Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6 (SACD review)

Pinchas Zukerman, Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 205 (2-CD set).

Thank goodness for Pentatone, who for a number of years now have been going back into the catalogs of various record companies (in this case, DG) and finding recordings originally made in multichannel but only released in two-channel, recordings that SACD now allows us to hear in their original multichannel format (in this case, Quadraphonic). Thank goodness, too, the performances in this two-disc set of Bach's complete Brandenburg Concertos with Pinchas Zukerman and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic are good enough to warrant their remastering.

Anyway, you'll recall that Bach's six Brandenburgs sound different from one another because the composer never meant them to be a single, unified group. In 1719 Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg commissioned Bach to write several musical works for him, and what he got several years later was a collection of concertos for various-sized ensembles and various solo instruments that Bach had probably written earlier for sundry other occasions.

The Concerto No. 1 is among the longest of the concertos, and Bach arranged it for the biggest number of players. The opening of No. 1 sets the tone for most of the rest of Zukerman's performances: smooth and relaxed. There is no hustle or bustle to Zukerman's interpretations, no fast-paced Allegros or hurried Adagios. If you're looking for more lively, more spirited, more high-powered renditions, you might want to stick to the various period-instrument recordings out there from Pinnock, Hogwood, and the like. Zukerman follows a slightly more old-fashioned approach, preferring to take things at a stately, elegant gait, with little pyrotechnics in the rubato department.

Concerto No. 2 is among the most popular of the concertos and highlights the oboe, recorder, violin, and trumpet, the latter getting the lion's share of attention. In No. 2 Zukerman's reading is a bit more animated than in the first concerto, with the trumpet adding a spirited contribution. The Andante sounds particularly refined, and the finale brings the concerto to a relatively rousing close.

Doubtless, Concerto No. 3 is as popular as No. 2, maybe even more so; therefore, it's equally probable that listeners have certain expectations for it. If one has heard many of the recordings of No. 3 in the past twenty years, Zukerman's rendition may seem rather sedate. Still, it possesses an agreeable charm and flows along with an easy manner. In its final movement, though, Zukerman steps it up considerably and goes out in buoyant style.

For me, Concerto No. 4 is the most playful piece in the set, 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. Whatever, the recorders are the stars of the show. As Zukerman does in the other concertos, he prefers grace over energy for its own sake. The music sounds fluid and effortless.

Pinchas Zukerman
I count Concerto No. 5 as 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. What's more, 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. I enjoyed Zukerman's handling of No. 5 best of all because it seems to me he created an ideal compromise between traditional and period practices, with all three movements well judged in terms of tempos and contrasts.

When we get to the final piece, Concerto No. 6, we find it uses the smallest ensemble, yet it never seems to feel small. Its only real drawback is 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 the sixth concerto Zukerman seems to lag a bit, making the work appear more lackadaisical than usual. On the other hand, some listeners may enjoy this approach as does offer a thoroughly free and easy account of the music. It's enjoyable in its own leisurely way.

The members of the L.A. Philharmonic play beautifully for Zukerman, rendering both solo and ensemble work precisely and enthusiastically.

Now, for reasons known only to Pentatone, they chose to present the six concertos as follows: Nos. 1, 3 and 4 on the first disc and Nos. 5, 6 and 2 on the second disc. It doesn't matter to authenticity, of course, since Bach specified no specific order for the pieces. I suppose Pentatone found this was the way the original LP's offered the music (a matter of space at the time, I suspect), so they simply duplicated that arrangement. It certainly isn't a matter of space on the CD's, though, and it annoys me because it means one has to refer to the track listings to know what concerto is on what disc.

Pentatone have packaged the two discs in a dual-SACD case, further enclosed by a thin-cardboard slipcase.

In 1977 DG recorded these concertos in four-channel Quadraphonic but only released them back then in two-channel stereo. In 2014 Pentatone remastered the original multichannel tapes and in 2015 rereleased the music in this hybrid SACD set. If you have an SACD player, you'll be able to play the discs either in two-channel or multichannel SACD; if you have a regular CD player, you'll be able to play the standard two-channel CD layers. I listened in two-channel SACD using a Sony SACD player.

The sound appears nicely spread out across the speakers, with a modest sense of depth and breadth to the ensemble. The instruments remain well differentiated, with a warm, lightly resonant midrange and decent bass and treble response. In other words, the sound is comfortable, matching the performances.


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