Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Also, Harpsichord Concertos in D minor & F minor, BWV 1052 & 1056; Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052. Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo's Fire Baroque Orchestra. Avie AV2207 (2-disc set).

If Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos sound significantly different from each other, it's 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 several years later was a collection of six works for various-sized ensembles and various solo instruments that Bach had composed at various times for various other occasions.  In any case, for whatever reason the Margrave ignored the concertos; more's the loss for him.

Concerto No. 1, one of the longest and largest of the set, is my least favorite. Nevertheless, Jeannette Sorrell and her band of period-instruments players, Apollo's Fire, adopt some sensibly moderate tempos for the fast movements and handle the slower central movements with grace, creating a most-pleasing effect. There is no craziness here with the orchestra attempting to beat their rivals out the door with the speed of the performance.

Concerto No. 2, one of the most famous (or most popular) of the pieces, highlights the trumpet, which gets some good playing time in. Unlike some other recordings, this one does not put the trumpet in our laps, however, nor does Sorrell attempt to gallop through it in record time. Instead, we get a refined, polished interpretation, with just enough zest to keep the fires lit. While it is not the zippiest of performances, it never lags, either, and generally strikes a happy balance.

Audiences may know Concerto No. 3 as well as they know No. 2, maybe even more so. Here, it comes off with a sense of cultured ease. Everything flows smoothly, even gently. In this one Bach intended to showcase each of the string players, with an inspired second movement that Apollo's Fire handles beautifully.

Concerto No. 4 features the violin and two flutes in a playful combination of virtuosity. Even though Sorrell and her group might have provided a little more spark in the concluding Presto, the work as a whole strikes one as spirited fun.

Concerto No. 5 is a personal favorite of mine, and I'm happy to report that Apollo's Fire does it proud. Again, you won't find this the most robust or invigorating reading, but it possesses elegance and charm in abundance, with an especially delightful lilt in the final Allegro.

Concerto No. 6 struck me as one of the nicest renderings of the lot, with just enough energy to excite the senses, without seeming rushed.

The first five concertos occupy disc one, leaving plenty of room on disc two for accompanying material. The fill-ups include, appropriately, two harpsichord concertos (Ms. Sorrell being a harpsichordist herself), BWV 1052 and 1056, and the Violin Concerto in D, BWV 1052, a reconstruction based on the Harpsichord Concerto in D, BWV 1052. The soloist in the Violin Concerto, Elisabeth Wallfisch, made her own adaptation based on a reconstruction published in the Neue Bach Ausgabe. Play the two BWV 1052's side by side and you'll see how close they are.

The Brandenburg performances, originally recorded in 1999-2000 and issued on the Eclectra label, sometimes sound very slightly opaque, a little thick, given the relatively few players involved, although at other times they sound quite lucid (and at no time disagreeable). Most important, the sound displays a warm, ambient glow that tends to temper the tone of the period instruments. The other items in the set derive from 2002-2005 recording sessions, and they sound equally well recorded, even if the sonics are a trifle thinner.

In all, this is an easily accessible, appealingly attractive set of Brandenburgs, with enough attendant music to make the two-disc set an attractive buy.


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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