Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Also, Triple Concerto; Orchestral Suites; others. Helmut Muller-Bruhl, Cologne Chamber Orchestra. Naxos 8.554607, 8.554608, and 8.554609.

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.

Helmut Muller-Bruhl
Naxos pretty well fills out the three discs they sent for review, each sold separately: Disc one contains the Brandenburgs Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 6. Disc two contains Brandenburgs Nos. 4 and 5, plus the Triple Concerto in A minor for flute, violin, and harpsichord and the Concerto in F major for two recorders, harpsichord, and strings. Disc three contains the four Orchestral Suites. Of the latter, we have a different story. Where Muller-Bruhl's Brandenburgs appear somewhat controversial, and thus at least partially entertaining in their way, the Suites seem respectful in the extreme, sometimes solemnly so. They are as straightforward and straight-arrow as one could find, which may or may not be what every listener is after. For only a few dollars more, Neville Marriner's mid-priced set of Suites on Decca offers more spirit and vitality.

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.

JJP

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


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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