Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750): Violin Concertos in A minor (BWV 1041) and E major (BWV 1042); Concerto in D minor for Two Violins (BWV 1043). Performed by Simon Standage and Elizabeth Wilcock, violin, and the English Concert, directed from the harpsichord by Trevor Pinnock. Recorded in 1983 at the Henry Wood Hall in London, England. Published in 1983 as Deutsche Grammophon Archiv 410 646-2. Total playing time: 45'47".
Let me say right from the start that my four-star evaluation is perhaps a little strict, but I wanted to make a difference between this CD and one or two others that I found to be even better.
I own four "historically informed" recordings of Bach's beautiful violin concertos, and I would like to contrast and compare them here. For want of a better method I will take them in chronological order.
The oldest is the L'Oiseau-Lyre CD of this repertoire made in 1981 or 1982 by Jaap Schröder with Christopher Hirons as second violin and accompanied by a group of musicians from the Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Christopher Hogwood (Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 / Concerto for 2 Violins - The Academy of Ancient Music. In addition to its glorious Decca engineering, this CD has the advantage of a fairly small group of players (string distribution 3-3-2-2-1), making for great transparency of sound. Jaap Schröder takes the concertos with wonderful lightness of touch and a relaxed feel about his playing, stressing the dance-like rhythms in Bach's music. The solo violin (violins on the double concerto) are placed in the foreground, and the bass line is not so heavy as on some of the other recordings. In the Double Concerto, Christopher Hogwood replaces the harpsichord with a chamber organ, which, if you listen carefully, seems to me to be ideal and to give the concerto just the right "feeling". This is a grandiose piece of musicianship!
The Standage/Wilcock/Pinnock recording was made during 1983, and its perhaps most outstanding characteristic is the incredibly good Deutsche Grammophon engineering, which yields a wonderfully pure, spacious sound. The performance itself is excellent, no doubt, but I found myself querying some points. Firstly, there are the tempi; Pinnock takes the fast outer movements faster than anyone else, and although the difference is not world-shattering, I felt that Christopher Hogwood's slightly more relaxed approach did the music good. But it is in the slow central movements that Standage/Pinnock really differentiate themselves: they take these a good deal more slowly than anyone else, and despite the beauty of Simon Standage's violin tone, I found this to be somewhat soporific. Was this a step towards that "nobility" of tone which has often been noted in the English Concert's later recordings with Deutsche Grammophon? Be that as it may, it was the slow movements which made me feel that somehow Pinnock had put the brake on and was no longer allowing the ebullience and fire of some of his earlier Bach recordings (e.g. the Overtures and Brandenburg Concertos).
The third recording comes, from my European perspective, from a very unexpected quarter: It was recorded in 1993 at St. Stephen's Church, Belvedere, California by a group I had never heard of before, the Arcangeli Baroque Strings, with leader Michael Sand as soloist in the A minor concerto and together with Lisa Weiss on the Double Concerto, and with Elizabeth Blumenstock as soloist in the E major Concerto. The disc also includes the reconstructed concerto for 3 Violins after BWV 1064 (with Lisa Grodin as third soloist): Bach: Violin Concertos. The Arcangeli Baroque Strings have practically only one player to a part (first and second violins have two players each, but including the soloist; there is one each of viola, cello, violone and harpsichord). This makes, even more than on Christopher Hogwood's recording, for absolute transparency of sound (this is not only due to Music and Arts' excellent engineering). The tempi are somewhere in the middle between Schröder/Hogwood and Standage/Pinnock, very pleasant indeed, but it is the passionate violin playing which really makes this disc the best I think I have ever heard of this repertoire: unbelievably good (although the Double Concerto does not, in my opinion, work quite so well as the other concertos on the disc). The US West Coast early music scene has set a benchmark here which it will be difficult for anyone anywhere to outdo.
The last of my four recordings was made at some time during the 90's (the sparse documentation is hardly worth the name and gives no details). It is by Australian baroque violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which is here also directed by Elizabeth Wallfisch: Bach: Violin Concertos. There are pros and cons to be heard here. It would seem that the ensemble is larger than on most other recordings, and the bass line is decorated by Paul Nicholson on the harpsichord (which can be clearly heard, which is definitely not the case on the Pinnock recording). The tempi here are moderate, slightly slower perhaps than I would have wished, but there is a good deal of emphasis on the rhythmic aspects of the music. Elizabeth Wallfisch's violin is embedded in the group and not always quite so easy to hear as the soloists on the other recordings; her playing is, as usual, wonderful, although there are occasions when I felt that there was a slight harshness of tone which did not always become the music.
As a footnote, I should perhaps say that only the Schröder/Hogwood disc gives details of all the instruments used, something that seems to have gone out of fashion, but which I feel should be part and parcel of a good period-instrument performance.
To summarize, I would say that the Sand/Blumenstock/Arcangeli Baroque Strings is the disc to go for if you are looking for a recording of this repertoire that can take your breath away. If it is no longer available, as is unfortunately often the case with benchmark recordings on small labels, then personally, I would go for the Schröder/Hogwood next. If price is a criterium, then the Wallfisch/OAE is available at budget price, both in a 2CD set and in a 4CD package together with the Brandenburg Concertos. The Standage/Pinnock is, of course, also a brilliant recording, but personally I would recommend it only as a second choice.