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Adolf Busch’s Brandenburg Concertos

Recordings can be a stark reminder how time flies. It didn’t seem that long ago that historically informed performances of, say, the Brandenburg Concertos, still had an air of novelty about them. Now the first HIP recordings could be considered historical. Formerly progressive approaches - first Richter, then Rilling – strike one as old-fashioned, and what once were historical recordings seem downright ancient. That contrast could not have been made more clear with one of the most recent and one of the oldest recordings of these Brandenburg concertos appearing on my desk at the same time.

Richard Egarr’s recording with his Academy of Ancient Musick on Harmonia Mundi represents the latest in HIP Bach (see YouTube video) and is reviewed here. EMI’s re-issue of the 1935/36 recordings of Adolf Busch and his Busch Chamber Players (made at the Abbey Road Studios in London) stands at the other extreme. That said, Busch & Co. could be said to have been the HIPsters of their time.

Direct comparison is telling and interesting, but useless when it comes to deciding whether they are competitive releases. The purposes are different. No one will or should get a 70+ year old recording as the first or only recording of these works, even one where the sound is as decent as on these newly re-mastered discs. Busch operates outside the competition or, rather, within the historic division which includes Alfred Cortot and his École Normal de Musique - the first recording of all six concertos, also on EMI Classics - as the obvious competitor. You can perhaps count Pablo Casals’ 1950 Prades Festival recording (Pearl ) or his Marloboro Festival Recordings (Sony, 1-3, 4-6) in the same company.

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Overtures,
Adolf Busch / Busch Chamber Players

What does state of the art 1935 sound mean in 2009? Well, it means “perfectly listenable”. It means that all the necessary musical and interpretive information is easily communicated. It means that the re-mastering did not have to zap the recording’s soul to leave us with the kind of minimal background hiss that does not cause quick listening fatigue... in other words: a quality that still beats listening to (non digital) radio by a good margin.

My impression of the Busch recording was bemused skepticism at first. It has, upon a few more listens, changed to bemused admiration and casual joy. I don’t see myself becoming zealous about this recording, but the felt and warm urgency of the music-making combined with the glory that is Bach induces a broad smile. The First Concerto might open with an Allegro that our spoiled ears find staid, but at the very latest when we reach the galloping Third Concerto (played one-to-a-part by Busch’s proto-HIPsters!) it becomes clear that Busch and his friends were, when playing Bach, not bound by the traditions of their time. How much of a Bach playing tradition was there, anyway, in these works? Nor are they shackled to the interpretive styles then associated with other music.

Sure, there are ‘anachronisms’ here and there - and a few off-notes - but this is miles away from the British “bigger-is-better” Handel oratorio style that occasionally spilled over to Bach’s choral works around that time. What Karl Richter was to Bach performance in the 1960s, Busch must have been in the 1930s. The Busch Players used viola da gambas and George Eskdale played on a Bach trumpet he had made. Only Busch’s son-in-law - Rudolf Serkin – opted for a concert grand rather than a harpsichord.

In the thoughtful new liner-notes, Tully Potter suggests that knowing the dreary big-band performances that Busch was reacting against would heighten our appreciation especially of the novelty of these interpretations. More important for me, Busch’s relative modernity allows us to hear much of what was different in the musical approach to Bach in that time without having to hear all that which was unambiguously worse. It's like opening a page of a history book to which we can still relate enough for it to be meaningful.

I find slightly less appeal in the old-style Orchestral Suites that are also included on this three disc set, but for curiosity’s sake alone they’re a fine bonus.

The Brandenburg Concertos on ionarts:

Dip Your Ears, No. 122 (Kuijken's Third Brandenburgs) [23.7.12]

Richard Egarr’s Brandenburg Concertos [21.7.12]

Best Recordings of 2010 (# 8) [10.12.10]

More Brandenburgs, Top Shelf (Part 1) [9.8.10]

Savall's Brandenburgs [7.8.10]

Brandenburg Concertos, Part 1 [11.3.09]

Brandenburg Concertos, Part 2 [25.3.09]

Old School Brandenburgs [21.12.07]

Trever Pinnock: Bach Again, at 61 [14.12.07]

Dip Your Ears, No. 75 (Loussier's Brandenburgs) [26.1.07]