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14.12.07

Trever Pinnock: Bach Again, at 61

Canterbury born Trevor Pinnock – who shares his birthday with Beethoven – turned 61 last Sunday. In his function as the founder and leader of The English Consort and a prolific harpsichordist he became one of the most important musicians in the early music movement. He recorded numerous CDs for the Archiv label – including all of Bach’s concertos. In 2003, after 30 years with The English Concert, he handed over his duties to the great violinist Andrew Manze who has, however, retired from the post that is now Harry Bicket’s.

After three decades with TEC, he wishd to move on to new – or perhaps old – things, focusing more on playing the harpsichord and, as he says, going “back to the rich English repertoire such as Tomkins, Byrd, Bull and Gibbons.”

Except that he was back on tour for a year of 60th birthday celebrations with a new ensemble he created for the celebration of that occasion. He and his European Brandenburg Ensemble, made up of players from many European countries and all ages played one set of works to audience around the world. There is only one composer who will allow a group of musicians’ sanity to withstand such repetition: Johann Sebastian Bach.


available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Brandenburg Concertos,
T.Pinnock / European Brandenburg Ensemble
Avie

And so Pinnock traveled with the EBE through Europe and Asia for a year, playing on every stop – you might have guessed it – the Brandenburg Concertos. The birthday circuit ended with a concert at the Munich Herkulessaal (see below) in November where Trevor Pinnock and his “Birthday-band”, The European Brandenburg Ensemble” delighted – if in an unfulfilling way. After performing all six concertos five times in six nights, the spontaneous and improvisatory quality clearly wanted by Pinnock and his musicians (playing standing) might have given way to routine. At least some of the luster was off in several of the six concertos.

Not of Pinnock himself, mind you. The man who looks like 1/3 Ian McKellan, 1/3 boarding school headmaster, and 1/3 indefatigably happy elf played with zest and nimble accuracy throughout. In the D-major concerto (BWV 1050), that proto-keyboard concerto, Pinnock’s fleet and steady playing largely kept the ensemble together. The zenith of their Brandenburg-focus of 2007 meanwhile is likely to be their resultant recording of the concerto cycle.“There is such a variety of fine recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos that any new recording needs some justification.” Thus writes Trevor Pinnock in the liner notes to his new recording of the Brandenburg concertos on Avie. He succeeds on paper – whether he succeeds on record is more difficult to answer. At the very least he adds yet another very fine recording to the many fine recordings available, a quarter century after his recording with the English Consort on Archiv came out.

The reason for the EBE being made up of players of all ages and European countries was to to eschew any one particularly, nationally flavored style of baroque playing and to achieve the universality that makes Bach’s language so special. Pinnock certainly succeeds on that point: There is no particularly “British” (or other such) flavor to these Brandenburg concertos. He also succeeds in introducing a greater sense of spontaneity that comes close to spirit of (a good) live performance.

Many listeners, record clerks, and Bach-lovers still consider Pinnock’s 1982 recording of the Brandenburg Concertos as one of the top choices among HIP versions. I might have agreed with that myself, based on memory. But pulling these recordings out again proved that they have not aged not nearly as well as assumed. It also heightened my appreciation of the new Pinnock recording considerably.

The Archiv recording shows all too clearly how much Historical Performance Practice has improved. The natural trumpets should not (or need not) sound like that – and they don’t, in more modern recordings like the excellent Academy for Ancient Music Berlin’s (HMU 2901634) or Musica Antiqua Cologne’s under Reinhard Goebel (part of Archiv 471656). Similarly the unlovely string sound is perhaps authentic in the true sense of the word, but not appreciated , now that we can have better.

The strings of the EBE on the new recording are a delight, and not just in comparison. The natural horns and trumpets, however, continue to be a weak-spot just as they were in concert. That’s too bad – because where the earlier Pinnock recording manages to convey the architecture of the concertos with its steady paced, sturdy way, the new recording manages to go about things in a much more free-wheeling manner. Tempos are – except in the Fifth Concerto – ever so slightly sped up… but more importantly and decidedly unrelated: every movement sounds more alive, more energetic. This ‘new’ Bach is not as reverently worshiped, it is adored with coyness, sparkle, and a twinkle in its eye. Nothing limps, nothing lurches. Every concerto has a slightly different tone of voice, too, which makes listening to all six in a row a fairly stimulating – not tiring – affair. The atmosphere as a whole is quite light – partly a result of Pinnock opting for the cello (instead of bass) playing the bass part in four out of six concertos.

Anyone who especially likes the performances and interpretations of Trevor Pinnock will find this recording to be a delight and probably a distinct improvement over its predecessor. If, meanwhile, someone were to hunt for the (elusive) ‘definitive’ version of HIP Brandenburg Concertos, this beautifully packaged and presented CD set might be a contender – but there are at least a handful of other accounts that should not be overlooked at the expense of this.


Picture courtesy Andrew Stepan



Review No.2


available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Brandenburg Concertos,
T.Pinnock / European Brandenburg Ensemble
Avie

“There is such a variety of fine recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos that any new recording needs some justification.” Thus writes Trevor Pinnock (who will turn 61 this Sunday) in the liner notes to his new recording of the Brandenburg concertos on Avie (released this Tuesday, December 11th). He succeeds on paper – with his warm description for his personal reasons of re-recording the Brandenburg, of differing musical choices, and on how the recording and the performances of the European Brandenburg Ensemble became a very personal tribute and cause as tragedy struck the ensemble and took violist Katherine McGillivray from them.

Whether Pinnock succeeds on record is more difficult to answer. At the least he adds yet another very fine recording to the many fine recordings available, a quarter century after his recording with the English Consort on Archiv came out.

The European Brandenburg Ensemble (EBE) was specifically founded to play these works. It is made up of players of all ages and European countries – particularly to eschew any one, nationally flavored style of baroque playing… to achieve the universality that makes Bach’s language so special. Pinnock succeeds on that point, too: There is no particularly “British” flavor to these Brandenburg concertos. He also succeeds in introducing a greater sense of spontaneity to all six concertos that comes close to spirit of the live performances that brought the EBE all over Europe and to Asia with these works – all as part of a big Bach-embracing 60th Birthday tour of Pinnock’s.

Many listeners, record clerks, and Bach-lovers still consider Pinnock’s 1982 recording of the Brandenburg Concertos as one of the top choices among HIP versions. I might have agreed with that myself, based on memory. But pulling these recordings out again proved that they have not aged not nearly as well as assumed. It also heightened my appreciation of the new Pinnock recording considerably.

The Archiv recording shows all too clearly how much Historical Performance Practice has improved. The natural trumpet and horns should not and need not sound like that. And they don’t, in more recent recordings like the excellent Academy for Ancient Music Berlin’s (HMU 2901634) or Musica Antiqua Cologne’s under Reinhard Goebel (part of Archiv 471656). Similarly the unlovely string sound is perhaps authentic in the true sense of the word, but not appreciated now, that we can have better.

The strings of the EBE are a delight, not just in comparison. The solo violin ‘cadenza’ in the Adagio of the Third Concerto that Pinnock opts for is but one notable example. The horns and trumpets, however, continue to be a weak-spot. They were often off-color in concert (see below) – and they are surprisingly unreliable in this recording, too. That’s too bad – because where the earlier Pinnock recording manages to convey the architecture of the concertos with its steady paced, un-exaggerated, sturdy performances, the new recording manages to go about things in a much more free-wheeling manner. Tempos are – except in the Fifth Concerto – ever so slightly sped up… but more importantly every movement sounds more alive, more energetic. This Bach is not as reverently worshiped, it is adored with coyness, sparkle, and a twinkling eye. Nothing limps, nothing lurches. Every concerto has a slightly different tone of voice, too, which makes listening to all six in a row a fairly stimulating – not tiring – affair. The atmosphere as a whole is lighter - partly a result of Pinnock opting for the cello (instead of bass) playing the bass part in four out of six concertos.

Anyone who especially likes the performances and interpretations of Trevor Pinnock will find this recording to be a delight and distinct improvement over its predecessor. If, meanwhile, someone were to hunt for the (elusive) ‘definitive’ HIP Brandenburg Concertos, this beautifully packaged and presented CD set could arguably be a contender – but there are at least a handful of other accounts that should not be overlooked at the expense of this. Tuning is the HIP standard a’ = 415 Hz although Pinnock suggests in his lucid liner notes that Bach’s tuning may have been as low as a' = 390 at the time.



Concert Review


BachThe European Brandenburg Ensemble, Trevor Pinnock (conductor, harpsichord) Herkulessaal, Munich 15.11.2007 (JFL)

J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos 1-6

While I feel decidedly ambivalent about the question of “HIP” vs. ‘modern’ performances of baroque (or classical, or even romantic) music, I do adore the invigorating  and impeccably moving performances of the likes of John Elliot Gardiner, Masaaki Suzuki, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or Phillip Herreweghe.

On record, their efforts are beyond criticism and elicit warm praise even from listeners who could not care less which bow the violinists are using or how many singers to a part make up the tutti passages, so long as it sounds good.

But in concert I’ve not always found my high expectations met by the famous names of “HIP” performance. At the Library of Congress, Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan disappointed on an admittedly high level and Herreweghe delivered a magnificent St. John’s Passion for Easter at Lincoln Center – but neither quite reached the most exalted of states.

Last week at the Herkulessaal it was Trevor Pinnock and his “Birthday-band”, The European Brandenburg Ensemble” who delighted in an unfulfilling way. Touring for almost a year and having played to audiences in Italy, Switzerland, Malaysia, South Korea, and the UK, they must have played all six Brandenburg Concertos some two dozen times, by now. In Munich, they concluded the season that had celebrated Trevor Pinnock’s 60th birthday (December 16th, 2006). Bach-worshipping as I am, even I might bore of these sublime concertos if I had to listen to – much less play – them day in and day out. At the very least,  I’d not be surprised if the spontaneous and improvisatory quality clearly wanted by Pinnock and his musicians (playing standing) might have given way to routine, at some point.

Apparently not in the concert at Cadogan Hall that had MusicWeb International’s Robert Costin elated with few caveats mentioned (see review.) But in Munich the luster was off in several of the six concertos. Not Pinnock himself – a man who looks like 1/3 Ian McKellen, 1/3 boarding school headmaster, and 1/3 indefatigable happy elf: he  played with zest and reasonable accuracy throughout sitting amid his collaborators. But the natural horns (Jocelyn Lightfoot, Andrew Clark) exposed the vulnerabilities of ‘authentic sound’ in the F-major concerto (BWV 1046) as did the shaky trumpet (David Blackadder) in the mercilessly difficult Second concerto in F-major. In the D-major concerto (BWV 1050) flutist Katy Bircher’s mellow, laudably air-less tone was not always audible but made even wrong notes sound pretty. In that proto-keyboard concerto, Pinnock’s fleet and steady playing largely kept the ensemble together and speed and agility were in ample display. The re-entry of the tutti section after the embellished and extensive cadenza was not quite the ‘moment’ it can be.

An entry that was magical  however, came in the Third Brandenburg Concerto G-major (BWV 1048) after the violin solo in the Adagio. The reason for the immense popularity of this all-strings concerto must the simplicity of its first movement – easy to remember and not very dull  at all. The third movement had the splendidly moving character as if driven by a flywheel. The Sixth concerto (B-major, BWV 1051) provided a charming calm for the middle movement after an intriguingly amorphous opening where the instrumental lines gave and took and became part of one another – a result of minimal delineation of the individual voices. Robert Ehrlich, the flutist, shone in the Second concerto as did the cellist Catherine Jones and violist Jane Rogers. It provided a generous finale to a concert that was by all means splendid – but just the same lacking in that sometimes intangible quality and spirit which makes for an outstanding experience. Having played the same six works for five nights in a row – as the ensemble had, by the time they arrived in Munich, would be more than an adequate excuse.