Bach Retrospect Disconnect

Review by: John Greene


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 6

Four of Bach’s harpsichord concertos are performed here by the Retrospect Ensemble and their harpsichordist/director Matthew Halls in their original chamber versions—likely the way patrons of the Café Zimmerman in Leipzig heard them played by Bach and colleagues during their weekly concerts. Having previously reviewed an installment by the ensemble Café Zimmermann (Alpha) which performs the works in a similar fashion (they’ve since recorded all of Bach’s concertos), it’s once again refreshing to hear Bach’s simple yet profound instrumental interrelationships so clearly articulated, a clarity that so often gets lost when performed by larger (and especially by modern-instrument) ensembles.

Unlike Café Zimmermann however, whose wide variety of tempo and dynamic choices often made their performances so thrilling, the Retrospect Ensemble for the most part delivers more moderately honed, less immediately captivating interpretations. If your taste in Bach concertos favors Harnoncourt, Pinnock, or even Leppard over most of today’s period performances, you will likely find much to enjoy in these leaner alternatives.

Two quibbles though. With the exception of the Andante in the F major concerto, the ensemble’s want of momentum in the inner slow movements seems excessive. Their handling of the Andante of the G minor and the Adagio of the D minor are inordinately broad, if not Romantic in temperament. The continuity of the musical line of the Larghetto in the A major concerto also suffers from the players’ near plodding treatment.

Then there’s the sound. Throughout most of this recital I found myself giving the forward-placement of the harpsichord the benefit of the doubt. In many recording venues, hard acoustics tend to overly brighten the sound, and then if the microphone placement just isn’t right, well. . . However, by the final Allegro of the D minor concerto enough was enough. Listening on a regular 2-channel system improved this difficulty somewhat, but the SACD sound eventually became unbearable.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Cafe Zimmermann (Alpha); Le Concert Francais (Astrée)

  • BACH, J.S.:
    Harpsichord Concertos BWV 1052, 1055, 1057, & 1058

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