So extensive is the discography of Sir John Eliot Gardiner
that it came as a real surprise to read in his note accompanying
release that he has not recorded the Brandenburg Concertos before.
But, on reflection, that’s not perhaps such a surprise
because he is a conductor rather than an instrumentalist and
most recordings these days seem to be directed by instrumentalists.
In any case, he makes it clear that he sees the Brandenburgs
essentially as chamber works and takes the view that only the
first two concerti are “grand and complex enough for the
presence of a non-performing instigator and co-ordinator to be
useful.” His solution, therefore, on this occasion has
been to be fully involved in the rehearsals for the whole set
but, when it came to the live performances, to conduct just the
first two concerti and then, literally, to retire to a seat in
the audience, leaving the direction in the clearly very capable
hands of the EBS concertmaster, Kati Debretzeni.
The result of this approach and the evident care and study on
the part of all concerned has been to give us a set of splendid
performances, which sound collegiate and manage to combine spontaneity
with careful consideration of the music. Let me give one illustration
of the care and attention to detail behind these performances.
In one of a series of very interesting short booklet essays by
members of the EBS, principal violist Jane Rogers writes that
it is always a challenge for violists to match their tone as
well as their playing in the Sixth Concerto. To obtain the best
possible results in these performances she and her colleague,
Stella Wilkinson, went to the trouble - and expense, one presumes
- of commissioning a pair of new, matching instruments from a
Polish maker. If that’s not dedication I don’t know
Kati Debretzeni is much to the fore in these performances, as
violin soloist in the first two concerti and then soloist and
director in numbers 3 to 5 - she’s also, apparently, the
director of the Sixth Concerto, though, of course, she doesn’t
play in that performance. By coincidence, she’s also very
prominent in Trevor Pinnock’s much-admired 2007 set with
the European Brandenburg Ensemble for Avie (AV2119
I like Pinnock’s performances very much and
it’s been fascinating to compare the two sets. One general
observation is that Pinnock’s recording seems to be cut
at a higher level than the EBS performances - and, perhaps, the
microphones are also placed a fraction closer by the Avie engineers.
This meant that when playing the two versions side by side, without
changing the volume settings, the Pinnock performances are louder
and, as a result, seem a bit more public. That’s not an
implicit criticism, by the way. It’s also interesting to
note that in several cases, mainly in outer movements, Pinnock
and his players adopt tempi that are just a fraction steadier
than those on the EBS set. One key thing that both sets have
in common, however, is superlative playing.
The EBS performance of the First Concerto
gets off to
a cracking start, thanks in no small measure to the marvellously
rustic rasp of the horns. Horn player Anneke Scott observes of
this music that ”it feels as if Bach really was bringing
the horn players straight from the field into the concert room” and
the EBS horns make a wonderful impact here. Pinnock’s excellent
players don’t quite match them in attack and sheer brio
The EBS give a fine, spirited account of I while II, featuring
some excellent oboe playing, is stately and the music breathes
nicely. The reading of III evidences great energy and while the
horns once again make their presence felt they don’t dominate,
so that it’s perfectly possible to hear what the violin
and oboes are up to - and the ripieno band as well. Incidentally,
Gardiner employs a ripieno band of eleven plus harpsichord here;
Pinnock has two fewer in his band but generally both versions
deploy similar forces throughout the set.
SDG helpfully divide movement IV into six separate tracks. The
EBS impart a nice lift to the Minuet and Trio I is charming.
My favourite passage in their account of this movement is Trio
II, where the horns and oboes are superbly agile and produce
some real excitement. Both Gardiner and Pinnock do this concerto
very well indeed but I think the extra frisson provided by his
horns just edges the verdict Gardiner’s way.
I said that generally both versions field similar sized forces.
The exception to this is the Second Concerto
, for which
Gardiner once again has a ripieno band of eleven plus harpsichord
but Pinnock contents himself with just six ripienists plus himself.
But, oddly, it’s the Gardiner performance that feels a
bit more intimate and I think in large part this is to do with
the contributions of the respective trumpeters. David Blackadder
is marvellous for Pinnock, but for Gardiner Neil Brough delivers
something very special indeed, producing a much slimmer, lighter
tone, which means that he’s superbly balanced against the
violin, oboe and recorder. Blackadder is just that bit more prominent
in the textures of the outer movements. In I Brough is wonderfully
athletic in his playing and all four soloists display real virtuosity
and offer some marvellously lithe playing. Pinnock’s tempo
is just a notch steadier than Gardiner’s and though his
performance is very fine indeed I love the quicksilver delivery
of the EBS players.
In II three of the soloists - the trumpeter is silent - treat
listeners to some delicate solo work, tastefully accompanied
by their EBS colleagues. The reading of III features some more
fabulous trumpet playing, though Neil Brough’s three soloist
colleagues are by no means put in the shade. The effervescent
performance of this movement is sheer delight; it’s champagne
Bach. Even the excellent Pinnock performance, at a slightly steadier
speed, can’t trump this.
With Sir John comfortably installed in his stalls seat, Kati
Debretzeni and her colleagues address the Third Concerto
Incidentally, there is a recording of this work in Volume 27
of Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series (see review
I don’t know whether or not he directed that very sprightly
performance by the EBS - I’d assumed he did - but Miss
Debretzeni is, I think, the sole player common to both performances.
Both this new EBS account and the Pinnock performance are winning
ones. In his excellent essay accompanying the Pinnock discs John
Butt comments that this concerto displays “the fleet interplay
of forces, a celebration of the entire violin family.” That’s
just the feeling one gets when listening to either of these recordings.
Pinnock adopts a fractionally steadier tempo in I but, frankly,
it’s hard to put the proverbial cigarette paper between
the two performances. Both versions feature improvisations by
Miss Debretzeni as the second movement. I don’t know what
is the basis for her improvisation on the Pinnock set. For the
EBS version she tells us that she plays a written-out improvisation
loosely based on the opening bass line of the Grave
Bach’s second sonata for solo violin. The EBS reading of
III has a seemingly unstoppable impetus, though the music is
certainly not rushed off its feet. I think the EBS have a slight
edge over the steadier Pinnock forces here in terms of speed
and musical excitement. You get the distinct impression that
the EBS players are having fun.
The Fourth Concerto
brings a pair of recorders into the
solo team alongside Miss Debretzeni. The piping sound of these
instruments in I is quite delicious. The EBS players display
great agility and Miss Debretzeni’s violin scurries around
to good purpose as well. This is a thoroughly engaging, smiling
performance. The Sarabande-like second movement is beautifully
played and the vivacious finale is excellently delivered as well.
In this latter movement, as well as admiring the dexterity of
the three soloists in alt,
I love the firm but not overdone
bass line in the ripieno band.
The Fifth Concerto
brings the harpsichord centre stage
to join the solo violinist and flautist. John Butt draws attention
to Bach’s innovative scoring here. Not only was the transverse
flute pretty new to Germany at that time but also the harpsichord
was not thought of as a concerto instrument. He speculates that
the fact that the Cöthen court had acquired a large new
harpsichord from Berlin in 1719 may have encouraged Bach to give
It’s interesting to compare the contributions - both excellent
- of Malcolm Proud (EBS) and Trevor Pinnock. I don’t know
if Pinnock had a larger instrument at his disposal or whether
questions of musical style or recorded balance come into the
equation but Pinnock is a more forward presence. Indeed, some
listeners may feel Proud is a shade reticent. For myself, I quite
like the balance and one gets the feeling that the EBS soloists
play as a genuine trio. Proud gives a splendid, dextrous account
of the famous cadenza and he builds up to the return of the ripieno
band excitingly. Pinnock is a bit more self-evidently a primus
- I don’t think that’s a bad thing
- and he seems to project the cadenza a bit more strongly. On
the EBS disc there’s some exquisite interplay between the
soloists in II and the finale, a gigue that is infectious and
light-footed in this performance, is sheer delight.
Finally, the Sixth Concerto
, the one for which the EBS
viola players had instruments made specially. Whether it’s
on account of these custom-made violas or not the ensemble produces
a lovely nutty sound in I. The viola tone is husky and warm and
the instruments do indeed blend with each other and with the
pair of gambas - though I fancy the skill of the various players
has something to do with the quality of the blend too! Bach’s
highly imaginative, low-voiced sonorities are expertly realised.
The gambas are nicely to the fore in II, though not intrusively
so. John Butt suggests that the prominence of the gamba in this
concerto may be a compliment by Bach to his employer, Prince
Leopold of Cöthen, who himself played the instrument. The
players make the music of the gigue finale dance very nicely.
This new set of the Brandenburgs is a delight. Of course, the
number of recordings of these six concerti is legion and many
adopt different stylistic approaches. It seems to me that this
EBS set - and the Pinnock set too - is distinguished by careful
preparation and scholarship; by a fine sense of style; by a feeling
of the players’ sheer enjoyment of the music; and, of course,
by pretty flawless execution. There have been a number of places
where I’ve expressed a preference for the EBS recording
over Pinnock’s version but I must emphasise very strongly
that any such preferences are relatively slight, a matter of
degree and usually a matter also of subjective taste. In fact,
comparing the two sets side by side has reinforced my great admiration
for the Pinnock set even though I warmly welcome this newcomer.
Both sets, incidentally, come with first-rate documentation and
are most attractively and tastefully presented.
What to advise? Well, of course, I’ve only compared two
of the huge number of recordings of the Brandenburgs and other
collectors will undoubtedly have their own favourites. But, confining
myself just to these two recordings, I think that if you have
the Pinnock recording you can probably rest content. However,
if you don’t then this EBS recording is a most attractive
proposition. It would be an irresponsible extravagance to have
both - or would it …?
I feel sure that anyone acquiring this marvellous EBS set of
the Brandenburgs will find it a lasting source of enjoyment and
a recording that makes us marvel afresh at the musical skill,
imagination and invention of J. S. Bach.