Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (SACD review)

Florilegium. Channel Classics CCS SA 35914 (2-disc set).

The nice thing about the years passing is that music lovers have more to choose from than ever before. Not only do we have recent recordings of old favorites such as this release of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos from the period-instrument ensemble Florilegium, but we have everything available that people recorded before it; and what we can't buy new, we can easily find used via the Internet. So, today we can choose from among any number of great period-instrument recordings like those from Trevor Pinnock and his handpicked Baroque Ensemble (Avie), Pinnock's earlier recording with the English Concert (DG), Jeanne Lamon's with Tafelmusik (Tafelmusik or Sony), Jeannette Sorrell's with Apollo's Fire (Avie), Jordi Savall's (Astree), Gustav Leonhardt's (Sony), the Freiburger Barockorchester's (Harmonia Mundi), and many others. Choices, choices.

In the event you're unfamiliar with Florilegium, according to their Web site, they are "one of Britain's most outstanding period instrument ensembles. Since their formation in 1991 they have established a reputation for stylish and exciting interpretations, from intimate chamber works to large-scale orchestral and choral repertoire. Florilegium regularly collaborate with some of the world's finest musicians including Dame Emma Kirkby, Robin Blaze and Elin Manahan Thomas." What more, "Florilegium's recordings for Channel Classics have been awarded many prizes including a Gramophone Award nomination, Editor's Choice from Gramophone, Diapasons d'Or and Chocs de la Musique." Let it suffice that they are quite good at what they do.

Anyhow, as you know, Bach's six 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 concertos for various-sized ensembles and various solo instruments that Bach had probably written earlier for various other occasions.

The Concerto No. 1 is among the longest of the concertos, and Bach arranged it for the biggest number of players. It's not a personal favorite, but that's of no concern. The main thing here is that nothing about Florilegium's performance of it changes my basic impression that it's the least successful of Bach's Brandenburgs. Florilegium's rather cautious, stately approach to it only confirms my opinion.

Concerto No. 2 is among the most popular of the concertos and highlights the oboe, recorder, violin, and trumpet, the latter getting in the lion's share of attention. Florilegium give the outer movements a good, zippy treatment, the trumpet player standing out for his lively style, the whole thing nicely presented, with the soloists well integrated into the whole. The middle, slow movement, sans trumpet, has a sweetly lyrical character well captured by the group.

Bach listeners probably know the Concerto No. 3 as well as they know No. 2, maybe even more so; therefore, it's equally probable that listeners have certain expectations. For better or for worse, Florilegium take the fast movement a touch slower than most other historically informed ensembles in my experience and the slow movement a tad faster. Then they speed up at the end to a tempo that seems maybe a little out of place, given the context. No matter; they play gracefully, and the period instruments are not nearly so abrasive as they can be in some other recordings.

For me, Concerto No. 4 is Bach's most playful piece, with the soloists darting in and out of the work's structure. For some reason, it always reminds me of children's music, like Leopold Mozart's Toy Symphony or something like that. Whatever, the recorders are the stars of the show, and they make this piece the highlight of the set. It's really quite delightful all the way through, the Florilegium ensemble playing effortlessly and beguilingly.

Concerto No. 5 is another of my favorites, highlighting as it does solos from the violin, flute, and harpsichord. Also, because it involves a relatively small ensemble, it ensures a greater clarity of sound than the other concertos. Here, maybe for the first time ever, the harpsichord gets its day in the sun, not merely accompanying the other instruments but playing an equal part in the proceedings. Florilegium's harpsichordist, Terrence Charlston, does an excellent job in the part, and the final movement displays an especially rhythmic bounce.

Finally, Concerto No. 6 uses the smallest ensemble but never seems to feel small. Its only real drawbacks for me are its melodic similarity to Concerto No. 3 and its consequent lack of real distinctiveness. Nevertheless, it's hard for one seriously to dislike it. With Florilegium, No. 6 exhibits an appropriately rich, mellow tone thanks to its two violas and cello (and a slightly slower tempo throughout than many other renditions I've heard). It holds up as well as one can expect, despite its familiarity, Florilegium providing it with a somewhat solemn (or sedate) interpretation.

In all, these are refined, well-considered performances, perhaps lacking only in the last degree of excitement and exhilaration offered by some of the bands I mentioned at the outset of this review.

A couple of things concerned me about the set, though: First, the producers put concertos 6, 5, and 4 on disc one and numbers 3, 2, and 1 on disc two, in that order. Since no one is entirely sure of the composition dates or in what lineup Bach intended their performance, producers can, of course, put them in whatever order they choose. But, really, why not just present them as numbers 1-3 and 4-6 for the ease of one's finding them on the two discs? Worse, the producers have stacked the two SACD's in one of those heavy-duty single-disc SACD cases, the two discs one atop the other. For a product otherwise so quality oriented, I can't imagine why they stacked the discs as they did rather than use a two-disc case. (Or was the case I received an aberration? I don't know.)

Producer and engineer Jared Sacks and producer Ashley Solomon recorded the concertos at St. John the Evangelist Church, Upper Norwood, London in November 2013. They made the album for SACD playback using Bruel & Kjaer and Schoeps microphones, a DSD Super Audio digital converter, Audiolab and B&W speakers, a Van Medevoort amplifier, Van den Hul cables, a Rens Heijnis custom design mixing board, and so forth. Obviously, it's a product from people who care about sound. As with most SACD's, you can play this one in SACD two-channel stereo or SACD 5-channel if you have an SACD player and two or five speakers; or you can play the regular CD layer if you have an ordinary CD player. I listened to the SACD two-channel layer.

Although the sound differs a bit from concerto to concerto as the number of players varies, it's mostly always warm, smooth, and natural. The ensemble extends from just within the two speakers, providing a good stereo spread without seeming overly wide or overly constricted. Dimensionality, depth, air, and dynamics are also consistent with lifelike reproduction, and a small amount of hall resonance further enhances this effect.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa