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Brandenburg Concertos, Part 1

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Bach, Brandenburg Concertos / Four Orchestral Suites, Dover Orchestral Scores ($13.22)

Online score
Since the last time we reviewed a complete performance of the Brandenburg Concertos, there has been talk of one of our big recording surveys of these six pieces. Now that this season promises a much more satisfactory live performance of the set, by the Academy of Ancient Music (at the George Mason University Center for the Arts on March 22), it seems as good a time as any (see also the article Jens published at the WETA Web site). The AAM tour coincides with the release of their new and very fine recording of the complete set. Theirs is one of several versions of the Brandenburgs that are at the top of my recommended list, offered here in a series as a preview for the concert. My assumption, which is not necessarily one every listener would make, is that a historically informed performance (HIP) version is a must if you are going to own only one recording of the Brandenburgs. What exactly that means, and how different groups have tried to solve the set's various puzzles, still offers many variations. These are all excellent recordings and would be worthy choices for someone looking to buy a recording. A few thoughts about each one are noted below.

The title of the concerti comes from the dedicatee of a manuscript version of the six concerti, on which version almost all performances and recordings are based. The Margrave of Brandenburg had a court ensemble of his own but one that was too small to play most of the pieces in the collection: the concertos in Bach's manuscript appear instead to have been intended for his own ensemble at Köthen, where his employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, had snatched up many of the top musicians from the Royal Prussian Kapelle, recently shut down in Berlin. As Roman Hinke has put it, "It is almost as if Bach intended the famous group of six concertos as a musical portrait of his orchestra." If that is true, then it would be anachronistic to perform the Brandenburg Concertos with any more than 17 or 18 players, which is how many Bach had at Köthen (at maximum, assuming he could call in special instruments like the horns upon special occasion).

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Bach Collegium Japan
(Masaaki Suzuki), Pitch A392

BIS-CD-1151/1152 ($43.98)

No. 1 [19'44"]
No. 2 [11'33"]
No. 3 [11'37"]
No. 4 [15'21"]
No. 5 [20'07"]
No. 6 [17'01"]
Bach Collegium Japan has been very thorough in its attempt to recreate an authentic performance, with copious liner notes in small print to document the process. No. 1 has a superabundance of favoriti instruments, and it can often sound like a jumble of sounds as they all vie for preeminence in the mix. Masaaki Suzuki gives his excellent horn players, on real corni da caccia, top billing in the first and third movements, and they have an excellent sound, better than the three oboes. He gets credit for using an actual violino piccolo for the solo, but the balance has not been calibrated to it, so it often gets lost. The dance movements have a beautiful balletic feel to the movements, and charming embellishments are added on each of the many repeats of the Menuetto, not least by Suzuki himself at the harpsichord. The transition between second and third movements, a series of disjointed chords, is handled with a sense of mystery.

No. 2 is a disappointment for its squealy, out-of-tune trumpet solo (the player opts for an instrument that requires all pitches to be reached only by lip-bending -- this is a case where it may be impossible to recreate the sound Bach had in mind, a trumpet in F, called for in none of Bach's other works), and the wind solos (oboe and especially recorder) are often covered. No. 3 has a contrabass covering the violone part, and it often sounds too muddy to my ears. Suzuki improvises for a minute and a half (inspired by Bach's E minor toccata) as a solution to the enigmatic middle "movement" (two chords marked Adagio -- actually the same Phrygian cadence, even in the same key, as at the end of no. 4's slow movement), with his lead violinist, Ryo Terakado, entering near the end and providing a link to a breathlessly paced third movement. The first movement of no. 4 is a little frenetic, with the tempo not quite settled in place but definitely too rapid for the violin soloist's 32nd notes, although the recorders sound delightfully hooty.

No. 5 may be the most directly related to the genesis of the concerto set, Bach's 1719 trip to Berlin to retrieve a top-of-the-line new harpsichord for Prince Leopold (although the part does not really require a two-manual instrument). Suzuki's turn at the famous cadenza is not particularly striking, although certainly well played, which pretty much sums up the entire concerto, aside from the authentic woody tone of the flauto traverso, whose gentle tone puts a brake on the performance in terms of fullness. One of the best results from the one-player-per-part approach taken here (and in most of the versions to be discussed) is in the sixth concerto, which allows the unusual timbers and baritonal range of the instruments -- two violas, cello, and two violas da gamba (the latter with simpler parts likely intended for the Prince and other amateurs) -- to blossom. This version has a bonus track, BWV 1050a, an early version of the first movement of no. 5.

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Concerto Italiano
Rinaldo Alessandrini

Naïve OP 30412 ($33.99)

No. 1 [20'51"]
No. 2 [11'10"]
No. 3 [9'57"]
No. 4 [14'31"]
No. 5 [22'06"]
No. 6 [15'13"]
Rinaldo Alessandrini's biting, even blistering performances with Concerto Italiano generally appeal to me, and the visceral punch of many of the movements on their Brandenburg set is in the same vein. No. 1 is an amiable mixture of rusticity and refinement, with horns not quite as adventurous and a sweet violino piccolo sound (surprisingly, Alessandrini's interpretation is much mellower than Il Giardino Armonico's version of this concerto -- more about that soon). No. 2 has a blindingly fast first movement, although it tends to rush almost out of control. The trumpet solos are done with bravura, a little squawky on trills, but the recorder solo is often lost. Alessandrini, while admitting other solutions in the liner notes, considers the middle movement as not a movement at all, but a transitional passage from the end of the first movement into the last one, embroidered only by a little harpsichord flourish. He, too, throws in a bonus track, the Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 174 (Ich liebe den Hochsten von ganzem Gemute), a reworking of no. 3's first movement for a larger orchestration.

Alessandrini cooks up one of the more brilliant versions of no. 4, with rapid tempi shaving nearly a minute from Suzuki's timing, for example. Careful control of articulations and layering of polyphonic lines pays off here and in many of the concerti, as contrapuntal details pop occasionally out of the texture. In several of the concerti, Alessandrini's trademark way of ending fast movements -- absolutely no adjustment of tempo or dynamic, driving mercilessly to a clipped final note -- has its intended effect. One would expect a more rigorous approach to no. 5 from Alessandrini, but while his playing on the harpsichord solo is virtuosic (as another bonus, he also includes the alternate form of the first movement's cadenza, from the first version of the concerto), he takes most of the customary pauses and hesitations to delineate sections. The oddest part is the pitch bending done by the traverso player for the chromatic trills, a slightly unsettling effect that initially made me think my sound equipment was having some sort of crisis. No. 6 is another one of my favorites in this set, with all of the movements played much faster than they are on most other recordings (the timing is almost two minutes shorter than on Bach Collegium Japan's recording, for example). It makes this dark-leaning concerto much less lugubrious.

One side note -- in a thorough survey of the Brandenburgs and recorded sets, Peter Gutmann wonders about the cover of the Concerto Italiano set, a photograph by Julia Fullerton-Batten that shows a stag looking out the window of a parking lot ramp. When I first saw it, I assumed the meaning was an art-historical reference, because the stag is an iconographic symbol for the sense of hearing, suggested for example by Cesare Ripa in his Iconologia as the symbol to be placed near a picture of a woman playing an instrument (as seen carried out in Jan Brueghel the Elder's 1618 allegorical painting The Sense of Hearing). Not sure if that is why the photo was chosen as cover art, but it's better than no explanation at all.

To be continued.


Anonymous said...

Call me old fashioned, but there is no performance I enjoy more than Karl Ristenpart; indeed, all Bach by Ristenpart is top of the list.

Charles T. Downey said...

You're old-fashioned.

And that's OK! I mentioned in a previous review that I grew up on my parents' 1968 LP of Benjamin Britten's recording of the Brandenburgs with the English Chamber Orchestra. I still have that set in my collection and still occasionally given a spin on the old turntable for a misty-eyed bit of nostalgia. Clearly, I should listen to more Ristenpart.

Anonymous said...

Well, I can't overlook the irony that somebody who prefers modern instruments is called old-fashioned and that somebody who prefers old instruments is called modern! :-)