It's hard to believe that it's been a decade since the first of these instant-classic 2000-2003 recordings were issued. By then, while it was still not unusual for pianists to buck the authentic-performance movement where Bach is concerned in the solo works, piano in the concertos had become rarer.
There are many issues, of course, not least the questions of balance between the keyboard and the strings. But as usual, Bach's music transcends such mundane matters when played by a master, and only once in this set do I find myself wishing for a harpsichord: the accompanying figures the piano has in the Triple Concerto come across as a bit too dense, clotting the overall texture.
Of course, it helps that Perahia, following up on the great artistic success of his recording of the Goldberg Variations, delivered scintillating performances marked by considerable freshness and elegance. His ability to phrase with a slight amount of detachment without becoming percussive or fussy is nearly miraculous, and even his legato passages have completely clarity. His dynamic contrasts are vivid but not overdone. Ornamentation is tasteful and spontaneous-sounding. Tempos are lively but not pressed.
There are some interesting and largely admirable decisions made apart from the piano part. The orchestra is hardly one on a part, but it's not especially large either. Theorbo (bass lute) is included as the chordal instrument of the continuo group, with its contribution subtle but effective. The orchestra's execution is not always absolutely clean, but its spirit is always infectious.
One could complain about the rather artificial recording perspective, with the piano quite close, detailed, and centered, and the orchestra somewhat recessed and pushed off to the edges. The balance issue has not been dealt with so much as outright ignored in any realistic sense. But only audiophile sticklers are likely to find this a significant impediment to enjoyment of these wonderful performances.
Anyone already owning the old versions can stick with them; it doesn't seem that there was any remastering done. This is a relief, in a way: it means that the volume has not been pumped up for iTunes, as happens with so many reissues nowadays.
However, there are two regrettable changes from the original issues of these recordings. Breezy, less detailed notes by Jeremy Siepmann (seemingly the reflexive choice for piano album notes) replace the more thorough and scholarly notes by Bach expert George Stauffer that graced all three older releases. And, in a remarkably thoughtless and horribly disrespectful omission, the more detailed credits of the original issues are gone, so now there is no mention whatsoever of Jakob Lindberg (theorbo in the Triple Concerto and Brandenburg No. 5) and David Miller (theorbo/archlute in the Piano Concertos), much less recording engineer Markus Heiland, assistant engineers Andrew Granger and Jake Jackson, editor Matthew Cocker, or piano technician Ulrich Gerhartz. Oh, that may not matter to many people, but I'm sure it means a great deal to them -- and it would have cost nothing extra to include.
Oh, there's one other difference, which is that this set is budget priced compared to mid-price for the individual CDs. Kudos for that! - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer whose newest project is setting James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach for singer and cello.