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Briefly Noted: Freiburg's Orchestral Suites

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Bach, Orchestral Suites (Ouvertures), Freiburger Barockorchester, P. Müllejans, G. von der Goltz

(released on November 8, 2011)
HMC 902113.14 | 93'42"
You may think you know exactly what Bach's orchestral suites are and what they sound like, but little has been certain about the origins of these familiar pieces since American musicologist Joshua Rifkin called much about them into question. Several excellent recent recordings, made since Rifkin's scholarly reassessment of the suites, in 1997, make it possible to think about them from many angles. Monica Huggett's speculative reconstruction of the three of the four lost originals, with Ensemble Sonnerie (Avie Records -- on Naxos ML), is one of the more thought-provoking. Just like the best of the pre-1997 recordings -- Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert (Archiv/DG) and the Academy of Ancient Music (L'Oiseau-Lyre/Decca, now packaged with the two double-harpsichord concertos, with a young Christophe Rousset joining Christopher Hogwood, and Lisa Beznosiuk on flute in no. 2) -- this new version from the Freiburger Barockorchester takes the Leipzig sources more or less at face value, with the usual corrections, reflecting Bach's (possibly hasty) recycling of these older pieces later in his career.

Although the string playing is bright and unified, as one expects of the Freiburg musicians, it is the woodwind performances that stand out here, including several delightful bassoon solos (Javier Zafra) and bubbly oboes (Katharina Arfken, Andreas Helm, and Thomas Meraner), recorded with key clicks and all. Flutist Karl Kaiser absolutely dazzles in the chatty Badinerie of the second suite, paced as quickly as the breathless version from Concerto Köln (Berlin Classics -- on Naxos ML) but trumps it by adding the most ornate embellishments ever witnessed by these ears in this piece, probably the most famous in the four suites. The only piece that might be better known, the often-oversweetened air from no. 3, is given a legato, almost sotto voce feel, liltingly Andante rather than soupy.

These qualities place it among, but do not necessarily displace, the best recent competition. My favorites remain the recordings of Bach Collegium Japan (BIS), on which Masaaki Suzuki perfectly captured the regal qualities of the fourth suite (clarion trumpets and the best-placed crescendo swells, which give the pedal points delicious tension), my favorite in the set, not to mention a suave, almost laid-back, but still very fast Badinerie; Jordi Savall's recording with Le Concert des Nations (Alia Vox -- listen on YouTube) has a grand and slow, dignified quality (as in the slow section of the first suite's opening movement) and some cool figuration on the harpsichord, although the intonation overall is not as perfect and the trumpets are not as polished; Diego Fasolis takes some very fast tempos with his group, I Barocchisti (Arts -- listen on YouTube), which makes the third suite sparkle with energy, without quite sounding clipped (as Café Zimmermann recording of no. 3 does just a bit). The recording by Tafelmusik is also good but omits the second suite, and the Freiburgers' competition on the Harmonia Mundi label, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, is a reissue of an older recording, good but not among my favorites.

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