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Brilliant Classics

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Orchestral Suites

Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major BWV 1066 for 2 oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo (c1717-23) [26:46]
Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor BWV 1067 for flute, strings and continuo (late 1730s) [25:01]
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major BWV 1068 for 3 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, strings and continuo (c1729-31) [30:59]
Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D major BWV 1069 for 3 oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo (c1717-23) [23:48]
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 29 Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (1731) [4:00]
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 146 Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen (c1726-8) [8:01]
Andrew Manze, Pieter v. Dommele, Laura Johnson, Paul Lindenauer, Regine Schröder-Hengelbrock, Veronika Schepping, Mimi Mitchell, Mechthild Werner, Gabriele Nussberger (violin)
Jan-Willem Vis, Laxmi Bickley, Niek Idema (viola)
Olaf Reimers, Barbara Kernig (cello)
Maggie Urquhart (double bass)
Christoph Lehmann, Joachim Vogelsänger (harpsichord)
Alfredo Bernadini, Ulrike Neukammm Kristin Linde (oboe)
David Mings (bassoon)
Susan Williams, Maarten v. Weverwijk, Siegried Höfner (trumpet)
Maarten v.d. Valk (timpani)
Masahiro Arita (flauto traverso)
Christoph Lehmann (organ)
La Stravaganza Köln/Andrew Manze
rec. Sendesaal of DeutschlandRadio, Köln, Germany, 1994. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92721/2 [56:15 + 55:07]

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"This man [J. S .Bach] would be the admiration of whole nations if he was more pleasant and if he did not allow a bombastic and complicated style to stifle any naturalness in his pieces, or obscure their beauty through excessive artifice."

Thus begins the booklet accompanying Brilliant Classics' two-CD issue of Bach's Orchestral Suites, quoting from composer J.A.Scheibe's 1737 verdict about his contemporary. Perhaps Scheibe did not enjoy the benefit of hearing Bach's music played by an ensemble as technically adept as La Stravaganza Köln. Regardless of his condemnation, though, there is no obstruction to the transparent beauty of Bach's music on this pair of CDs, and no indication of obfuscation through musical artifice.

On the contrary, the performances on this recording are commendably clear, musical and well balanced. Though the recording is over a decade old (it was previously released by Denon), it's as clear as glass; despite the performances being on period instruments, the sound is smooth and flawless, with no hint of rough edges or of suspect tuning or intonation.

In recordings produced in recent years, it has become common practice for many ensembles to strive for authenticity in their performances through use of inégalité, over-dotting, ornamentation, an academic approach to phrasing and other tips of the hat to supposed performance practice of the early 18th century. Each listener is likely to have his or her existing opinions about the merits of authentic performance practice, and supporters of the more academic approach will not have their enthusiasm set alight by this particular recording. Listeners who consider that the modern approach to creating period performances produces an overly eccentric and affected result, however, will take great delight in the transparent musicality of the performances recorded here.

In fact, the CD booklet, whose notes were written by director and leader Andrew Manze, goes out of its way to explain that La Stravaganza has taken a very deliberate decision to avoid the more pedantic and fashionable modern approach, in favour of a more naturalistic softening of rhythms and application of rubato rather than inégalité. Whilst this may not please the authentic-performance buffs, anyone without much interest in the authenticity debate will find a rendition which is clear, precise and thoroughly musical. La Stravaganza's claimed use of rubato and naturalistic rhythms may sound like an excuse for a sloppy performance, but nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, this is a tremendously well articulated recording from all points of view.

As already stated, the sound quality is excellent, as is the instrumental balance. All parts can be heard with complete clarity regardless of the number of instruments playing at any given time, and when a particular part needs to be prominent for a particular passage, it's invariably allowed to come forward without detracting from the clarity of the other players. As for the performances themselves, they are unaffected and musical yet precise. All articulation is carefully observed and very clear, and ensemble is generally perfect. Tempi are a little on the fast side, but many of the movements in the Orchestral Suites are dances, after all, and these performances exude life.

One interesting peculiarity, which is likely to offend the purists, is the instrumentation of Orchestral Suite No. 4. Normally performed with a similar scoring to that of Suite No. 3, including trumpets and timpani, in this recording those parts have been dropped. The idea behind this decision is that the surviving version of the suite may have been an arrangement made in Leipzig of an original written during Bach's time in Cöthen; a supposition which may or may not be valid; none of the original scores of Bach's Orchestral Suites survives, and they have all been reconstructed from instrumental parts. If this supposition is correct, then there could not have been any trumpet or timpani parts in the original version. Without them, the character of the suite is certainly modified considerably, and the antiphonal effect of different groups of instruments is also more readily apparent. It seems questionable whether Bach, in rearranging his suite for performance in Leipzig, would have decided to change its character fundamentally by the addition of rambunctious new trumpet and timpani lines, so the supposition that these parts were an afterthought can be no more than an intriguing idea. Without them, the Suite certainly has a very different nature. The fact that it still works, musically, without those parts may indicate either that Andrew Manze's supposition has some credence, or that Bach's music is so robust as to be virtually impervious to damage, regardless of the indignities to which it is subjected! The latter point has been proved innumerable times through far more serious mistreatment of Bach's work than that administered by La Stravaganza! Whatever you think of the decision, the recording presents an intriguing new take on a familiar suite.

Overall, therefore, this is an outstanding recording with very few shortcomings, and an interestingly different account of the fourth Orchestral Suite. There are a few superficial blemishes, though. Notwithstanding the points about generally precise rhythms, the fast bassoon passages in the first movement of the first Orchestral Suite, although played accurately, almost fall over themselves in their eagerness, and sound to be rushing the tempo against the other players. Later, in the BWV146 Sinfonia, some of the rhythms in the organ part sound not so much rubato as recalcitrant. As for balance, the sweet-sounding but light chamber organ in the BWV29 Sinfonia is almost swamped by other the instruments at times, and the flute in the famous Badinerie that ends Orchestral Suite No. 2 is a fraction less prominent than might be ideal. These are extremely minor complaints, however, and the performances are excellent. This recording may not satisfy the authenticity brigade, but it's an extremely musically pleasing and lithe performance of some of Bach's best-known and most accessible works.

The CDs come in an old-style thick double-jewel-case. This looks attractive enough, but a modern single-width two-disc case would have been preferable. It's not as if the extra space was needed for a large booklet. Andrew Manze's notes about the music and his approach to its performance run to only eight pages and are in English only.

Richard Hallas

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