Bach: Orchestral Suites (CD review)

Ludwig Guttler, Virtuosi Saxoniae. Brilliant Classics 95018.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) produced some of his best orchestral music (Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites, Violin Concertos) during the years 1718 to 1723 while working in the court of Prince Leopold of Cothen. The Prince enjoyed and played music, and as he did not require that his musicians produce too much elaborately religious material, he left Bach to compose largely instrumental music. Although there is no record of Bach's actual obligations to the Prince, scholars agree that he probably served in attendance at all courtly occasions, supplying background music for meals, balls, weddings, funerals, processions, and the like. Unfortunately, scholars are not in agreement on exactly what the occasion was for the four Orchestral Suites, but with their enjoyable, largely dance-like character, one can safely guess that Bach composed them for the enjoyment of the Prince's guests, possibly at dinnertime. Later, Bach would perform them regularly in concerts in Leipzig.

Although Bach wrote the four suites in the French-influenced Baroque style much favored in his day, he also included extensive parts for solo instruments with ensemble backup. Bach didn't even want to call them "suites," although they are sets of five to seven movements each; he called them "overtures," a custom of the day in referring to a complete set by just its first movement. Anyway, why he wrote them and what he called them are beside the point; the main thing is that they continue to entertain us with their wit and charm.

There are any number of fine recordings of Bach's four orchestral suites, and this one reissued by Brilliant Classics is a safe rendering of the music. The virtuoso trumpeter and conductor Ludwig Guttler formed the chamber orchestra Virtuosi Saxoniae in 1978, drawing members from the Dresden Staatskapelle. They are very good, and under Guttler's careful and somewhat conservative guidance, they sound remarkably fluent and articulate.

Guttler adopts generally moderate tempos throughout the four suites, so you'll find no surprises here. Played on modern instruments, it isn't the hell-bent-for-leather approach taken by some bands, especially those striving for an authentic, period interpretation; nor is it a slow, leaden rendition. In fact, Guttler and his musicians play it pretty middle-of-the-road. While I wouldn't call these readings old-fashioned, they are not exactly innovative or daring, either.

In fact, Guttler takes everything at such a steady pace, it seems as though his main intent is not to offend anybody. He won't; but he may win over a few listeners who find most other performances of Bach a little too shrill or "tinkly-tinkly" for them, as an old friend used to characterize Baroque music. The Virtuosi Saxoniae are a smooth, elegant group of players who produce a smooth and elegant set of suites. They may miss out on some of the outright fun of this music, but they make up for it the sophistication of their playing.

Ludwig Guttler
The highlight of the set for me was the Suite in D BWV1068, with its regal Ouverture, its lovely Air, its lively Gavottes and Bourrée, and its stately Gigue. What's more, it seems almost as though Guttler directed most of these suites in just such a manner as Bach intended them: as background music for dinner gatherings. And I don't mean that characterization as negatively as it may sound because there are no doubt any number of listeners who are looking for exactly that kind direction.

The problem may be that there are so many fine recordings of this music available, listeners may find Guttler's disc noncompetitive. After all, we already have excellent renditions on period and modern instruments from Marriner, Savall, Pinnock, Hogwood, Linde, Gardiner, Koopman, Pearlman, Kuijken, Leppard, Clark, Suzuki, Goodman, Egarr, and others I've no doubt forgotten just now. Guttler's more sedate readings may not stand close comparison.

So, what are the advantages of Guttler's disc? For one, it is just a single disc. Many competing versions take two discs to accommodate the four suites. For another, Guttler's disc is relatively inexpensive. Then there are the polished, ultrasmooth performances and equally smooth sound. These may count for something. Finally, there is plain old curiosity; for the Bach lover who wants to hear or own everything Bach, the price point makes an easy purchase.

Producer Bernd Runge, balance engineer Eberhard Richter, and recording engineer Horst-Dieter Kappler made the album at Lukaskirche, Dresden, Germany in 1991-92. Like the performances, the sound is quite smooth and refined, and since the Virtuosi Saxoniae are a fairly small group, the sound is also reasonably clear, if a tad soft. A mild room resonance provides a warm, golden glow to the proceedings. Although there isn't a lot of sparkle or dynamic punch to the sound, the whole thing is attractive in its own unassuming way.


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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa