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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
CD1
Brandenburg Concerto No.1, F-major, BWV 1046 [21:59]
Brandenburg Concerto No.2, F-major, BWV 1047 [13:00]
Brandenburg Concerto No.3, G-major, BWV1048 [9:12]
Brandenburg Concerto No.4, G-major, BWV 1049 [15:36]
CD2
Brandenburg Concerto No.5, D-major, BWV1050 [21:01]
Brandenburg Concerto No.6, B-flat major, BWV 1051 [21:29]
Orchestral Suite No.1 BWV 1066 [22:11]
CD3
Orchestral Suite No.2 BWV 1067 [21:01]
Orchestral Suite No.3 BWV 1068 [20:09]
Orchestral Suite No.4 BWV 1069 [20:59]
Busch Chamber Players/Adolf Busch
rec. October 1935 (Brandenburg Concertos), October 1936 (Orchestral Suites), Abbey Road Studios, London
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 2126992 [3 CDs: 59:56 + 66:40 + 62:09]

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
CD1
Brandenburg Concerto No.1, F-major, BWV 1046 [21:38]
Brandenburg Concerto No.2, F-major, BWV 1047 [11:15]
Brandenburg Concerto No.3, G-major, BWV1048 [11:00]
CD2
Brandenburg Concerto No.4, G-major, BWV 1049 [14:43]
Brandenburg Concerto No.5, D-major, BWV1050 [21:15]
Brandenburg Concerto No.6, B-flat major, BWV 1051 [16:06]
Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr
rec. 2008. no information supplied
HARMONIA MUNDI 807461.62 [44:04 + 52:16]
Experience Classicsonline

Recordings can be a stark reminder how time flies. It didn’t seem that long ago that historically informed performances of, say, the Brandenburg Concertos, still had an air of novelty about them. Now the first HIP recordings could be considered historical. Formerly progressive approaches - first Richter, then Rilling – strike one as old-fashioned, and what once were historical recordings seem downright ancient. That contrast could not have been made more clear with one of the most recent and one of the oldest recordings of these Brandenburg concertos appearing on my desk at the same time.
 
Richard Egarr’s recording with his Academy of Ancient Musick on Harmonia Mundi representing the latest in HIP Bach (see YouTube video). EMI’s re-issue of the 1935/36 recordings of Adolf Busch and his Busch Chamber Players stands at the other extreme. That said, Busch & Co. could be said to have been the HIPsters of their time.
 
Direct comparison is telling and interesting, but useless when it comes to deciding whether they are competitive releases. The purposes are different. No one will or should get a 70+ year old recording as the first or only recording of these works, even one where the sound is as decent as on these newly re-mastered discs. Busch operates outside the competition or, rather, in the historic division which includes Alfred Cortot and his École Normal de Musique - the first recording of all six concertos, also on EMI Classics - as the obvious competitor. You can perhaps count Pablo Casals’ 1950 Prades Festival recording in the same company.
 
For Egarr, the two most recent major period instrument releases - Alessandrini/Concerto Italiano on Naïve and Pinnock/Brandenburg Ensemble on Avie (see review) - serve nicely to elucidate contrasts and similarities. Egarr and Alessandrini use one player per part; Pinnock mostly uses a small ensemble, switching to one-to-a-part only for the Fifth Concerto. Egarr’s First Concerto starts boldly with a dark, round, slightly stuffed horn sound. This is perfectly executed by the natural horn players who barge in with the excitement of an ensuing hunt. The darkness has a reason: Egarr chose the French Baroque pitch for this recording, which, at A392, is another semitone lower than the standard Baroque pitch of A415.
 
Egarr’s swift Adagio (3:09, Alessandrini 4:02, Pinnock 3:39) does little to indulge his oboists and the violino piccolo, but establishes a pleasantly fresh pulse. The ritardando in the third movement (Allegro) of the First Concerto, just before the music jolts back out of this brief contemplative point, is massive. Although Alessandrini beats him by stretching it to 25, not just 20, seconds and coming to a complete halt, Egarr makes it sound even more audacious by starting it a few notes earlier. He keeps the music going throughout, and then bolts on even more explosively than Concerto Italiano. It’s one of the few moments where Egarr out-excites Alessandrini, being usually on the slightly calmer - and saner - side of things than his Italian colleague.
 
The Menuet is a nervously, yet steadily chugging little thing in Alessandrini’s hands; a bright and graceful dancing movement with Pinnock. With Egarr it has a contemplative, incredibly sensuous flow. Put less positively: it’s a case of muffled lurching. Egarr has no time for any cadenza-improvising or movement-substituting between the two Adagio-chords of the Third Concerto. He states, in the accompanying notes, that “Bach’s ‘Bar’ (the one containing these two chords) is perfect’” and cites compelling mathematical context in his support.
 
The Presto from the Fourth Concerto just purls along with gentle ease. The flute vibrato in the opening Allegro of the Fifth Concerto is tasteful enough. It is not as overt as with Alessandrini and not as borderline sour as with Pinnock. The concluding Allegro could stand representative of much of the general differences between these recordings: Egarr buoyant, unintrusive, with a soft flexibility to the ensemble’s tone; Alessandrini explosive with a bit more edge, and Pinnock in-between. I particularly love the silken airiness of the Second Concerto’s Allegro in Egarr and the — musicologically incorrect — use of theorbo basso continuo throughout. The instrument is used instead (!) of the harpsichord in the Adagio ma non tanto of the Sixth Concerto. The added continuo color, writes Egarr, was “a delicious luxury I couldn’t forgo.”
 
Richard Egarr is not a man of extremes and he performs these works with a well-judged moderation. His Allegros are not quite so fast, his Adagios not overly slow and his accents lively but not spiked. His touch on the harpsichord is soft and ever-deft. He doesn’t set out to shock or primarily excite, but to delight. This warm touch reminds of Jordi Savall’s version with Le Concert des Nations more than any other HIP account I know.
 
The sound is excellent: rich and with lots of room to bloom — although on the soft side, further emphasizing the character of the interpretation. Voices are not as easily separable as in the Alessandrini recording, which offers more clarity. The recording is SACD Surround capable, but was reviewed only in (SACD) stereo. The presentation is up to Harmonia Mundi’s usual highest standards. Perhaps not a must-have for anyone who already enjoys two or three HIP Brandenburgs in their collection, but a worthy addition. For those who fear gratuitousness and willfulness in HIP versions, it might be a first choice, especially as Savall is out of print.
 
What does state of the art 1935 sound mean in 2009? Well, it means “perfectly listenable”. It means that all the necessary musical and interpretive information is easily communicated. It means that the re-mastering did not have to zap the recording’s soul to leave us with background hiss that is minimal enough so as not to cause quick listening fatigue. It still beats listening to (non digital) radio by a good margin.
 
My impression of the Busch recording was bemused skepticism at first. It has, upon a few more listens, changed to bemused admiration and casual joy. I don’t see myself becoming zealous about this recording, but the felt and warm urgency of the music-making combined with the glory that is Bach induces a broad smile. The First Concerto might open with an Allegro that our spoiled ears find staid, but at the very latest when we reach the galloping Third Concerto (played one-to-a-part by Busch’s proto-HIPsters!) it becomes clear that Busch and his friends were, when playing Bach, not bound by the traditions of their time. How much of a Bach playing tradition was there, anyway, in these works? Nor are they shackled to the interpretive styles then associated with other music.
 
Sure, there are ‘anachronisms’ here and there - and a few off-notes - but this is miles away from the British “bigger-is-better” Handel oratorio style that occasionally spilled over to Bach’s choral works around that time. What Karl Richter was to Bach performance in the 1960s, Busch must have been in the 1930s. The Busch Players used viola da gambas and George Eskdale played on a Bach trumpet he had made. Only Busch’s son-in-law - Rudolf Serkin – opted for a concert grand rather than a harpsichord.
 
In the thoughtful new liner-notes, Tully Potter suggests that knowing the dreary big-band performances that Busch was reacting against would heighten our appreciation especially of the novelty of these interpretations. More importantly for me, Busch’s relative modernity allows us to hear much of what was different in the musical approach to Bach in that time without having to hear all that which was unambiguously worse.
 
I find slightly less appeal in the old-style Orchestral Suites that are also included on this three disc set, but for curiosity’s sake alone they’re a fine bonus.
 
Jens F. Laurson

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