Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (SACD review)

Richard Egarr, Academy of Ancient Music. Harmonia Mundi HMU 897461.62.

You may remember that the Academy of Ancient Music, a period-instruments group, already recorded Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos once before, some years ago under Christopher Hogwood. So why would they want to release another set in 2009 under the direction of Richard Egarr?  (Yes, I got to this one a little late, but better late than..., no?) Anyway, Egarr explains that this set of Brandenburgs differs from most other sets in several ways: First, they chose “to present them with one player per part, which certainly highlights the chamber aspect of the music” and “also allows for a balanced dialogue between soloists and tutti.” Second, they chose to adopt “what is referred to as ‘French’ Baroque pitch, i.e. A = 392Hz. This choice is suggested by the French-model (indeed French-played) wind instruments that dominated Bach’s area of Germany at the time the Brandenburgs were written. This has an extraordinary effect on the ‘richesse’ of sound in the music” and it “alters and improves certain usually problematic balances.”

Fair enough. But are the results worthwhile with so many other notable Brandenburg sets on the market? I mean, just the fine ones from Pinnock (Avie and Archiv), Marriner (Philips), Lamon (Tafelmusik or Sony), Leppard (Philips), Savall (Astree), Hogwood (L’Oiseau-Lyre), Apollo’s Fire (Avie), and Leonhardt (Sony) could fill a shelf. Well, obviously, that answer one can only determine for oneself, but I can say I enjoyed this new set from Egarr, although not enough to give it a recommendation.

You’ll also 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 from Bach was a collection of six works for various-sized ensembles and various solo instruments that the composer had probably written at various times for various other occasions. More’s the better for us.

Concerto No. 1 is among the longest of the Brandenburgs and arranged for the biggest ensemble. It is also my least favorite, no matter who is performing it. 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. Listeners probably know Concerto No. 3 as well as they know No. 2, maybe even more so. Concerto No. 4 is Bach’s most playful, with the soloists darting in and out of the structure. 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. While Concerto No. 6 is for me the least distinctive work of the set and uses the smallest ensemble, seven players, it never actually feels small. In fact, its only real deficiency is its similarity to Concerto No. 3, if usually taken at a slower speed.

The first thing that strikes me about these performances from Richard Egarr and his AAM players is how gently they flow, how relaxed they sound. Egarr takes his time with them in an old-fashioned sort of way, rather than plowing through them in the quick-paced approach so favored by most other period-instrument bands these days. It comes as a pleasant surprise, even though it’s so different it may not be to everyone’s taste.

The lower pitch is also a surprise and goes well with the stately tempos Egarr adopts. The “however” here is that the lower notes also tend to thicken the sound somewhat, making it less clear and focused. The effect may take some getting used to.

And yet another surprise is Egarr’s decision to use a theorbo (a bass lute with two sets of strings attached to separate peg boxes, one above the other, on the neck) as part of the continuo in five of the six concertos. He calls the decision “a delicious luxury which I couldn’t forgo.” Frankly, I’m not sure he needed to do it; Bach didn’t call for it, probably for good reason, and it does rather sound a distracting note at times. It doesn’t help with the transparency of the sonics, either.

None of which is to suggest that Egarr’s accounts of the Brandenburgs aren’t worthy of a listen. For example, the trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin soloists in No. 2 are quite delightful. Moreover, No. 3 proceeds at a livelier gait than most of the others, and the players are immaculate in their articulation.

No. 4 is among the most-charming realizations of this little concerto I’ve heard. The sound is still a little reverberant for my liking, but it takes nothing away from the music making.

As I had hoped, Egarr brings off No. 5 pretty well, even if the second-movement Affetuoso (affectionate, with tender warmth) drags a bit. Interestingly, Egarr elects to use a guitar in here rather than the theorbo, and while it is hardly noticeable, it makes a nice contribution.

Harmonia Mundi recorded the music in 2008 at St. Jude’s-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden, London, for playback via a hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD disc. The lower pitch makes the sound appear warmer than it probably really is, and the venue seems to inflate that warmth with its own natural hall resonance. The result, then, is a bit thick and veiled, even played back in the disc’s SACD mode, and not as transparent as one might expect from so small an ensemble. Oddly, too, despite the seemingly cavernous nature of the recording environment, there is relatively little space or depth to the sound. The harpsichord doesn’t come through very prominently, either, which may be good or bad depending on how you feel about harpsichords. Likewise, dynamics seem somewhat muted, possibly again because of the acoustic. Be this as it may, the sonics are pleasing enough, and they do tend to complement the gracious flow of Egarr’s interpretations, even when they won’t satisfy many audiophile listeners.


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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