By Bill Heck and John J. Puccio
The Album According to Bill:
For our purposes, though, it will be sufficient to note a couple of points. First, the Brandenburgs do not share a truly common heritage. Those unfamiliar with the works (are there any such classical music listeners?) or those who have heard them and have been wondering how they fit together, can take heart: they don’t fit together. The instrumentation differs from work to work, the compositional techniques vary, they do not have unifying themes such as a cycle of keys, some seem to have developed from earlier sketches while others have no obvious history, and so on. The unifying factor seems to have been that they all were sent, or perhaps presented by Bach, to the Margrave of Brandenburg (hence the name of the collection) as something in the nature of a job application in late March of 1721.
I should emphasize the difference in instrumental forces among the concertos: by my count, the First employs 20 musicians, while the Sixth requires only 7! Moreover, different instruments enter the mix in different concertos. For example, the Second and Fourth include parts for recorder, while the Fifth uses a flute; the remaining pieces use neither. Similarly, the oboe makes an appearance in the First (in fact, three oboes) and Second (only one oboe this time) and in none of the others. Even the harpsichord, so common in music of the era, shows up in only five of the six works. If you have wondered why the Concertos sound so different from each other, wonder no more.
Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, the Brandenburgs are among the best known and best loved of Bach’s works. While a huge variety of pieces for solo instruments are revered among musicians (think Violin Sonatas, the Cello Suites, works for organ, Goldberg Variations, etc.), and loads of pieces for larger ensembles are wonderful and reasonably popular (the English Suites, the French Suites, etc.), none of these have anywhere near the instant recognizability with the wider public as do the Brandenburgs. Why is that? Who knows? In some parallel universe, perhaps the Brandenburgs are of interest primarily to scholars while a collection of orchestral suites is heard everywhere.
Be that as it may, both the popularity of the Brandenburgs and their inherent musical value have brought forth an incredible number of recordings. These recordings variously use modern instruments and period instruments, with some transcriptions for completely different instruments. For example, an Internet search of a few seconds revealed arrangements of one or the other of these works for solo piano, for guitar, and for brass quintet. It would not be surprising to learn that one or more has been arranged for marching band or, for that matter, kazoo band.
Which brings us to another point of interest: Bach’s music (usually) survives such rearrangements and reinterpretations; indeed, they sometimes (often?) offer insights and perspectives that differ from, but seem as valid as, the originals. And that, in turn, brings us to the question of period versus modern instruments. The issue is not so much whether the work is somehow “better” on period instruments, with playing informed by period practices, supposed or real. Instead, and to my mind particularly with Bach, historically informed performances (HIPs, and yes, that is a real acronym) will offer new perspectives in somewhat the same way that transcriptions do. Naturally, HIP advocates will object that I have said this completely backwards: the HIPs are the base, and at best we can hope that modern performances are the ones that offer different perspectives, to which I respond with that truly intellectual slogan “Whatever.” The point is that, even if you have one or several favorite recordings done to modern standards on modern instruments, and even if you have doubts about the wonders of HIP in general, you really should hear one or more HIPs of the Brandenburgs.
Which brings us to the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, hereinafter the Akademie. This is a well-known ensemble that has been around since 1982 and consists of about 30 musicians. As the name implies, the group is oriented toward HIPs, and the members do play period instruments or, in many cases, copies thereof. That latter can be a good thing: while instruments like Stradivarius violins get the headlines and still sound fabulous, a lot of “real” period instruments that are still around either were not all that well made in the first place or are the worse for wear. Many of the instruments used in these recordings were modern copies, not originals and, as the liner notes point out, these instruments often do sound better than the originals.
The Akademie recorded these same works for the same label 25 years ago on a critically well-received two-disk set, one that was for many years my own go-to version. While the years have brought changes, perhaps one third of the personnel credited on the earlier release are still around for the newer one. Considering the passage of about 25 years, the better part of a musical career at this level, between the two sets of recordings, that strikes me as impressive continuity. For this recording, the permanent ensemble forces are joined by star violinist Isabelle Faust and violist Antoine Tamestit. So, do the results justify another shot?
I think so, for two reasons. First, the main criticism that I”ve seen of the first effort is that the playing is impeccable, but perhaps a little too impeccable. Some listeners heard a certain lack of spontaneity or passion: all the notes in the right places, but in the end not as exciting as one would hope. While the music here should not be exciting in the manner of a full-blown romantic concerto, some thought that Bach’s music should generate a little more sense of energy than present on that first go-round. Whatever the merits of that criticism, any doubts should be removed by this newer set. The differences in playing are not huge, but most of the tempi are a little faster and there’s just a little more sprightliness, for want of a better word, in the playing. Again, this is a subtle effect, perhaps not noticeable on first hearing, but I found myself listening a little more eagerly, a little more attentively to the new set.
Speaking of energy, I should note that the tempi are quicker than many other versions, including the earlier Akademie set. Somewhat surprisingly, though, they never sounding rushed. This is particularly noticeable in the Third: the opening movement is quick, but the allegro third movement bursts out of the gate at an amazing clip. It seems even faster than it is because it follows a very sedate, very short (16 second!) adagio. Nevertheless, the tempi feel right, and the players are very much up to the task of keeping it together.
The second reason that justifies this new release in the presence of the older one is the upgrade in sound, particularly in clarity. It’s a little easier to hear individual parts, even though the newer version may have been recorded in a slightly more reverberant environment. How much of this is due to the musicians (instruments, intentional balances, even positioning of the players) and how much is due to improved recording technique is hard to tell. But I find the presentation on the new disks a little clearer, a little more spacious, than that on the old.
And how does this recording measure up against the best other versions out there? With so many versions and variations available, I certainly am not going to start a discussion about the “best.” But to my ears, these are top-rank performances in very good sound, surely somewhere in the top tier of HIPs. I don’t see how you could go wrong with this set.
Much has changed in the world of historically informed performance practice since 1976, especially in terms of tempi. That is no more in evidence than in this second of the Akademie’s recordings of the set (their first was in the late nineties). I have always liked the Akademie and their HIP performances, but here they may have taken things a tad too far. While the Akademie’s faster tempos in some of the concertos may seem initially quite exhilarating, they tend eventually to tire one out. They aren’t so fast as to be objectionable, mind you, but they do sort of suck the life out of some of the music in the long haul. And yet...and here’s the odd thing...while the Akademie play much of the concertos at a healthy clip, they also manage to sound quite elegant. It’s something listeners may find either pleasantly refreshing or a tad disconcerting.
Moving along, you probably know by now that Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos 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 solo instruments that Bach had probably written earlier for other occasions. (It was not uncommon in those days for composers to borrow from one another and even from themselves.)
The Concerto No. 1 is among the longest of the concertos, and Bach arranged it for the biggest number of players. In the Akademie’s performance, the second-movement Adagio comes off sweetly. The third movement nicely integrates the soloists and accompaniment, and the work ends with a refined minuet. Still, things seemed a touch rushed to me overall.
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. On some recordings the trumpet can be too bright, edgy, or forward, but here it sounds just right. The interaction of the soloists is delightful, and if the rest of the accompaniment seems merely perfunctory, well, that’s Bach’s doing, not the Akademie’s. Regardless, the piece comes off with a quick-paced, stylish, yet graceful charm.
Insofar as I can tell, Concerto No. 3 is as popular as No. 2, maybe even more so; therefore, it’s equally probable that listeners may have certain expectations for it. Certainly, the Akademie attacks the piece with vigor, but I’m not sure their enthusiasm is entirely well guided. I suspect it’s just that I am used to a more moderate approach even from a HIP performance, say that of Trevor Pinnock in the second of his recordings of the Brandenburgs (Avie), an interpretation that is warmly affectionate rather than quite so gung-ho. Whatever, let’s just say the Akademie’s reading is invigorating.
For me, No. 4 is the most playful of the Concertos, 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. The Akademie do it up in fine style, this time not rushing through anything and adding an impish charm to the proceedings. The audio is also among the best on the set, possibly given the smaller ensemble size. Whatever, it was my favorite performance of any in the set.
Concerto No. 5 as another one of my preferred concertos, 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, it’s here, maybe for the first time ever, that a composer lets the harpsichord gets its day in the sun, not merely accompanying the other instruments but playing an equal part in the proceedings. Here, too the intimacy of the smaller group makes for a lovely rendition, and the playing of the Akademie is quite secure, the harpsichord certainly. I loved what the group did with both Nos. 4 and 5.
Finally, there’s Concerto No. 6, which uses the smallest ensemble, yet never seems to feel small. Its only real drawback is its melodic similarity to Concerto No. 3 and its consequent lack of much real distinctiveness. Nevertheless, it’s hard for one seriously to dislike it, particularly in the lively yet tasteful manner the Akademie approach it.
Producer Florian B. Schmidt and sound engineer Aki Matusch recorded the music at Médiapôle Saint-Césaire, Arles, France in March and May 2021. There is enough hall resonance (sometimes too much) to make even the smaller ensembles sound big, which can produce a pleasing, even soothing effect but does tend to obscure some inner detailing in the larger ensemble pieces like Nos. 1, 2, and 3. The sound is also slightly warm and soft, so ultimate transparency in the larger pieces is sometimes sacrificed for a more natural listening experience. Nevertheless, these are quibbles, and it was good to hear the sound getting better and better as the set proceeded.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: