Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Kati Debretzeni, violin; John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists. Soli Deo Gloria SDG 707 (two-disc set).

The first thing I thought as I began listening to these newly recorded Brandenburg Concertos from John Eliot Gardiner was, Dude, slow down.

Ever since the period-instruments movement started picking up steam in the Seventies and Eighties, conductors seem to have been vying to see which one could get through the material fastest. They always do this, mind you, on the presumption that authenticity demands fast tempos in the outer movements, as opposed to the more-traditional late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century performing practices that featured a slower pace. OK, so call me old-fashioned. While I have nothing against most interpretations of Baroque material on period-instruments and, in fact, cherish many recordings of them, I also prefer a relaxed, easy-to-digest technique and favor conductors who follow a sort of compromise approach. Here, Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists are of another mind, determined to outrace the competition in their very first recordings of the complete Concertos. Some of Gardiner's speeds are so fast, he could almost have gotten all six Concertos on a single CD.

Fortunately, for all the huffing and puffing they do, the performers never sound too hurried, nor do they leave one completely breathless, probably because they play so well. Anyway, as you doubtless know, J.S. Bach presented his six Concertos to Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721. Apparently, the ruler had taken a fancy to Bach's music and asked him to write something especially for him, the result being the pieces we have here. In them, Bach employed the widest selection of instruments he could find and highlighted different instruments in each work. Even though other composers of the time influenced him, Bach's compositions come across for the most part as highly original.

In Concerto No. 1 in F major (BWV 1046) for violino, piccolo, oboes, horns, bassoon, strings, and continuo, we get the biggest, grandest of the six works. Well, at least it's the biggest in terms of the numbers of players employed, not necessarily in length. However, Bach did divide the work into a number of sections, much like a suite. Indeed, the results sound a lot like Handel's Water Music, which Handel had written few years earlier. Under Gardiner, the First Concerto shows plenty of spirit, and if the music weren't quite so repetitious it might have become one of the more-popular pieces in the set.

The familiar Concerto No. 2 in F major (BWV 1047) for violin, flute (recorder), oboe, trumpet, strings, and continuo, emphasizes the trumpet, and with Gardiner taking it at almost breakneck speed, it must have left trumpeter Neil Brough with sore lips. Seriously, though, we get some amazing playing from him, leaving one practically more awestruck than entertained.

Bach wrote Concerto No. 3 in G major (BWV 1048) entirely for strings and continuo, and although Gardiner still takes the piece a tad too fast for my liking, the melodies are so infectious, it's hard not to come away humming the tunes. When Gardiner does take it easy, the upshot is most satisfying.

Concerto No. 4 in G major (BWV 1049) for violin, flutes (recorders), strings, and continuo features the recorders above all, and with speeds in a more comfortable range and playing of virtuosic caliber, this Concerto comes off best of all. The Andante is extraordinarily beautiful.

Ironically, perhaps, Concerto No. 5 in D major (BWV 1050) for clavier, violin, flute, strings, and continuo is one of the longest of the six Concertos yet scored for the smallest ensemble, about seven players. The emphasis is on the flute, and as in No. 4 Gardiner takes things at a comfortable pace, letting the music breathe a bit. The closing Allegro steals the show with its bouncy, catchy beat.

Finally, we get Concerto No. 6 in B-flat major (BWV 1051) for strings (mostly violas) and harpsichord. This one tends to repeat a lot of what went before, offering a fresh tune only in the concluding section. Not one of my favorites, but Gardiner gives his best shot.

Engineers for the Soli Deo Gloria label recorded the music during and after a live performance in Paris on January 10-12, 2009. It appears to me that they miked the live recordings more closely, making them sound a little more raggedy-Annie than the ones recorded later at a more moderate distance. The close-up recordings are clean and clear, to be sure, but they also have a more-clangy aspect to them and very little depth of field, as opposed to the warmer, fuller, smoother, and richer sound of the more-distantly miked recordings. One can notice these differences most readily in Concertos 2 and 3.

On a final note, a word of appreciation for the person or persons responsible for the packaging. The two discs come housed in a kind of hardback book, with two inner sleeves for the CD's and a thirty-six page commentary fastened inside. The excellent booklet notes include remarks on the Concertos from not only Maestro Gardiner but various members of the band as well.


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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.

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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