Bach’s Orchestral Suites, or Overtures, are among the only
true orchestral works he wrote for a chamber ensemble. With the exception
of the Brandenburg Concertos, all his other orchestral works are for solo
instruments, such as harpsichord or violin, and orchestra. The four overtures
are tutti works, like the Brandenburgs, where the entire ensemble is the
soloist. These works are also some of the most French of all of Bach’s
music - not only is the sound distinctly French, but the movements bear
French names as well.
There are many unresolved issues around these works
- when, exactly, they were written, how they were meant to be scored,
and which versions of the existing copies are to be used. There are
no autograph copies for any of these works, and this leaves them surrounded
by many questions. Siegbert Rampe has been analysing these overtures
and has come up with what he considers "early" versions of
the works, which he has reconstructed from the various copies. In addition,
he adds two individual movements that may have been part of other overtures.
There has long been a question of why Bach only wrote four of these
In any case, these issues are interesting for musicologists,
but for those seeking fine music played and recorded well, this set
is exactly the answer. Rampe and his ensemble show a rare level of energy
and vigour when playing these pieces, which are too often played laconically.
The opening movement of the first overture is played with a great deal
of finesse, and the tempo is agreeable energetic. The rest of the suite
continues along these lines, with bright, snappy lines, and a truly
regal sound. One can hear the French rhythms that give this music its
The long opening movement of the second suite, marked
lentement, also gets the appropriate treatment, with its minor
key giving it more gravity, but with the musicians performing brilliantly.
The delightful rondeaux that follows - which calls forth images of men
and women with powdered wigs dancing by candlelight - is well-articulated,
and, again, has the right level of energy. One can feel in this, and
in the other fast movements, such as the Bourrée, that Rampe
truly understands this music. So many other performers play these movements
with such gravity that they lose their rhythm, but here the music comes
The famous air of the third suite (the Hamlet cigar
music), has a nice round tone, with the violins playing softly yet clearly,
and the accompaniment balanced perfectly. The fourth overture, played
here by 3 oboes, bassoon, 2 violins and continuo, sounds a bit too large
and unbalanced. The opening overture sounds a bit hesitant, and the
mix of the instruments does not come through as well as the other suites.
But it picks up again with the sprightly bourrée, where the oboes
fit perfectly, and the overall volume allows all the instruments to
come through clearly.
The sound of this recording, as with most MDG discs,
is exemplary, with such perfect space and resonance; one can regret
that the harpsichord sounds a bit buzzy at time. It is not clear whether
this is because of the instrument or the way it is miked, but it does
distract, especially when listening with headphones. But the instruments
are all balanced perfectly, and the sound is a true delight.
This is an excellent recording, full of energy and
liveliness, with fine sound and a wonderfully bright approach to these
works that are far too often portrayed as staid and "orchestral".
Siegbert Rampe gives this music the treatment it truly deserves, putting
it in the right perspective and playing it with great affection.