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Savall's Brandenburgs

available at Amazon
Bach, Brandenburg Concertos, Le Concert des Nations, J. Savall

(re-released on June 8, 2010)
Alia Vox AVSA 9871 | 99'33"

No. 1 [20'56"]
No. 2 [12'19"]
No. 3 [11'39"]
No. 4 [15'02"]
No. 5 [20'41"]
No. 6 [17'48"]

Online scores:
BWV 1046-1051

available at Amazon
Bach, Brandenburg Concertos /
Four Orchestral Suites,
Dover Orchestral Scores
Alia Vox has also just re-released Jordi Savall's recording of the Brandenburg Concertos with his Baroque ensemble, Le Concert des Nations (originally made in the 1990s for the Astrée label and now at a very competitive price for a 2-CD set). This recording, while marvelous in many ways, does not rise to the top of my list of favorites -- all of them made by historically informed performance (HIP) ensembles -- in the same way that Savall's recording of Water Music and Music for a Royal Fireworks does. This is partly because the field of competition is so crowded with strong contenders, including the Bach Collegium Japan (studiously authentic), the new recording by Academy of Ancient Music (lovely if a little mild-mannered), Hogwood's invaluable earlier recording with the Academy of Ancient Music (full review still forthcoming), Concerto Italiano (extreme), Il Giardino Armonico (even more extreme, more on that one still to follow), and a few others.

Savall uses an ensemble of 25 players, a little larger than Bach's ensemble at Köthen, of whom Roman Hinke wrote that Bach intended the six concertos as a sort of musical portrait" (with the unusual instruments that Bach added to the mix, Savall's group seems about right). The rustic boisterousness of the horns strikes the right tone in no. 1, although there are some overly raucous moments in the first and third movements. Like the Water Music recording, the phrasing is often delectable, not as razor-thin as other HIP bands tend toward but lush of line. Embellishments on repeats are also delightful, as in the winds-only trio of no. 1's menuetto. Tempi are also a nice balance of smooth and sprightly, like the fluffy Polacca of no. 1, in a rarefied one, roughly at double-time of the Menuetto's tempo, which is what the shift from 3/4 to 3/8 would seem to indicate -- although the second trio's 2/4 is not taken in proportion. No one could complain about Savall's concertmaster at the time, one Fabio Biondi, on the rather gorgeous violino piccolo in no. 1 (a French instrument from the 18th century) or on the lead violin parts throughout (except perhaps for a tendency to rush in the first movement of no. 4).

No. 5 unites Biondi on the violin solo, Pierre Hantaï on the harpsichord, and his brother Marc Hantaï on the flauto traverso, making it one of the highlights of this set, especially the frenzied and blisteringly virtuosic harpsichord cadenza in the first movement, and the embellishments added, especially in the slow movement. No. 2 has a nice trumpet with just a bit of blaat in its mid-range, but like the horns in no. 1, not as good as some other recordings, and the flauto dolce is a little squealy -- unlike the beautiful pair of recorders in no. 4. No. 3 has some individual disappointments as Bach exposes each of the nine string players: Bruno Cocset sounds just fine on the second cello part. The mysterious transitional pair of chords between the first and last movements is introduced by a nice but brief improvisation by Pierre Hantaï on the harpsichord. The other highlight of the set is lowly no. 6, probably the least-performed and known of the six concertos because of its unusual instrumentation. It is the obverse side of the coin from Rinaldo Alessandrini's lean and taut version -- my other favorite for no. 6 -- with amiable tempo choices leading to a mellower timing longer by over two minutes. The viola da braccio has never sounded as good as heard from the two musicians here, and one would expect Jordi Savall to have excellent viola da gamba players. The surprise is that he is not one of them, presiding instead from the somber basso di viola (a Barak Norman instrument, made in London in 1697), on the part marked "violoncello" in most scores, and sounding like sagacity itself.

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