Alina Ibragimova’s repertoire is nothing if not varied—her most recent CDs have taken in Ysaÿe, Prokofiev, Hartmann and Schubert—but her previous Bach, the solo Sonatas and Partitas, firmly established her as a thoughtful and historically-alert performer of early music as well. Her musical comfort zone seems to know no bounds, and her latest collection of Bach violin concertos only proves this further.
Five concertos make the album up—two violin “originals” and three transcriptions from other scorings. First up is the well-known A minor concerto BWV1041, with its clear echoes of Vivaldi (who was by any reckoning the Concerto King of Europe at this time). Ibragimova’s playing, from the very first entry, is surprisingly sweet-toned; even in the relatively boisterous first movement the instrument constantly sings, and she’s not afraid to let the sustained notes ring out a little. This is Bach in a somewhat Italianate mood—accentuated by the prominent use of a lute in the continuo. Occasional guitar-like strumming further reinforces the South European feel, though the rich darkness of the theorbo’s lower reaches ensures that the music never becomes excessively airy.
In several movements—particularly the slow movement of the A minor concerto—the lute is more independent than one might expect of a continuo instrument, with original little countermelodies poking through the texture and offsetting Ibragimova. It’s an intriguing decision; some may find it an unnecessary attempt to add interest to music that is, in truth, never boring, but I found the subtly improvisatory quality it brought rather welcome.
One particularly delightful “trick” in Ibragimova’s arsenal—though it’s certainly very much more than a mere gimmick—is the use of a hushed, sotto voce tone that contrasts strongly with the cantabile style I mentioned above. This appears at several points—especially in the introverted slow movement of the E major concerto BWV1042. It’s much more than a mere piano; the tone is what in a singer I’d call “breathier”—very much a stage-whisper, and extremely effective everywhere she deploys it.
The accompanying notes describe the A major concerto BWV1055 as “Bach in feel-good Brandenburg mode”—and there’s certainly a strong similarity with the bustling opening of BWV1050—but what I found most striking was the low register of the violin, and Ibragimova’s rich tone in her first entry. The reason for the low tessitura of the solo part is thought to be that this concerto is derived from an original version scored for an oboe d’amore soloist—and the relatively sustained, legato solo line, again demonstrating Ibragimova’s gift for a cantabile style, seems to bear this widely-held theory out.
The famous slow movement of the G minor concerto BWV1056, probably second only to the well-known Air in popularity among Bach’s slow movements, is devoid of some of the ornamentation I was expecting—though some cheeky contributions from the lute help to make up for this and it certainly never sounds bare. However, again, there’s a scholarly reason for this—Ibragimova has chosen a style that closely emulates the lightly-ornamented original version, scored for oboe and with a much less florid solo line.
Rounding off the disc is in fact the most substantial of the five concerti, the D minor BWV1052—rightly described as imposing and austere, this dark-toned work affords Ibragimova the chance to show off her toccata-like virtuosity. The flanking movements are crowned by passages that strongly recall the great Toccata and Fugue BWV565 for organ in the use of double-stopping over a repeated pedal note (it is widely, though not universally, thought that the Toccata may have originally been for violin, as this kind of writing seems so much more naturally suited to a stringed instrument).
If space permitted I could pick out numerous other delightful moments—instants of poised stillness in the D minor concerto, powerful sweeps of the theorbo giving lift and life to key chords, the well-balanced moving inner parts in the A minor … but alas it does not. You’ll have to enjoy discovering them for yourself when the album comes out next week!