Released in 1974, this 2-LP set devoted to the 6 Brandenburg Concertos supplanted the old Erato reference by Kurt Redel – the stereophonic version of 1962. It remains precious testimony to the art of Jean-François Paillard, a musician who assuredly deserves to be re-evaluated, like Louis Auriacombe, who had, with the Toulouse Chamber Orchestra, made magnificent recordings devoted to 18th-century music for Le Club Français du Disque. With their intimate chamber tone, these Bach recordings celebrated the 20th anniversary of Erato (founded in 1953) and also remain an example of the achievement of a performing aesthetic that has now become marginal.
Although not quite at the level of profundity of his teacher Gustav Leonhardt's recording, Kenneth Gilbert's 1983 recording of Book 1 of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier does have a style and polish that Leonhardt's too often lacked. Thus, while Leonhardt goes further into some of the minor-key fugues to find intellectual and spiritual depths that Gilbert does not plumb, Gilbert's playing is so much more elegant and graceful than Leonhardt's that it is difficult to choose between them. For listeners who approach The Well-Tempered Clavier as a volume of virtuoso works whose success depends on the effortless refinement of the player, the Gilbert, with its superbly remastered sound, will be the one to get. For listeners who approach The Well-Tempered Clavier as a volume of prayers written as preludes and fugues, the Leonhardt will be preferable. Both are superb and both belong in any Bach collection.
The Belgian early music group Vox Luminis has made several wonderful recordings of lesser-known Baroque repertory. They cultivate a distinctive sound with ten or 15 singers (here there are ten) and a small instrumental group, diverging completely from the general Italianate-operatic trend toward brisk tempos, sharp accents, and dramatic conceptions. Here they take on two very familiar works and meet the challenge of creating unique interpretations. Even in the splendid Bach Magnificat in D major, BWV 243 (sample one of the big choruses, perhaps "Fecit potentiam"), they are smooth and even delicate. The sound is all the more impressive in that leader Lionel Meunier does not really conduct; he sings in the choir itself. Yet the carefully burnished sound is extremely coherent. The effect is to deliver a personal aspect even to these highly public works. In this kind of reading there is the necessity for the performers to deliver text intelligibility and for the instrumentalists to deliver balance, and all succeed nicely, as do Alpha Classics' engineers, working in a pair of churches (Belgian for the Handel, Dutch for the Bach). This is a beautifully rendered representation of standard repertory that draws you into entirely new ways of looking at the music.
Masaaki Suzuki was an organist before he was a conductor, and his recordings of Bach's organ works have made a delightful coda to his magisterial survey of Bach cantatas with his Bach Collegium Japan. This selection, the second in a series appearing on the BIS label, gives a good idea of the gems available. You get a good mix of pieces, including a pair of Bach's Vivaldi transcriptions. Fans of Suzuki's cantata series will be pleased to note the similarities in his style between his conducting and his organ playing: there's a certain precise yet deliberate and lush quality common to both. And he has a real co-star here: the organ of the Kobe Shoin Women's University Chapel, built in 1983 by French maker Marc Garnier. The realizations of Bach's transcriptions of Vivaldi concertos fare especially well here, with a panoply of subtle colors in the organ. Sample the first movement of the Concerto in D minor, BWV 596, with its mellow yet transcendently mysterious tones in the string ripieni. BIS backs Suzuki up with marvelously clear engineering in the small Japanese chapel, and all in all, this is a Bach organ recording that stands out from the crowd. Highly recommended.