Bach: Six Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations. Astree E 8737.
Bach: Four Suites for Orchestra
Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations. Astree E 8727.

I was already about four years late on these recordings even when I first reviewed them for review about two decades ago. Jordi Savall recorded the Orchestral Suites in 1990 and the Brandenburgs in 1991. I wish I had heard them earlier because I would have had that much more time to enjoy them and, of course, I would have already put them on my recommended recordings list. They are joyous, personal, committed performances that deserve a place on every collector's shelf.

First, let me explain what they aren't. Neither set is among the most elegantly-played readings available. If you are looking for precise, refined playing, look to Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy (Philips and London) in their modern-instruments recordings or Trevor Pinnock and either the Brandenburg Ensemble or the English Concert (Avie or DG Archiv) on period instruments. By comparison, Savall's period group seems sometimes positively ragged. But what Le Concert des Nations lacks in finesse, it makes up for in spirit. I have never heard a group of people playing these works who have sounded so happy in what they were doing. As a result, the pieces themselves come over as joyful affairs and leave the listener in that same delighted mood.

I was even won over by the First Brandenburg Concerto, to which I normally do not respond well. Maybe because of the First Concerto's pastoral nature and larger orchestral forces, I find it oddly out of place with its companions; yet Savall and his group play it with such affection, such obvious love, that I couldn't help for the first time admiring its beauty.

Jordi Savall
I found Savall's interpretation of the Second Concerto more controversial with its exaggerated dynamics, but even here Savall's emphasis is on originality, an attempt to say something that hasn't already been said a hundred times over. The rest of the Brandenburgs are as lovely or robust, accordingly, as I have heard them, and the four Orchestral Suites (sold as a separate package) are simply above reproach. To find fault with any of these recordings on the basis of interpretation is to be without heart.

However, to be critical of Astree's sound seems entirely fair. While both the Brandenburgs and the Suites share a similar philosophy of sound, given to moderately-distanced miking in a large, naturally-reverberant acoustic, it is the Suites that are decidedly the better sounding. As I said before, the sets were recorded a year apart, and the venue was different in each case. The Orchestral Suites, done earlier in the Grand Hall of the Arsenal at Metz, exhibit smoothness, warmth, and detail in equal measure. The Brandenburgs, done in the Palazzo Giusti del Giardino, are slightly more veiled by hall ambience. It's too bad Astree didn't stick with the first location because neither the detail nor the imaging seem quite as good as in the earlier effort. That said, I still prefer both of these recordings over the leaner, brighter, edgier sound of Pinnock's earlier recording (DG) and Parrott (EMI) or the softer, less clear sound of Goodman (Hyperion) or the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Virgin). In the Brandenburgs no one has quite matched the sound of the Leonhardt Ensemble (Sony/SEON), Tafelmusik (Tafelmusik's own label or Sony), or Pinnock's later recording (Avie) for clarity and naturalness, but, then, they're not quite as much fun interpretively, either.

Finally, a word about pricing. The distributor of this edition, Harmonia Mundi USA, told me at the time that the Astree label costs them a high price to import. Therefore, the cost to the end buyer was several dollars per disc more than average full-priced discs. The upshot is that you could buy both of Pinnock's recordings in a mid-priced, four-disc set for the cost of these editions of the Savall sets. So don't be shocked if you see Astree's sticker price on the original discs. Nevertheless, there are now several less-expensive editions of Savall's recordings available, so look around. They are bargains.


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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa