Bach: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-3 (CD review)

Philip Ledger, English Chamber Orchestra. Virgin Classics 7243 4 82118 2.

Philip Ledger is an exacting conductor, and the English Chamber Orchestra is a meticulous ensemble, so you would expect anything they did to be pretty good. These Bach Orchestral Suites are, indeed, fairly good, but they don't really soar the way they should. They don't have the high spirits or lively inflections we hear from the very best performances on record.

I don't suppose we have much right to expect a truly classic interpretation from a re-rereleased, budget-priced issue originally recorded in 1991, but I was still mildly disappointed in what I heard. Every note seems to be in place, every instrument is in precise accompaniment with every other instrument, every tempo and every phrase seems calculated for maximum correctness.

Which is perhaps the problem: Ledger has squeezed the life out of the pieces, leaving them sounding more than a bit dull and ordinary. It's more of an academic run-through than a joyous event. Moreover, we get only three of the four suites Bach wrote, not unusual since most sets spread the works over two discs, but here there is no second disc.

Finally, there is the sound, which is also more than a bit lifeless. It is largely devoid of strong dynamics, bass, or internal definition, appearing instead as bright and lean and not a little leaden. Compare this to Neville Marriner's renditions of all four suites on a single, mid-priced Decca disc, and you see in Marriner a more sparkling manner, a more robust sound, and a far better proposition all the way around.

And speaking of attractive alternative recordings in these works, one might also consider Jordi Savall and Les Concert des Nations on Astree, Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, Martin Pearlman and the Boston Baroque Orchestra on Telarc, Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra on Philips, and Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, among others.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa