"There is such
a variety of fine recordings of the
Brandenburg Concertos that any new recording
needs some justification." Thus
writes Trevor Pinnock in the liner notes
to his new recording of the Brandenburg
concertos on Avie.
He succeeds on paper – with his warm
description for his personal reasons
of re-recording the Brandenburgs, of
differing musical choices, and on how
the recording and the performances of
the European Brandenburg Ensemble became
a very personal tribute and cause as
tragedy struck the ensemble and took
violist Katherine McGillivray from them.
Whether Pinnock succeeds
on record is more difficult to answer.
At the least he adds yet another very
fine recording to the many fine recordings
available, a quarter century after his
recording with the English Consort on
Archiv came out.
The European Brandenburg
Ensemble (EBE) was specifically founded
to play these works. It is made up of
players of all ages and European countries
– particularly to eschew any one, nationally
flavored style of baroque playing… to
achieve the universality that makes
Bach’s language so special. Pinnock
succeeds on that point, too: There is
no particularly "British"
flavor to these Brandenburg concertos.
He also succeeds in introducing a greater
sense of spontaneity that comes close
to spirit of the live performances that
took the EBE all over Europe and to
Asia with these works. All as part of
a big Bach-embracing 60th
Birthday tour of Pinnock’s.
Many listeners, record
clerks, and Bach-lovers still consider
Pinnock’s 1982 recording of the Brandenburg
Concertos as one of the top choices
versions. I might have agreed with that
myself, based on memory. But pulling
these recordings out again proved that
they have not aged nearly as well as
assumed. It also heightened my appreciation
of the new Pinnock recording considerably.
The Archiv recording
shows all too clearly how much Historical
Performance Practice has improved. The
natural horns and trumpets should not
(or need not) sound like that – and
they don’t, in more modern recordings
like the excellent Academy for Ancient
Music Berlin’s (HMU
2901634) or Musica Antiqua Cologne’s
under Reinhard Goebel (part of Archiv
471656). Similarly the unlovely
string sound is perhaps authentic in
the true sense of the word, but not
appreciated now, that we can have better.
The strings of the
EBE are a delight, not just in comparison.
The solo violin ‘cadenza’ in the Adagio
of the Third Concerto that Pinnock opts
for is but one notable example. The
trumpet, however and the horns, too,
continue to be a weak-spot. They were
often off-color in
concert – and they are surprisingly
unreliable in this recording, too. That’s
too bad – because where the earlier
Pinnock recording manages to convey
the architecture of the concertos with
its steady paced, unexaggerated, sturdy
way, the new recording manages to go
about things in a much more free-wheeling
manner. Tempos are – except in the Fifth
Concerto – ever so slightly sped up…
but more important, and decidedly unrelated:
every movement sounds more alive, more
energetic. This ‘new’ Bach is not as
reverently worshiped, it is adored with
coyness, sparkle, and a twinkle in its
eye. Nothing limps, nothing lurches.
Every concerto has a slightly different
tone of voice, too, which makes listening
to all six in a row a fairly stimulating
– not tiring – affair. The atmosphere
as a whole is quite light – partly a
result of Pinnock opting for the cello
(instead of bass) playing the continuo
part in four out of six concertos.
Anyone who especially
likes the performances and interpretations
of Trevor Pinnock will find this recording
to be a delight and probably a distinct
improvement over its predecessor. If,
meanwhile, someone were to hunt for
the (elusive) ‘definitive’ version of
HIP Brandenburg Concertos, this beautifully
packaged and presented CD set might
be a contender – but there are at least
a handful of other accounts that should
not be overlooked at the expense of
this. Tuning is the HIP standard a’
= 415 Hz, although Pinnock suggests
in his lucid liner notes that Bach’s
tuning may have been as low as a’ =
390 at the time.
A final note of sheer
curiosity: What exactly are those loud
clicking noises during the horn-only
part in the first concerto’s Menuetto?
Sounds like a mad clarinetist’s keys
clicking – except of course that there’s
no clarinet or any other instrument
with similar such keys involved. A strange,
but not seriously off-putting phenomenon.
Jens F. Laurson