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More Brandenburgs, Top Shelf (Part 1)

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Il Giardino Armonico


No. 1 [18'09"]
No. 2 [10'58"]
No. 3 [10'44"]
No. 4 [15'06"]
No. 5 [20'45"]
No. 6 [16'30"]

Online scores:
BWV 1046-1051

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Bach, Brandenburg Concertos /
Four Orchestral Suites,
Dover Orchestral Scores
If pressed to choose among the top Brandenburg concerto recordings released by historically informed performance (HIP) ensembles, I might choose this one made by Il Giardino Armonico. Even after having listened to these concertos so many times, the tempo and articulation choices made by Giovanni Antonini do not fail to surprise. He does not win the rapidity contest in all cases, losing sometimes in the race for the shortest timings to Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano. While there is a harshness at times to Alessandrini's rigorous pacing, these recordings have an organic feeling, making the tempo choice seem mostly natural, suited to the work rather than imposed from without, with the possible exception of the blurred 32nd note runs in the solo violin in no. 4. Otherwise, lead violinist Enrico Onofri is brilliant and does give a lovely improvised introduction to those famous two chords of the middle movement of no. 3.

Fine solo performances come from Antonini himself, with virtuoso turns on recorder in nos. 2 and 4, as well as the sparkling traverso in no. 5. Other standouts come from harpsichordist Michele Barchi, who livens many of the quieter moments with very inventive continuo realization: the keyboard cadenza of no. 5 is not quite as unhinged as that of Pierre Hantaï on the Savall recording but comes a close second. I love the addition of the lute to no. 6 (and at least no. 1, too) -- played here by Luca Pianca, who helped Antonini found the ensemble -- even if it was not likely to have been found in Bach's ensemble at Köthen. (Richard Egarr did the same thing in his new recording with the Academy of Ancient Music.) However, if you are looking for a refined, red-velvet kind of Brandenburg set, this is not for you. Such listeners beginning at the beginning with no. 1 will likely be especially put off by the brashness of the Baroque horns, which sound like the proverbial bulls in the China shop they were intended to be, visitors from the hunting party traipsing into the noble salon with their muddy boots.

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Academy of Ancient Music
(Christopher Hogwood)


No. 1 [13'36"]
No. 2 [11'18"]
No. 3 [10'37"]
No. 4 [14'51"]
No. 5 [18'24"]
No. 6 [16'31"]
Even if you think you need only one recording of the Brandenburgs, think again. In the infancy of the HIP movement, Christopher Hogwood made this recording of the earliest known versions of the concertos, with the Academy of Ancient Music (repackaged at a reduced price by Decca from the original L'Oiseau-Lyre release, and not to be confused with Richard Egarr's new recording with the present version of that legendary ensemble). Bach first composed the pieces that we now know as the Brandenburg Concertos for use in his positions at Weimar and Köthen, later adapting and copying them into the manuscript dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg, from which almost all modern performances are taken. Mostly, Hogwood worked from copies made by a student in Leipzig and the Kantor who succeeded Bach there, with some work from other copies of early versions, all laid out by Heinrich Besseler in the critical notes of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (earlier recordings, made at the suggestion of musicologist Thurston Dart, attempted something similar).

Some of the concertos sound so different in these versions that it will alter the way you understand each of them, while some have only minor differences. No. 1, for example, is found without the third movement and the Polacca of the dance movement, which were both added by Bach when he put together the Brandenburg manuscript. Furthermore, the original version of the dance movement's second trio pairs the two horns with a much jauntier line for the violins in unison instead of the rather different one Bach wrote later for the three oboes. For no. 5 Hogwood chose the copy made by Bach's student Altnickol, which makes it quite clear that the piece was conceived for only six players: Hogwood goes so far as to suggest that the version Bach created for the Brandenburg manuscript -- one cannot help but miss the extended keyboard "cadenza" in the Brandenburg version, written by Bach in a way that seems to call for an instrument with a pedal-board -- is "an abnormal text created for some specific purpose." The shorter version played by Hogwood has its own charms.

Bach made numerous slight changes from the original versions in the Brandenburg manuscript, minor differences of rhythm and pitch (some of which, it could be argued, are scribal errors) that stand out to a listener familiar with the pieces in their later form. Not surprisingly, for recordings made in the 1980s -- the heady halcyon days of the HIP movement -- the horns and trumpet could be more accurate, the strings less strident, and the tempi crisper (after listening to Alessandrini and Antonini, some of the fast movements seems positively staid). Interestingly, the other sources tell us nothing further about the two chords that serve as the "middle movement" of no. 3: Hogwood sees them only as "a momentary break in the momentum" and adds only a slight improvisation in the violin.

1 comment:

jfl said...

Another, complimentary take on Egarr / Alessandrini / Pinnock II: "Egarr's Brandenburg Concertos" (WETA).