Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Jeanne Lamon, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Tafelmusik TMK1004CD2 (2-disc set).

Conductor and violinist Jeanne Lamon has been the Musical Director of Tafelmusik (or the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra as we currently know it) since 1979, just two years after its founding.  Tafelmusik is a period-instruments ensemble specializing in historical recreations of Baroque music, getting their name from the German word for "table-music," music performed during banquets and feasts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Tafelmusik have recorded for several labels over the years and are now re-releasing some of their best material on their own label, Tafelmusik Media, the set under review among them. They originally released these six Brandenburg Concertos in 1995 for Sony, and it's good to have them back in circulation.

You'll recall that the Brandenburgs sound different from one another because J.S. Bach never intended them as 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 instrumental groups and various solo instruments. It's probable that Bach composed them at different times for different other occasions, and as was his wont, sort of re-arranged them for the collection he presented to the Margrave.

The most obvious comparison I can make in describing Tafelmusik's performances of the concertos is that of Trevor Pinnock's most-recent period-instruments recording with the European Brandenburg Ensemble on Avie. Pinnock is very marginally quicker throughout, Tafelmusik a touch more relaxed and reserved. Pinnock's group also seems to be very slightly steadier, the players more together, Tafelmusik a bit less polished and refined. However, for that matter, one can hardly tell them apart in most movements. Both groups get very good recordings, so for that matter, even their sound is pretty much alike. Since there's really not a lot to choose between them, and since both orchestras pretty much lead the field at the moment for historically informed performances of the music, I'd say one might make a choice in the matter according to one's predisposition regarding the conductors themselves.

Lamon and Tafelmusik take the opening movement of the Concerto No. 1 a tad slower than I'd like; otherwise, the playing is vigorous without being hurried or frenetic, a characteristic of the ensemble's readings of all six concertos. The trumpet in Concerto No. 2 is not as annoyingly forward as it can be in some recordings, and the piece goes by with a zesty warmth. Appropriately, Concerto No. 3, possibly the most popular of the set, sounds lively and spontaneous, without any sense of overdoing the tempos or stressing out the fabric of the music.

Concerto No. 4 is especially delightful, with a vivacious bounce in its step. No. 5 features superior harpsichord playing from Charlotte Nediger that raises this interpretation a notch above most of the rest. And No. 6 displays a wonderfully light hand, given the number of instruments involved, Ms. Lamon keeping the dance rhythms moving along at a healthy, vibrant, yet smoothly nuanced gait, particularly in the final movement.

Recorded in 1993-94 and done in Sony's 20-bit "high definition" technology at Toronto's Glenn Gould Studio, the engineers obtained a natural, lifelike sound. The miking doesn't usually favor any one instrument or frequency range, so the sonic presentation appears quite well balanced. More important, there is hardly any veiling of the midrange, providing a fairly clear, clean sound. What's more, one notices a light studio resonance that supplies a pleasing ambient bloom to the activities and adds to the feeling of being at a live event.


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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