I have to admit that I have developed a fondness over the past few decades for baroque music played on period instruments. However, there is always room for performances of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Overtures (Suites) on modern instruments, too, as they are rendered here on three discs from Naxos. Helmut Muller-Bruhl and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra observe some of the performing practices of the past (the orchestra used to play with period instruments but here use modern ones) with a fluent, contemporary sound. Now, if I could have said the same for the interpretations, these discs might have been sure bets.
Bach's six Brandenburgs are notable not only for the attractiveness of their tunes but for their variety of instrumentation and diversity of style. Muller-Bruhl's tempos for the First Brandenburg Concerto are quick but not breathless. The piece flows nicely, if somewhat blandly, along. Be that as it may, I found the First and Sixth of his Concerto performances the most uninteresting of the lot, no matter how well the Cologne Chamber Orchestra plays.
Then, Muller-Bruhl dashes through Nos. 2 and 3, probably the most popular of the set, about as quickly as I have ever heard. They are almost exhausting, in fact. One could charitably say they are effervescent, and, in fact, they may surely appeal to some listeners. But not to me because they seem to lack elegance or any discernable style. Nos. 4 and 5 come off best of all. After the hectic pace of the previous two works, Muller-Bruhl finally allows his players a few minutes to relax and enjoy themselves, and we're all the better for it.
Sonically, all three Naxos discs sound pretty much alike. The sonics are clear, clean, and well balanced throughout the midrange and treble. It is not ideally well imaged front-to-back, though, and without much bass resonance it appears smooth but lightweight. A little more mid-bass foundation and added warmth might have helped give the music more character.
For me, these discs have only the advantage of a reasonable price, but if it's a cost advantage you're looking for in the Brandenburgs I suggest checking out used copies with conductors and groups like Marriner, Leppard, or I Musici on modern instruments; or Pinnock, Hogwood, Savall, Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Koopman, Goodman, or the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on period instruments. Any of them will provide a rewarding musical experience.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: