Bach: Keyboard Concertos Nos. 3, 5, 6 and 7. Murray Perahia, pianist and conductor; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. (Sony Classical SK 89690)
"Play Bach." Awadagin Pratt, pianist; St. Lawrence String Quartet. (Angel 7243 5 57227)
Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord. Giuliano Carmignola, violinist; Andrea Marcon, harpsichordist. (Sony Classical S2K 89469, two discs)
The intricate brilliance and sheer beauty of Bach's music find worthy advocates in these three new releases.
Murray Perahia, whose approach to Bach is no less revelatory than his acclaimed approach to Mozart and Chopin, has come up with another gem.
Continuing his survey of the keyboard concertos, which began with a terrific disc last year, the pianist once again offers a model of sublime articulation - not just unfailingly clear, but deeply poetic in character and imaginatively exploitative of the modern piano's tonal palette. To say there is something Chopinesque in the way Perahia plays Bach is not to suggest any interpretive impropriety. On its own terms, his gorgeous pianism is perfectly faithful to the letter and spirit of the score.
The pianist gets a refined, fully engaged response from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a modern-instrument ensemble, here giving a nod to period-instrument groups with the occasional use of the theorbo and archlute. (The latter, filling in chords during the slow movement of the Concerto No. 5 in F minor, adds an exquisite layer of extra color.)
Throughout, tempos are judicious, dynamic contrasts vivid and Sony's sound richly detailed as Perahia makes the music come to life in consistently fresh ways. Absolutely inspired.
In Play Bach, pianist Awadagin Pratt and the St. Lawrence String Quartet, with bassist Stephen Tramontazzi, offer an alternative take on two of the keyboard concertos, including the same F minor one that Perahia offers. (The piece is misidentified as Concerto No. 3 here.) The Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 also is featured.
The disc is noteworthy, first of all, for the clarity of both the playing and the recorded sound. Each intricate thread of melody, each artless shift in harmony emerges distinctly, as does a sense of joy in the performances.
Pratt doesn't produce a wide variety of dynamics and coloring (Perahia has him beat by several miles on that front), and he can turn a little brittle and machine-gun-like sometimes, especially in the long cadenza of the Brandenburg piece. But plenty of character and sensitivity can be found nonetheless on the recording.
The advantage of having only five musicians for the orchestral portion of the concertos is considerable transparency of texture. The polish of the string playing is another virtue. And Bach purists accustomed to period-instrument performances should have a hard time summoning grounds for objection. The string players are sparing in their use of vibrato, producing a tone very close to that associated with authentic performance practice. The sound blends well with Pratt's pianism, which avoids romantic flourishes.
All in all, Play Bach provides an energized, even uplifting experience.
Giuliano Carmignola and Andrea Marcon have formed an exceptional partnership that has already produced unusually animated, superbly crafted performances of concertos by Vivaldi for Sony Classical. (Their account of the ubiquitous Four Seasons with Carmignola as soloist and Marcon leading the Venice Baroque Orchestra deserves to be ranked with the very best of available recordings.) The two men have now turned their attention to Bach's six sonatas for violin and harpsichord, with likewise notable results.
Carmignola plays a fine 18th-century violin without a trace of academic stuffiness. He even lets a little vibrato get in when he wants to sweeten a phrase. His technique is sterling, his flair for dynamic shading abundant. Marcon is no less formidable at the harpsichord.
The sound of both instruments - the keyboard is very much an equal partner in this vivid recording - provides considerable aural pleasure in and of itself. When combined with the intense and insightful musicianship of both players, the effect is quite compelling.
Fast movements dance along nimbly. Slow ones invariably have a strong lyrical pulse, notably the opening Largo of the C minor sonata. And in the finale to the G major sonata, the performers generate an almost whimsical energy that makes the genius of Bach seem all the more affecting.
* * * * (Perahia)
* * * 1/2 (Pratt)
* * * 1/2 (Carmignola/Mar- con)
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2. Glazunov: Violin Concerto. Tchaikovsky: Meditation. Nikolaj Znaider violinist; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Mariss Jansons, conductor. (RCA Victor/BMG 74321-87454)
With a formidable technique, shimmering tone and unfailingly expressive style, Nikolaj Znaider has staked out a place among today's finest young violinists. This Dane of Polish and Israeli heritage demonstrates the kind of keen appreciation for portamento (the method of sliding between notes) and a truly singing line more typical in fiddlers from generations long ago.
Znaider's performance of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 exudes lyrical heat and, in the finale, crackles with wit and energy. The soloist caresses Glazunov's sometimes inconsequential concerto with a burnished sound and effectively taps the bittersweet undercurrent of Tchaikovsky's Meditation. These are decidedly accomplished, thoughtfully considered performances.
Mariss Jansons is a masterful partner throughout, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra provides dynamic, rich-toned support.
* * * 1/2