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.