Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Helmuth Rilling, Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra. Hanssler Classic CD94.615.

With so many praiseworthy sets of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos on the market from people like 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), is there any reason to sample yet another one? Obviously, while people can only determine that question for themselves, there is no question that a mid-priced set such as this reissue from Helmuth Rilling on Hanssler Classic has a special appeal to budget-conscious buyers.

I wasn’t very familiar with Maestro Rilling’s work, so I found this note about him in the disc’s accompanying booklet: “Helmuth Rilling, born in 1933, has for decades been intimately involved in musical life, as founder of the ‘Gachinger Kontorel’ (a famous choir) and of the ‘International Bachakademie Stuttgart.’ In addition to his complete recording of J.S. Bach’s cantatas, issued in 1985, and the CD edition of all Bach’s works, of which he was the director, he has behind him an immense discography in a wide repertoire.” Fair enough; I guess I just don’t get around enough. In 1970 he organized the Oregon Bach Festival, which in 2013 takes place in Eugene, Ashland, Astoria, Bend, Corvallis, Lincoln City, and Portland. The Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra comprises members from American and European ensembles and from the music faculty of the University of Oregon.

OK, now, you’ll recall that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos sound different from one another because the composer never meant them to be a cohesive group. In 1719 Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg commissioned Bach to write several pieces for him, and what he got a couple of years later 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.

Maestro Rilling leads an ensemble of players on modern instruments in generally straightforward, non-affected performances. Although it’s a somewhat middle-of-the-road offering, it’s affable and entertaining enough.

The Concerto No. 1 is one of the longest of the concertos and arranged for the biggest ensemble. It is also my least favorite, no matter who’s performing it. Be that as it may, Rilling’s interpretation sounds very relaxed and easygoing, without its losing much in the way of spirit or vitality. Unlike so many of today’s period-instrument bands and modern groups trying to emulate period styles, the Oregon Bach players don’t rush headlong through things. Rilling takes the outer movements at a moderately slow pace and the slower, inner movements a tad quicker than usual. It works fine.

Concerto No. 2 is among the most popular of the pieces and highlights the oboe, recorder, violin, and trumpet, the latter getting in the major part of the playing time. Here, Rilling’s tempos are lively and the atmosphere invigorating.

Listeners probably know Concerto No. 3 as well as they know No. 2, maybe even more so; thus, it’s important not to upset their expectations. The conductor communicates a refined dignity above all, the music moving along at a healthy pace yet projecting a stately grace, too.

Concerto No. 4 is Bach’s most playful piece, with the soloists darting in and out of the structure. It always reminds me of children’s music for some reason, Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony or something like that, and Rilling does nothing to dispel the feeling, offering up a sweet and charming rendition, if a trifle fast in the opening movement for my taste.

Concerto No. 5 is another of my personal favorites, highlighting solos from the violin, flute, and harpsichord. Because it requires a minimal ensemble, it ensures a greater clarity of sound. For me, this was the best of Maestro Rilling’s work. There’s a smooth, flowing rhythm here, with some excellent harpsichord contributions. Very enjoyable.

While Concerto No. 6 sounds to me the least distinctive music in the set and uses the smallest ensemble, it never actually feels small. In fact, its only real deficiency is its similarity to Concerto No. 3, if a little slower. In it, Rilling goes out very stylishly, an elegant conclusion to the set, taken at an elegant pace.

Hanssler recorded the concertos in 1994 at Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Eugene, Oregon.  They obtained a pleasing sound, with a reasonably wide stereo spread; a warm, natural response; and a fairly decent degree of depth and air. I suppose the recording could have better defined the instrumental sound, yet the whole thing is easy on the ear. For listeners who sometimes find Baroque music a bit hard or bright (a good friend always called it “that tinkly-tinkly stuff”), the recording’s sonics should satisfy them. While I would have liked to have heard a better separation of instruments, greater midrange transparency, and more extended highs in the larger concertos, what we get can be quite soothing.

Note, too, that the folks at Hanssler Classics have re-released this set several times now on disc, and one can find used copies of previous editions often for less than the cost of shipping. So, for any listeners wanting to sample the wares, new or used, they’ll find a lot of choice available.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa