proceeding.

*Is that You Tube clip cool, or what? Thanks to Zeus for highlighting this.

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