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Concerto Italiano review – Alessandrini brings fastidious stylishness to Bach

Rinaldo Alessandrini conducts Concerto Italiano.
Stylish … Rinaldo Alessandrini conducts Concerto Italiano. Photograph: Marco Caselli Nirmal

The Concerto Italiano and its conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini may be best known internationally for their superlative performances of Monteverdi’s vocal works, but instrumental Bach features prominently in their repertory, too – their 2005 recording of the Brandenburg Concertos, for instance, is one of the finest period-instrument versions available. The group’s post-Christmas visit to the Wigmore Hall was also devoted to Bach, and to one piece in particular, The Musical Offering.

Even though its origins are well documented, The Musical Offering is one of those late scores by Bach whose real purpose remains enigmatic. We know that it was composed in 1747 at the request of Frederick the Great of Prussia, after Bach had visited the flute-playing monarch’s Potsdam court – where his son Carl Philip Emanuel was working as a harpsichordist. The starting point for the collection of fugues, canons and a trio sonata was a theme that the king himself had provided, but as with The Art of Fugue, which Bach was working on at the same time, there’s no hint as to a possible instrumentation. It’s not even clear whether it was ever intended for performance as a concert work at all, while the cryptic way in which the canons are notated suggests that first and foremost perhaps Bach conceived it as an abstract, intellectual exercise.

Certainly Concerto Italiano’s rather austere performance, for a lineup of flute, two violins, cello and harpsichord, rather emphasised that cerebral side. Alessandrini’s realisation used even those forces very sparingly, with the pair of ricercare, the three-part and six-part fugues that anchor the entire sequence, confined to his harpsichord alone, and the whole ensemble never used together. Of course, the main set pieces – the two fugues and the trio sonata – were impressive, and played with their usual fastidious stylishness by Alessandrini and his colleagues, but the whole sequence seemed more didactic than anything else.

Before The Musical Offering were other pieces that mirrored the contents of the larger work: the Trio Sonata in G BWV 1038, which may not have been composed by Bach at all; and the collection of 14 little canons, all based on the first eight notes of the bass line of the aria from the Goldberg Variations, which resurfaced only in the 1970s. It did all feel a bit too much like a lesson in music history.

This article titled "Concerto Italiano review – Alessandrini brings fastidious stylishness to Bach" was written by Andrew Clements, for The Guardian on Tuesday 2 January 2018 01.23pm

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