Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)
Insofar as concerns historically informed performances of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos played on period instruments, the most-recent release from Trevor Pinnock and his handpicked Baroque ensemble on Avie rather swept the field a few years ago. This is not to dismiss Pinnock's own earlier recording with the English Concert (DG) or Tafelmusik's fine rendering (Tafelmusik or Sony) or the ones from Apollo's Fire (Avie), Jordi Savall (Astree), Gustav Leonhardt (Sony), and others. It's just that it's not easy to produce something new anymore that surpasses old favorites in terms of performance and sound. Nevertheless, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi give it a try, and some listeners may like their way with things better than anything they've heard before.
Anyway, you'll recall that Bach's Brandenburg Concertos sound different from one another because the composer never meant them as a single, unified group. In 1719 Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg commissioned Bach to write several musical works for him, and what he got a couple of years later was a collection of six concertos for various-sized ensembles and various solo instruments that Bach had probably written at various times for various other occasions.
Concerto No. 1 is among the longest of the concertos, and Bach arranged it for the biggest number of players. It is also my least favorite, but that's of no concern. In No. 1 the Freiburg ensemble, playing without a conductor, layer the various sections of music nicely, and in the outer movements keep the rhythms lively and energetic. The Adagio, too, sounds spirited, more so than we usually hear it, yet, appropriately, sounds evenly paced. The whole thing goes by with a steady forward momentum, its third movement of dance tunes filled with vitality.
By the way, you won't mistake the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra for a modern group because they seem to make you aware at all times of the period instruments they use. You won't find here the smooth sonorities and lush textures of a modern orchestra. Instead, the instruments and the playing tend to sound less polished and more rustic, along with other matters like pitch and tempo and bowing. You either accept the period sound or you don't.
Concerto No. 2 is one of the most popular of the concertos and highlights the oboe, recorder, violin, and trumpet, the latter getting in the major part of the playing time. With the Freiburg group No. 2 is quick but never rushed, the music reminding us more than ever that Bach probably intended it as a quartet, since the string accompaniment hardly seem to matter. The trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin do sound good together, with the trumpet never overpowering the other instruments as it often can in recordings. There is a lovely, animated interplay among the instruments, too, leading to an effective job overall, although I thought the final movement too fast for my taste.
Folks probably recognize Concerto No. 3 as well as they do No. 2, maybe even more so; thus, it's important not to upset their expectations. As the Freiburg orchestra do with the other concertos, they lean to alert, rousing tempos throughout. However, their speedy approach only serves to emphasize the fact that the piece has only two movements to begin with, both of them fast, leaving one a little breathless by the end.
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. Regardless, for me the performance of No. 4 stood out. It's playful, happy, joyous even, with the Freiburg players appearing to have as good a time with it as Bach must have had writing it. Moreover, the sometimes disparate elements of the score seem more cohesive than ever. It's a most-pleasurable experience.
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. Also, a booklet note reminds us that No. 5 may be the first genuine keyboard concerto in history, and certainly the harpsichord player in this one, Sebastian Wienand, performs in virtuosic style.
Even though Concerto No. 6 seems 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 melodic similarity to Concerto No. 3. Whatever, scored for only a handful of players on strings and harpsichord, the Freiburg musicians help No. 6 go by in zippy fashion. It's clearly of a smaller scale than the other concertos, and one has to commend the viola players especially, as they do a splendid job in the solo parts.
A soft-cardboard slipcover for the plastic two-disc case completes the package.
So, do we have a new winner, displacing my favored Pinnock recording on Avie? Not really. Still, the Freiburg group are worth an audition, particularly for listeners favoring a purely historical approach to their music.
One minor quibble: The orchestra, the record company, or the producer decided to arrange the concertos rather oddly. They put Numbers 1, 6, and 2 on disc one and numbers 3, 5, and 4 on disc two. Now, it's true that despite the present-day numbering of the works, Bach left no instructions for the order of their playing, so it really shouldn't matter in what arrangement an ensemble plays them. But it does matter, if for no other reason than making it easy for the listener to find things on the discs. The present arrangement seems purely arbitrary to me. It doesn't seem to be by chronology or by solo instrument or by the number of players involved. Maybe it's just the way somebody liked hearing them. Who knows.
Harmonia Mundi recorded the music at the Ensemblehaus, Freiburg in May, 2013. The sound is extremely spacious, with loads of depth and dimensionality thanks to a moderate miking distance and a good deal of hall resonance. You don't get the best definition this way, but you do get a very realistic sense of presence, a lifelike you-are-there quality that puts you directly into the acoustic environment. Some listeners will find the effect appealing, and others will no doubt find it too reverberant. Otherwise, dynamics and frequency extremes are more than adequate for the occasion and tonal balance is fine, although midrange detail sometimes appears a mite smeared.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.