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Richard Egarr’s Brandenburg Concertos

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Brandenburg Concertos,
R.Egarr / Academy of Ancient Music
Harmonia Mundi

Recordings of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are ample; deducting for duplications and compilations, ArkivMusic lists about 50 available complete versions. Most of them could be lumped into two categories: Historically Informed Performances (HIP), and ‘old fashioned performances’. Of course that’s a gross simplification, especially when the latter category is supposed to contain, much less describe, interpretations by performers as different as the Busch Chamber Players (re-issued on EMI Great Recordings of the Century), Cortot / Orchestre de l’École Normale de MusiqueKarajan / BPOBenjamin Britten / ECO, Karl Richter/Munich Bach Orchestra, and Marinner/Academy of St.Martin in the Fields. But then man is a categorizing animal and likes those kinds of classifications and won’t be deterred, even when some performances, like Helmut Rilling / Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra and Helmut Müller-Brühl / Cologne Chamber Orchestra, peskily straddle the fence.

Conveniently, this fairly recent addition to the catalog on Harmonia Mundi with the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) under its (then new) Music Director Richard Egarr fits the much more confined former category of “HIP”, though that hardly means less competition. On a twofer of the same label (and re-issued in 2010), we can find the truly excellent version of the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin. Egarr’s predecessor Christopher Hogwood recorded theBrandenburg Concertos with the AAM, not even 20 years ago (still available on L’oiseau-Lyre / London). Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus (Teldec) vie for our attention, as do Il Giardino Armonico (also Teldec), Ton Koopman / ABO (Erato, oop / Apex), Martin Perlman / Boston Baroque (Telarc), Jan Willem de Vriend / Combattimento Consort Amsterdam (Challenge), Reinhard Goebel / Musica Antiqua Köln, and Pinnock/English Concert (both Archiv). And that’s just of the top of my head (or CD shelf, as it were).

Unfortunately I didn’t have the old AAM disc handy for comparison, but the two most recent major period instrument releases—Alessandrini/Concerto Italiano on Naïve and Pinnock/Brandenburg Ensemble on Avie (reviewed in concert and on CD)—served nicely to elucidate contrast and similarities. Egarr and Alessandrini use one player per part; Pinnock mostly uses a small ensemble, switching to one-to-a-part only for the Fifth Concerto...

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Brandenburg Concertos,
R.Alessandrini / Concerto Italiano

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Brandenburg Concertos,
T.Pinnock / EBE

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Brandenburg Concertos,
J.Savall / Le Concert des Nations
Alia Vox

Egarr presents the concertos in order, and the First Concerto starts boldly with a dark and round, slightly stuffed horn sound, perfectly executed by the natural horn players Andrew Clark and David Bentley. When these (natural) horns barge in with the excitement of an ensuing hunt, it’s never without hearing the difficulties involved, but here less so than on many other recordings. The darkness has a reason: Egarr chose the ‘French’ Baroque pitch for this recording, which, at A = 392 Hz, is another semitone lower than the standard baroque pitch of A415. Even Pinnock, who records at the latter pitch, mentions the temptation of exploring these works at A390, which was the ‘Cammerton’ in Köthen during Bach’s time.

Egarr’s swift Adagio (compare his 3:09 to Alessandrini’s 4:02 or Pinnock’s 3:39), doesn’t indulge his oboists and the violino piccolo very much, but establishes a pleasantly fresh pulse. The ritardando in the third movement (Allegro) of the First Concerto, just before the music jolts back out of this brief contemplative point, is massive. Although Alessandrini beats him in extensiveness by stretching it to 25, not just 20, seconds and coming to a complete halt, Egarr makes it sound even more audacious by starting it a few notes earlier, keeping the music going throughout, and then bolts on even more explosively than Concerto Italiano does. Compared to that, Pinnock just about ignores the ritardando, being through and done with it in 10 seconds and never letting it interrupt the flow of the music.

The Menuet is a nervously, yet steadily chugging little thing in Alessandrini’s hands, a bright and graceful dancing movement with Pinnock. With Egarr it has a contemplative, incredibly sensuous flow. Or, to put a less positive spin on it: it’s a case of muffled lurching. It’s quite beautiful, actually, but direct comparison (fortunately not a common way of listening to this music) treats Egarr’s 9:51 less kindly than does enjoyment in splendid isolation. Pinnock takes 7:32 and Alessandrini just over 7 minutes if you deduct all the Menuet-repeats, including the “Grand Reprise” for the last Menuet, he takes.

Egarr has no time for any cadenza-improvising or movement-substituting between the two Adagio-chords of the Third Concerto, stating in the accompanying notes that “Bach’s ‘Bar’ [the one containing these two chords] is perfect’” and citing (initially) compelling mathematical context in his support.

The Presto from the Fourth Concerto just purls along with gentle ease, Egarr’s finely spun harpsichord interjections make Pinnock sound comparatively earthbound. The flute vibrato in the opening Allegro of the Fifth Concerto is tasteful enough, not as overt as with Alessandrini and not as borderline out-of-tune as with Pinnock. The vibrancy of the violin and flute part in the Affetuoso has its charm, but isn’t as elegant as the longer lines Alessandrini affords. The concludingAllegro could stand in for much of the general differences between these recordings: Egarr buoyant, unintrusive, with a soft flexibility to the ensemble’s tone, Alessandrini explosive with a bit more edge, and Pinnock in-between, rawer, occasionally just a little heavier, and the harpsichord more up-front.

In Egarr’s recording I particularly love the silken airiness of the Second Concerto’sAllegro and the—musicologically incorrect—use of theorbo basso continuo throughout and,—most imaginatively—instead (!) of the harpsichord in the Adagio ma non tanto of the Sixth Concerto. To quote Egarr, who readily admits there being no historical context for either theorbo or guitar (employed in the Fifth Concerto), the added continuo color was “a delicious luxury which [he] couldn’t forgo.”

From his previous recordings, I’ve never found Richard Egarr to be a man of extremes, and he performs these works with a well-judged moderation, too. His Allegros are not quite so fast, his Adagios not overly slow, his accents lively but not spiked. His touch on the harpsichord is soft and ever-deft. He doesn’t set out to shock (not even peripherally), or primarily excite, but to delight. This warm touch reminds of Jordi Savall’s version with Le Concert des Nations more than any other HIP account I know.

The sound is excellent: rich and with lots of room to bloom—although on the soft side, further emphasizing the character of the interpretation. Voices are not aseasily separable as in the Alessandrini recording, which offers more clarity. The presentation of the SACD Surround capable recording is up to Harmonia Mundi’s usual high standards, the liner notes by Richard Egarr (in English, French, German) eminently worth reading, and information on all the musicians and the instruments they use is given in well chosen and readable fonts.

The continued improvements in the skill of playing original instruments are still notable. I used to think that Pinnock’s English Concert recording was about as good as it gets – a notion I was disabused of by many subsequent groups bettering that laudable effort. Egarr won’t be the last word in this progression, either, but the increments are getting smaller and smaller. No doubt related to the general mellowness of this version, I find it a small but decided improvement even over Pinnock/Avie. Favorite HIP versions are the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin (HMU) and Savall (Naïve); Egarr joins them. Is this a must-have for anyone who already enjoys one or two HIP Brandenburgs in their collection? Of course not. Will you want to add it, anyway? You bet.

The Brandenburg Concertos on ionarts:

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

Adolf Busch’s Brandenburg Concertos [22.7.12]

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]