J.S. Bach wrote quite a lot of music for the orchestra, but most of it was in the way of concertos. Interestingly, his four Orchestral Suites, French-influenced Baroque forms much favored in his day, also include extensive parts for solo instruments with ensemble backup. Certainly, we’ve had enough recordings of the Orchestral Suites, but this one from 1990 with Robert Haydon Clark leading the Consort of London is welcome just the same.
Nobody knows exactly when Bach wrote these Suites. Even though they have catalogue numbers of BWV1066-1069, it doesn’t mean much since the numbering system isn’t necessarily chronological but by genre. However, some recent researchers believe that Bach may have written the Suites during the years 1716-1723, later revising them between 1725 and 1739 in the arrangements we know today. What’s more, Bach didn’t even want to call them “suites,” although they are sets of five to seven movements each; he called them “overtures,” a custom of the day in referring to a complete set by its first movement only. Anyway, when he wrote them and what he called them are beside the point; the main thing is that they continue to entertain us with their wit and charm.
From what little I can gather about the Consort of London, they play on instruments made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To be fair, though, the instruments don’t actually sound “period”; they appear tuned to modern values, and they sound, for all intents and purposes, like modern instruments. I dunno. The main thing is that the Consort play in a lively fashion, and all four suites fit neatly onto a single disc.
The Consort’s playing sounds consistently stylish and refined, and Clark leads them in generally well-judged tempi, never so fast that they disfigure the music, yet never so slow that they ever feel sluggish. More important, Clark maintains a hearty rhythmic pulse in every segment, with pointed contrasts and a smooth flow.
If I had to criticize anything, it might be that from movement to movement one doesn’t hear as much difference in pacing or emphasis from Clark as one hears from some other conductors. In other words, in faster movements Clark is sometimes a tad slower than we expect, while in slower movements he’s a touch faster, creating a kind of sameness to each suite as a whole.
But I quibble. Clark handles the dance tunes throughout with an uncommon grace, the flute in No. 2 and the trumpet in No. 4 especially felicitous. Then there’s No. 3 with its familiar overture and famous “Air” that come off in regal, graceful fashion. There’s simply not much to complain about here.
Among my own favorites in this music on modern instruments are still the recordings of Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Decca-Argo) and Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra (Philips); and on period instruments Jordi Savall and Les Concert des Nations (Astree), Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (DHM), Martin Pearlman and the Boston Baroque Orchestra (Telarc), and Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande (DHM). Although I don’t find Clark’s renditions of the music quite fitting into this company, he would not be entirely out of place among them, either.
Originally recorded by Phoenix Music UK at Henry Wood Hall, London, and issued by Collins Classics in 1990, Brilliant Classics have re-released it in 2012. The sound is reasonably rich and crisp. Even if it hasn’t a lot of depth or air, it does provide a realistic orchestral spread, with good balance amongst the instruments. There could be, perhaps, a bit more heft in the upper and mid bass to offer greater weight and maybe a stronger dynamic impact, but these are relatively minor concerns. Overall, there are few if any Bach Overture recordings as sonically satisfying as this one.