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Recordings

J. S. Bach.  Musical Offering
25 Aug 2006

BACH: Musical Offering

We can easily imagine the pleasure that Bach must have taken in presiding over a household that was both large and talented enough to form its own complete ensemble.

J. S. Bach: Musical Offering

The Kuijken Ensemble

Euroarts DVD 2050366 [DVD]

$17.99  Click to buy

In a letter from 1730 he writes:

Now I must add a little about my domestic situation. . . From my first marriage I have three sons and one daughter living. . . . For the second marriage I have one son and two daughters living. . . . The children of my second marriage are still small, the eldest, a boy, being six years old. But they are all born musicians, and I can assure you that I can already form an ensemble both of vocalists and instrumentalists within my family, since my present wife sings a good, clear soprano, and my eldest daughter, too, joins in not badly.

The Kuijken Ensemble presents a compellingly symmetric situation, featuring three brothers—Wieland Kuijken, viola da gamba, Sigiswald Kuijken, violin, and Barthold Kuijken, transverse flute—who, along with harpsichordist Robert Kohnen, echo the familial music making that would have made Bach’s household a harmonious one. Moreover, the Kuijkens have played a leading role in the European early music movement since coming to prominence in the 1970s, both as artists of the highest caliber and teachers of great influence.

Bach’s Musical Offering, BWV 1079, fits well into this family theme, for the genesis of the work derives from a visit Bach paid to the court of Frederick, the Great in 1747, a visit that was surely attractive not only for its cultural opportunities, but also for the chance to see his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, an important figure in the court musical establishment. Upon arrival Bach was presented with a “royal theme” for improvisation; the Musical Offering represents a working out of this theme in many guises: a three- and a six-voice ricercar, numerous canons with intensely sophisticated counterpoint, and a four-movement trio sonata. As a large collection with a decidedly contrapuntal bent, it represents along with works like the Art of Fugue the nature of Bach’s last years, a time in which he takes on large-scale works and brings to them a seemingly inexhaustible contrapuntal technique.

The Kuijken Ensemble’s performance is a masterful one, characterized by an expressive style so elegant and refined that the question of technical demand never even enters one’s mind. The difficulties of Bach’s writing—and there are many challenges here—remain comfortably sub rosa, while expression and affectivity trump all other concerns. And that this is the case transforms the canons from works of potential abstraction to intensely personal statements. When the Kuijken brothers were presented with the York Early Music Festival Life Time Achievement Award, the presenter, Klaus Neumann, quoted Wieland Kuijken in what must surely be the brothers’ signature motto: “I keep fast to the idea that music is an intimate reaction between the score and its interpreter. Soul and heart have the last word.” And that “last word” is clearly their point of departure here.

The trademarks of this elegant playing surface in the details, of course—details like the sensitively contoured motions of phrase and motive, the variety of articulation, or the richness of vowel in the flute sound. Tellingly, the elegance seems equally as at home in the decorative filigree of the sonata as in the expansiveness of the six-voice ricercar.

The DVD records a live concert presented at the Altes Rathaus in Leipzig at the 2000 Leipzig Bach Festival. The nature of the visual content is straight forward with little to distract the viewer from the music. Given the nature of the music and the intensity of the performance, this is a well chosen approach. However, if the DVD is viewed as a visual work itself, not just a visual record of the concert, it might have benefited from a greater exploration of the room and a wider range of perspective. It was also a regrettable coincidence that found Kohnen seated in front of a broadsword mounted on the wall, with the predictable effect that at times it seemed to be growing from out of his head.

The Musical Offering is well represented in numerous recordings. For elegance and richness of expression, this one should go to the top of the list.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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