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Brandenburg Concertos, Part 2

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Charles T. Downey, Academy of Ancient Music Plays Brandenburg Concertos
Washington Post, March 24, 2009

Academy of Ancient Music
George Mason University Center for the Arts
J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concertos

Dover study score | Online score | Part 1

available at Amazon
Bach, Brandenburg Concertos, Academy of Ancient Music, R. Egarr

(released on March 10, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807461.62 ($37.78)

No. 1 [21'38"]
No. 2 [11'15"]
No. 3 [11'00"]
No. 4 [14'43"]
No. 5 [21'15"]
No. 6 [16'06"]
Richard Egarr's new recording of the Brandenburg Concertos with the Academy of Ancient Music is not the most daring version when compared to the racier sets by Concerto Italiano and Il Giardino Armonico, but it may strike the best overall balance between musicological rigor and concessions made for musical interest. The pitch is set at A392Hz, so-called French Baroque pitch, since Bach's wind players mostly used French instruments at this lower pitch, and Egarr has his Katzman harpsichord tuned in ordinaire temperament, not the one proposed by Bradley Lehman as Bach's special temperament. Egarr embraces the historically informed performance practice of assigning one player to each part, describing the Brandenburgs in his liner notes as "some of the best chamber music ever penned." In that sense, it would be wrong to attribute these versions only to Egarr, for he has taken a collaborative approach to leading the ensemble, leaving many decisions to the other players.

Egarr describes No. 1 as a "processional," an introduction to some of the contrasts embedded in the scores, with glissando-ing natural horns striking a decidedly rural tone in the first movement, only to introduce learned ornaments in their big trio in the dance suite. Rodolfo Richter plays the violino piccolo parts on an actual 17th-century instrument (Jacobus Stainer, 1659), an instrument that produces a dulcet ribbon of sound. Egarr is generally not the one to push tempi beyond the breaking point, so the timings are generally on the longer side: for example, he chooses a stately tempo for the minuet, which allows him to make the right proportional tempo distinctions for the dances in 3/8 and 2/4. No. 2 has a fairly mellow trumpet solo, made a little more relaxed because of the lowered pitch, allowing the trumpet to be only of a group of solo instruments. It's a crisp performance, with pleasing rhythmic vitality although the tempi are not all that fast, except the second movement, where the three solo lines introduce lovely ornamentation. In No. 3 Egarr chooses to perform the mysterious one-measure Adagio second movement basically as written, with a few harpsichord arpeggiations to stretch it out, on the basis of a numerological theory that this "movement" is actually the missing bar to round out a perfect number in the third movement.

While it would not be fair to describe this set as staid, many of the performances seem cut too much from the same cloth, generally with a big pause or marking of the return of the ritornello in the home key and an overly mannered rallentando to mark the ending of many movements. Egarr described No. 4 as an example of "virtuosity for virtuosity's sake," and the group turns in one of the shorter timings of the work, with bubbly playing on the twin soprano recorders and Richter on the solo violin, particularly breath-taking in the third movement. Egarr's performance on the harpsichord solo part of No. 5 is typical of his highly skilled but not showboat-ish manner of playing, perhaps most lovely in the second movement, treated essentially like a trio sonata of three equals. Although Egarr admits that adding theorbo to the continuo line in all of the concertos (replaced by Baroque guitar here on No. 5) is not historically accurate as far as the forces Bach had at hand, he describes the sound as a delicious luxury. Nowhere is that more true than in the middle movement of No. 6 where the harpsichord drops off the continuo part, to leave the theorbo to provide the harmony for an all-string sound.


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