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Bach: The European Brandenburg Ensemble, Trevor Pinnock (conductor, harpsichord) Herkulessaal, Munich 15.11.2007 (JFL)

J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos 1-6

While I feel decidedly ambivalent about the question of “HIP” vs. ‘modern’ performances of baroque (or classical, or even romantic) music, I do adore the invigorating  and impeccably moving performances of the likes of John Elliot Gardiner, Masaaki Suzuki, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or Phillip Herreweghe.

On record, their efforts are beyond criticism and elicit warm praise even from listeners who could not care less which bow the violinists are using or how many singers to a part make up the tutti passages, so long as it sounds good.

But in concert I’ve not always found my high expectations met by the famous names of “HIP” performance. At the Library of Congress, Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan disappointed on an admittedly high level and Herreweghe delivered a magnificent St. John’s Passion for Easter at Lincoln Center – but neither quite reached the most exalted of states.

Last week at the Herkulessaal it was Trevor Pinnock and his “Birthday-band”, The European Brandenburg Ensemble” who delighted in an unfulfilling way. Touring for almost a year and having played to audiences in Italy, Switzerland, Malaysia, South Korea, and the UK, they must have played all six Brandenburg Concertos some two dozen times, by now. In Munich, they concluded the season that had celebrated Trevor Pinnock’s 60th birthday (December 16th, 2006). Bach-worshipping as I am, even I might bore of these sublime concertos if I had to listen to – much less play – them day in and day out. At the very least,  I’d not be surprised if the spontaneous and improvisatory quality clearly wanted by Pinnock and his musicians (playing standing) might have given way to routine, at some point.

Apparently not in the concert at Cadogan Hall that had MusicWeb International’s Robert Costin elated with few caveats mentioned (see review.) But in Munich the luster was off in several of the six concertos. Not Pinnock himself – a man who looks like 1/3 Ian McKellen, 1/3 boarding school headmaster, and 1/3 indefatigable happy elf: he  played with zest and reasonable accuracy throughout sitting amid his collaborators. But the natural horns (Jocelyn Lightfoot, Andrew Clark) exposed the vulnerabilities of ‘authentic sound’ in the F-major concerto (BWV 1046) as did the shaky trumpet (David Blackadder) in the mercilessly difficult Second concerto in F-major. In the D-major concerto (BWV 1050) flutist Katy Bircher’s mellow, laudably air-less tone was not always audible but made even wrong notes sound pretty. In that proto-keyboard concerto, Pinnock’s fleet and steady playing largely kept the ensemble together and speed and agility were in ample display. The re-entry of the tutti section after the embellished and extensive cadenza was not quite the ‘moment’ it can be.

An entry that was magical  however, came in the Third Brandenburg Concerto G-major (BWV 1048) after the violin solo in the Adagio. The reason for the immense popularity of this all-strings concerto must the simplicity of its first movement – easy to remember and not very dull  at all. The third movement had the splendidly moving character as if driven by a flywheel. The Sixth concerto (B-major, BWV 1051) provided a charming calm for the middle movement after an intriguingly amorphous opening where the instrumental lines gave and took and became part of one another – a result of minimal delineation of the individual voices. Robert Ehrlich, the flutist, shone in the Second concerto as did the cellist Catherine Jones and violist Jane Rogers. It provided a generous finale to a concert that was by all means splendid – but just the same lacking in that sometimes intangible quality and spirit which makes for an outstanding experience. Having played the same six works for five nights in a row – as the ensemble had, by the time they arrived in Munich, would be more than an adequate excuse.

Jens F. Laurson


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