Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Freiburger Barockorchester. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902176.77 (2-disc set).

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:

1 comment:

  1. Great to discover your site, which I saw through Pinterest. I'll be back on a regular basis. Very informative look at this new take on the Brandenbergs, which I found both elegant and stirring.


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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

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.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa