In a rare appearance outside London in the UK, world-renowned Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova, harpsichordist Ottavio Dantone and the Italian ensemble Accademia Bizantina took to the stage at St George’s Bristol to perform four Baroque concertos by J.S. Bach. The concentration of Bach in the programme enabled us to become familiar with his concerto structure in three movements and thus be able to pick out more intricacies in the works which we might have missed in a different programme.

Viktoria Mullova © Henry Fair
Viktoria Mullova
© Henry Fair

The concert was shorter than average, with only half an hour for the first half, but four works was just the right dose of carefully selected Bach concertos, each significant to his overall contribution to concertos. The first half opened with Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor BWV 1041, which is one of two surviving concertos for solo violin that are associated with the Cöthen period of between 1717 and 1723, when Bach started writing his solo concertos. The other concerto from this period is the Violin Concerto in E BWV 1042, which was the last piece performed in the evening’s concert. Viktoria Mullova, in a beautiful trailing pewter backless dress, was applauded onto the stage with Accademia Bizantina and plunged straight into the A minor concerto with assurance and without hesitation. All of the performers had old-style instruments, giving an authentic edge to the performance and were careful not to give in to the modern tendency to play with too much vibrato and over-romanticise Bach. The dynamics were controlled too but still emotionally effective and subtle enough to depict phrasing.

Resolving the first half of the concert was Bach’s Concerto for violin and harpsichord in C minor after BWV 1060, written later in his life: in the 1730s, when he resided in Leipzig and wrote a group of concertos that all featured the harpsichord. In the original performances of this piece Bach would have played the harpsichord part himself. I would have liked the harpsichord in this performance to have been louder, but the problem could have been due to my being seated on the side of the bass and cello. It was more of a violin solo with harpsichord accompaniment but nevertheless enjoyable. The notable middle movement had a lyrical harpsichord and violin accompanied by pizzicato strings and was particularly effective.

The second half commenced with a Violin Concerto in D major, written “after” BWV 1053, best known as a harpsichord concerto in E major. The solo part is thought to have originally been a concerto written for a wind instrument. This version was rescored and transposed to D by Ottavio Dantone himself, and in this key it gains a bright sound on the violin due to more use of open strings. After a few minutes of extensive tuning, the piece was under way, and peaked at a Mullova’s beautiful melody in the Adagio movement.

The favourite concerto of the evening seemed to be Bach’s Violin Concerto in E BWV 1042, as it received a murmur of recognition and appreciation with its energy-charged opening three chords and extra large applause at the end. Just before the final movement, Ottavio Dantone showed his technique for musically directing the phrasing of each piece to its fullest. The usual nods and odd hand gestures apply to his direction throughout a performance, but just before the Accademia Bizantina are about to play, Dantone draws a shape with his hand defining the general feel for a piece. For this final, fast-paced movement it was a wobble of a tightly pinched finger and thumb followed by nods from the instrumentalists. This paved way for a bouncy Allegro assai.

As an unannounced encore, Viktoria Mullova and Ottavio Dantone played the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata in B minor for violin and harpsichord BWV 1014. This sonata showcased Mullova and Dantone’s musical understanding of one another and was well received by a delighted audience. All in all, this was an enjoyable way to study Bach’s concertos with a fine evening of world-class musicians.