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Old School Brandenburgs

St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble, photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center
The Fortas Chamber Music Series decided to attempt to create a new holiday tradition in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, by importing a performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos from Lincoln Center. In each of two performances on Wednesday and Thursday, the Chamber Ensemble of the Orchestra of St. Luke's presented the entire set of six concertos in one evening, a feat that is manageable when the fast tempos are pressed ahead (although six individual stage set-ups add considerable time). Disappointingly, the group opted to present the concertos not in the order in which Bach copied them by hand into the manuscript to be offered to the Margrave of Brandenburg, whence the concertos' name.

Brandenburg Concertos:
available at Amazon
St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble

available at Amazon
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

available at Amazon
Il Giardino Armonico

available at Amazon
Concerto Italiano

available at Amazon
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
It is easy to understand the temptation of reordering: you can end both halves with the most popular concertos (the paired recorders of no. 4 and the clarino trumpet of no. 2, respectively, which allows the trumpeter to show up late, just in time for his only work on the program) and you can sandwich the enigmatic no. 6 (with its pairs of violas da gamba and solo violas -- what was Bach thinking?) in the middle of the first half, the slot normally reserved for unpalatable atonal music. Given what we know about Bach's practice of creating large forms when joining works together into sets, however, it is most likely that the choice of order was not only intentional but significant.

These were reputable performances, at times technically impressive and at others a little stodgy, that stood out as distinctly old-fashioned to ears familiar with any of the spectacular recordings by historically informed performance (HIP) ensembles of the last two decades. Here we had all modern instruments, no Baroque bows, flutes instead of recorders, French horns instead of corni da caccia, cellos instead of violas da gamba, and no violino piccolo. Why not a Steinway instead of a harpsichord? Throughout much of the evening the performances gave me flashbacks of listening to my parents' 1968 LP of Benjamin Britten's recording of the Brandenburgs with the English Chamber Orchestra, a set still in my collection and still occasionally given a spin on the old turntable for a misty-eyed bit of nostalgia. This is not to say that the only way to play the Brandenburg concertos is with HIP instruments, just that the experience is much more enjoyable that way.

Manuscript, Brandenburg Concerto no. 3

The solo oboe playing of Stephen Taylor stood out in no. 1 and throughout the evening for consistent tone and nimble embellishments, while Naoko Tanaka's violin solo was a little shallow and scratchy in no. 1. In the strange, low-lying no. 6 (placed at the end of the collection probably as a final statement of Bach's ability to write an interesting concerto for no matter what motley assortment of instruments), the two solo violas were not well matched in tone, which spoiled most of the piece's effect. Flutist Elizabeth Mann gave a penetrating and mercurial performance in her two big appearances, in no. 5 and as first recorder flute in no. 4. Violinist Krista Benion Feeney had a good handle on the blindingly fast runs in no. 4.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Germany's Tastiest Six-Pack (Washington Post, December 21)
Someone needs to tell harpsichordist Robert Wolinsky to stop mumbling and humming as he plays, and it may as well be me. It was obtrusive enough, especially in the exposed cadenza sections of no. 5 (where one really just wants to hear the notes, please), to bother me halfway up the auditorium. Carl Albach was generally amazing with his elongated piccolo trumpet on the stratospheric clarino part in no. 2, although the one or two notes at the peak of his range barely squeaked out. There were more than a few moments where a conductor could have helped keep the ensemble on the same track, as in no. 2 and the most complicated concerto, the wreath of interwoven strings in no. 3. A dictatorship can have a few advantages over a democracy, at least in keeping order.

If it's more Bach you want to hear, the Washington Bach Consort continues its 30th anniversary season with a program of Bach concertos for various combinations of violin and harpsichords, at the Harman Center for the Arts (January 20, 3 pm). The next concerts in the Fortas Chamber Music Series at the Kennedy Center will feature the Guarneri Quartet (January 10, 7:30 pm) and beloved soprano Dawn Upshaw (January 23, 7:30 pm).


Anonymous said...

Hey Charles. So, do you have a favorite recording of the Brandenburgs? Thanks & Happy Holidays.

Charles T. Downey said...

As I wrote this review, I thought that that, for a project next month, we need to have one of our mega-reviews on the Brandenburgs. In any case, at this point I am not ready to make a pronouncement on a favorite. Jens has just reviewed Trevor Pinnock's new version, which I have not heard yet. Dixit Jens: "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."

Of the HIP versions I have listed in the sidebar, I lean toward Concerto Italiano.

jfl said...

Concerto Italiano has the best 4 Seasons, EVER. When their "6BC" came out, I knew I needed to get it. Then I read a review in Gramophone Mag. that was supposed to be a rave - but made me less interested.

Then I heard excerpts on the Gramophone Mag accompanying disc and was unsure if I wanted to have it at all... and when I finally listened to it I was disappointed.

That said - I think I was expecting too much and did not give it the time it needed. I'd love to try it out again, now. It might well be my favorite, too (even though they are - if memory serves right - *awfully* wild in some places). Of the ones that I re-listened when going through Pinnock I & II, I found "Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin" (also listed by Charles above) very, very fine.

Also - non-HIP or half-HIP: K.Richter/Archiv & H.Rilling/Haenssler

Anonymous said...

Thank you both! Now I'll have to listen to the Concerto Italiano 4 Seasons, too. I have most loved Il Giardino Armonico's, so I'm excited for the 4 Seasons Olympics on my stereo. Happy Holidays -- your blog rocks!

jfl said...

If you liked Il Giardino's 4S, you'll love Concerto Italiano's. Il G's is the only one that gets even close to Concerto Italiano -- but the latter is still another step up. Let me know how you found it.

Charles T. Downey said...

I agree that Alessandrini is somewhere over the edge, but just enough and not too much so for my taste. However, I also agree with Jens that the Akademie f. A. M. would be my likely second choice and more likely to be broadly appealing.