Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Trevor Pinnock, European Brandenburg Ensemble. Avie AV 2119.

There was already a plethora of Brandenburg Concertos discs on the market before Trevor Pinnock recorded them for the first time with his English Concert in the Eighties. But his recordings rightly soared to the top of many critics' lists of recommendations for their vivacity, enthusiasm, authentic performance practices, and admirably clear sonics. So why would he convene an all-new cast of period-instruments performers in 2006-07 to rerecord them for Avie? My first thought was pretty cynical: I wondered if he didn't want to capitalize on the popularity of his earlier set to sell a new one to curious fans. Fortunately, my cynicism proved unfounded. These new Brandenburgs are sufficiently different and sufficiently better recorded to warrant a listen. Indeed, they may even surpass Pinnock's first set.

In the booklet notes, Pinnock explains that "eager to cut through any narrow conceptions of period style I invited players from different countries and of different generations to join my new voyage of exploration." With Pinnock directing from the harpsichord, the new performances appear more relaxed than his older ones, although never lax.

You remember that Bach's Brandenburg Concertos sound different from one another because the composer never meant them to be a cohesive group. Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg commissioned Bach to write several pieces for him, and what he got a few years later was a collection of six works for various-sized ensembles and various solo instruments that Bach had probably composed at various times for various other occasions. More or less.

Concerto No. 1 is among the longest of the Brandenburgs and arranged for the biggest ensemble. It is also my least favorite. Under Pinnock it is one of the most gently played and subdued renderings I've ever heard of the work. All seventeen of Pinnock's players become involved, the "hunting horns" rotating with solo violin for prominence in the movements. The dances in the final section flow gracefully, fluidly, regally, rather than knocking us on our head.

Concerto No. 2 is among the most popular of the pieces and highlights the oboe, recorder, violin, and trumpet, the latter getting in some good playing time. It is the bounciest of the six concertos, but unlike the breathless readings of some of Pinnock's rivals, this interpretation races forward at a leisurely pace, yet without ever losing its forward thrust or momentum. What's more, the slow middle movement sounds more wistful than ever.

Listeners probably know Concerto No. 3 as well as they know No. 2, maybe even more so. Here, Pinnock and his crew are lively and vibrant without being tiresome or stressful. More than in the other concertos, No. 3 is pure ensemble work, and the players work wonderfully well together, producing a single force. The brief second movement, improvised on violin, makes a fitting bridge to the sparkling Allegro that concludes the piece.

Concerto No. 4 is Bach's most playful, with the soloists darting in and out of the structure, Pinnock's team making the most of it in a winning display of virtuosity. However, the two recorders and the violin never overstay their welcome and present a happy and delightful compromise throughout the work. It's a sweet and lovely performance all the way around.

Concerto No. 5 is another of my personal favorites, highlighting solos from the violin, flute, and, unusually, harpsichord. One of the smallest ensembles, eight players, ensures a greater clarity of sound. Again, Pinnock emphasizes a lightness and grace in the work, things sometimes missing from his earlier account, as well as from most accounts in general. Nevertheless, the playing is skillful in the extreme and never fails to dazzle in its beauty, refinement, and execution.

While Concerto No. 6 is for me the least distinctive work of the set and uses the smallest ensemble, seven players, it doesn't feel small. It's only real deficiency is its similarity to Concerto No. 3, though taken at a much slower pace. Pinnock and his people offer as light a touch here as before, not giving up too much sparkle along the way.

The sound, which Avie recorded in 2006 and 2007 at the ballroom of the Sheffield City Hall, Sheffield, England, and at the Henry Wood Hall, London, is warmer and smoother than Pinnock's earlier sessions. As before, the players appear moderately close up, and the degree of transparency involved varies with the size of the ensemble and the location of the recording. Mostly, though, it is quite good, quite realistic, with enough ambient bloom to provide a feeling of one's being in the audience. It's an easy-listening sound rather than a distinctly audiophile one, and for this music it works beautifully.

With its moderate yet invigorating speeds, its precise yet stylish playing, and its warm yet lifelike sound, the Avie Pinnock set of Brandenburgs seems an ideal top contender in a crowded field. It's probably the one I'll be listening to for a very long time.

Two minor, non-musical concerns before leaving, however: The discs come housed in a cardboard-and-plastic, foldout Digipak container, which I dislike. If you happen to break the spindles or other plastic parts, you're out of luck for a case. It's not as if you can easily just put everything back into a new jewel box, unless you want to devise some makeshift artwork for it. The other thing is that Avie have chosen to arrange the concertos with the odd numbered ones (1, 3, and 5) on disc one and the even numbered ones (2, 4, and 6) on disc two. I don't suppose this makes any real difference since Bach never meant for performers to play the works sequentially, but to find things more easily, I would have preferred a simple chronological order.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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