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Academy of Ancient Music, Orchestral Suites

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J. S. Bach, Orchestral Suites, Academy of Ancient Music, R. Egarr

(released on November 18, 2014)
AAM003 | 93'49"
Christopher Hogwood is no longer with us, but the Academy of Ancient Music, the group he founded in 1973, is still going strong. Under the leadership of Richard Egarr, the group has made tour stops in Washington in 2009, to perform the Brandenburg Concertos, and in 2007, at the National Gallery of Art. The distinguished historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble appeared on Saturday evening in the Music Center at Strathmore, playing all four of Bach's orchestral suites, music to be released later this month on their new new personal record label, inaugurated this year.

As examined in some detail in my round-up of recent recordings of the orchestral suites, we have a lot more questions about these pieces than we used to. (In the booklet essay for the new AAM recording, scholar Christoph Wolff lays out the current understanding of when and why Bach composed these works.) Egarr has chosen to perform them with extremely small forces, all one musician on a part, including the string parts. On one hand the small ensemble made a sound perhaps too delicate for the large hall at Strathmore, where the audience was not able to fill the space either. On the other hand, this solved most of the balance problems, caused by delicate wind instruments, especially the historical versions played by this ensemble, being covered by too many strings. This worked just fine in the largest of the suites, no. 4, which came first on the program, with the three trumpets and timpani well behind the other players and never overpowering them. Bassoonist Ursula Leveaux had the first of many virtuosic turns in the Bourrées, cascades of smooth running notes over which the oboes chirped contentedly. Egarr, seated at the harpsichord, had considerable fun adding effects here and there on the continuo part, like a sort earthquake rumble in the concluding Réjouissance.

Other Reviews:

Patrick Rucker, Academy of Ancient Music gives Bach's Orchestral Suites the royal treatment (Washington Post, November 10)
Having just one string player on each part helped most obviously in no. 2, where the delicate traverso sound of Rachel Brown could be heard more clearly. The Rondeau was pleasingly sparkly, the Sarabande suave, and the Polonaise weighty and pleasingly rustic. The Badinerie, accelerated to a breathless pace on some recordings, here was more chatty than manic, leaving room for some complex embellishments. No. 1 put the three fine oboe players, and again the bassoon, in the spotlight and to good effect, with a breezy Courante, a smooth Forlane and Passepied, and exceptionally mellow Minuets, the last featuring just the highest four string instruments and plenty of embellishments from first violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk and Egarr at the harpischord. Only in no. 3 did Egarr seem to push the tempo of the Overture, again displaying the remarkable accuracy of the three trumpets, who benefited most from the lowered pitch used by the ensemble. Wisely, the musicians did not allow this suite's famous Air to wallow in a slow tempo, but not pushing it beyond a graceful pacing, again with Beznosiuk shaking things up with many embellishments.

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