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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Orchestral Suites 1-4, BWV 1066-1069

Suite no. 1: Adolf Busch Chamber Players, recorded 28.10.1936, Abbey Road Studio no. 2, London
Suite no. 2: Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra/Willem Mengelberg, recorded 2.6.1931, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Suite no. 3: Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Felix Weingartner, recorded 11.5.1939, Studio Albert, Paris
Suite no. 3 – Air (arr. Mahler): New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/Willem Mengelberg, recorded 16.1.1929, Carnegie Hall, New York
Suite no. 4: Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky, recorded 14.8.1946, Tanglewood Music Shed, Lenox, Massachusetts
Brandenburg Concertos 1-6, BWV 1046-1051

Brandenburg no. 1: Szymon Goldberg (violin), Gustav Kern (oboe), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Alois Melichar
Brandenburg no. 2: Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski, recorded 27-29.9.1928, Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Brandenburg no. 3: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler, recorded 1930, Hochschule für Musik, Berlin
Brandenburg no. 4: Gabriel Bourdon (violin), Mm. Cortet and Marceau (flutes), L’Orchestra de Chamber de l’Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris/Alfred Cortot, recorded 29.5.1933, Paris
Brandenburg no. 5: Adolf Busch (violin), Marcel Moyse (flute), Rudolf Serkin (piano), Adolf Busch Chamber Players, recorded 10.1935, Abbey Road Studio no. 1, London
Brandenburg no. 6: William Lincer, Nicholas Bird (violas), Chamber Orchestra/Fritz Reiner, recorded 27.10.1949, New York
ANDANTE 69948 71986 2 3 [3 CDs: 65:66, 68:40, 57:35]


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The idea of assembling a set of Bach’s most popular orchestral works as interpreted by some of the great names of the past is an intriguing one, a sort of potted history of Bach interpretation in the early 20th Century. However, I am not sure that any particular criterion has been applied to the selection of the performances other than a scan through old record lists in search of alluring names. Now that such matters as Historical Evidence, Period Practice and Authentic Style have been fully absorbed into our systems, it may be time to take a look back at some of the recordings by which our fathers and grandfathers got to know the music, and to see if those poor mistaken souls that conducted them were possessed of any kind of insight which has been lost and might yet be grafted onto our own historically aware performances. Such an inquiry would need more than three CDs (it would need to include the complete Busch recordings for a start) but the present set will certainly start the ball rolling.

I hadn’t seen an Andante set before and I note that the impressive-looking booklet boils down to rather a lot of articles (presumably repeated on all their sets) about the objectives and transfer philosophy of this company, an article on Bach taken from Grove Music and a couple of not very insightful pieces on the recordings themselves. Still, it looks very impressive to the eye and is translated into French and German. As to the transfers, no matter what is claimed, they sound to me to be straight transfers of the original 78s as they would play on a good piece of equipment, without any attempt to remove hiss or to improve the quality. In view of the dismal results some of these improvements can produce, maybe it is better not to grumble, but I did wonder what Mark Obert-Thorn or Ward Marston might have made of some of these.


The Suites

No. 1

The Busch versions of the Suites and the Brandenburgs were highly esteemed in their day. However, a performance practice that might have seemed, at the time, to have shed new light on the music may not unduly impress modern ears. They used a smallish ensemble (but can still sound pretty massive at times), were led by the first violin (which may account for some moments of shaky ensemble) and adopted a relatively crisp and detached bowing style (but apparently felt no need to modify their tendency towards portamentos). They had no time for a harpsichord and also avoided the sort of dynamic shading applied by the likes of Mengelberg and Furtwängler (let alone Stokowski’s echo effects), but at the risk of sounding penny plain at times. That said, I thought the Forlane had a wonderful spirit to it and I enjoyed the serenity of the concluding Passepied (and see Brandenburg 5 below), but I found less revelation here than I expected.

No. 2

The revelations in this set, I suggest, are more likely to come, not from those performers who were at least tentatively heading in the direction of the typical post-war Bach performance, as from those who essay a style which we would not dream of attempting today. The massive bass lines and long legato phrases which open the Overture to Mengelberg’s 2nd Suite are unbelievably romantic yet beautiful in their way, while the Allegro attains that vital forward swing which is surely the common ingredient of the best Bach performances of all epochs. Mengelberg, like Furtwängler in the 3rd Brandenburg, applies long crescendos and diminuendos and builds the music to a powerful climax.

After his own lights, Mengelberg is pretty faithful to Bach – he applies none of the exaggerated rubatos which he meted out to more recent composers and the great feature of the performance is that, however massive the sound (which is nonetheless beautiful and transparently clear) he never loses touch with the dance origins of the movements, attaining, as needed, grace, vigour and buoyancy. The final Badinerie could still be a touchstone for modern interpreters. Performances seem to divide into those that take it too fast and come a cropper, and those that, carefully avoiding coming a cropper, are sedate and dull. Mengelberg is just within the limits of what still allows for clear articulation and it makes a terrific ending.

No. 3

No double dotting of the introduction of course, but much nobility while the faster central section of the overture has the same pulsing rhythmic energy and structural shaping (plenty of long-term dynamic shading) for which Weingartner’s Beethoven was justly famed. However, while the overture seems to flourish on Weingartner’s methods, the rest is less impressive. The famous Air has no particular distinction of phrasing to offset the rather heavy bass-line and, unlike Mengelberg, he seems unaware of the dance origins of the remaining movements, playing them almost like patriotic anthems. The tempo of the Gigue is almost risible.

As an "encore" we get the Air again, this time in Mahler’s arrangement and with Mengelberg indulging in Mahlerian rallentandos and rubatos yet managing to lead the ear on as Weingartner does not.

No. 4

An abrasive, often distorted recording in a very dry acoustic does not help. Koussevitzky’s playing of the first part of the Overture has a quite extraordinary nervous tension which explodes into a fast central section that has the motoric insistence of a Prokofiev toccata. This sounds wrong in a way that many of these "unauthentic" performances do not, but perhaps this in itself is not without interest. I’m going to make a dangerous generalisation, but I’d say that the most convincing Bach performances, no matter what instruments they are played on, set up a form of rhythmic motion which most listeners will recognise as "Bachian"; a sort of unforced swinging movement which, over a long span, gives a sense of timeless inevitability. Note the word "unforced"; if we hear the performer gripping the music, forcing it ahead or dragging it back, we lose this inevitability, and it would seem that neuroses within Koussevitzky’s personality – neuroses which led him to empathise with and interpret with great insight a wide range of romantic and modern composers, got in the way when he turned to Bach.

The remaining movements similarly lack repose while being at the same time too heavy for their dance origins. We are told that Kousevitzky regularly gave baroque music with reduced forces, but it doesn’t sound like it here.

The Brandenburg Concertos

No. 1

Alois Melichar shows at least some awareness of baroque practice, insisting on rigorously detached bowing in the faster movements and even bringing in a harpsichord, though it is so distantly recorded that I became aware of it only at the end of the second movement. Less happily, the Berlin Philharmonic is surprisingly scrappy both in ensemble and intonation, but the real problem is that there is no dynamic shading at all and his detached bow strokes are thumped out with a brutal regularity (and at slow and heavy tempi) which conjured up old news-reels of vast German squares filled with Nazi troops doing their inimitable goose-step. To be fair, there is a degree of gut conviction to it – I don’t want to suggest he does not feel the music in his way – and at times the music itself, or the players’ musicality, takes over to impose a certain swinging movement in place of the basic thump-thump.

I suppose it was the name of Szymon Goldberg that attracted the compilers of the set to this recording, and his sweet-toned playing can certainly be appreciated in the slow movement, albeit in duet with an acid-toned oboe and with a lumpy bass-line. All things considered though, I feel there must have been better recordings of the first concerto from this period to choose from.

No. 2

Stokowski delighted several generations of audiences with his romantic orchestral transcriptions of Bach’s organ works, but showed only sporadic interest in the pieces Bach actually wrote for orchestra. He is a good deal more legato than Melichar, yet manages to keep things buoyant in the outer movements even at rather slow tempi. He goes to town over dynamic shading, applying echo effects at every possibly opportunity (just hear the first few seconds and you’ll get the idea). Master of balance that he was, he gives the contrapuntal lines a clarity which would be notable even in a modern recording and he was evidently aware that the baroque trumpet was a much lighter instrument than that of today, perfectly able to play in duet with an oboe or a flute. I can only suppose he had the player seated at a fair distance from the microphone to obtain the balance he wanted. He also varies the players’ articulation, sometimes demanding a very legato, unaccented style, at other times calling for something crisper. There is no harpsichord.

The performance will sound rather weird to modern ears, but it is worth hearing and the slow movement is very beautiful indeed, I am tempted to say sublime, lush but not sticky, the care taken over the rocking movement in the bass line contrasting starkly with Melichar’s lackadaisical treatment of a similar idea.

No. 3

Furtwängler is less detached in his bowing than Melichar, but not as legato as I expected, and in some of the episodes he obtains very crisp articulation indeed. In his hands the Berlin Philharmonic sounds like the great orchestra it was and is. Once you have got used to the slowish gait of the first movement it actually has a delightful lilt and his use of dynamic shading is quite different from Stokowski’s – more a matter of long crescendos and diminuendos than steep echo-effects and his phrasing speaks with a live voice. He allows some tempo variation but builds up the long first movement as surely as he did an act of a Wagner opera. He resolves the problem of the slow movement by omitting even the two chords Bach actually wrote! The finale has a joyful forward surge at a brisk tempo.

This performance also has something not so easily described: a sense of humanity which will certainly be recognised by those acquainted with Edwin Fischer’s Bach recordings (on the piano) and which has a timeless validity quite regardless of what we might now consider to be a "proper" Bach style.

No. 4

Cortot has a harpsichord in his group, what sounds to be a massive thing right under the microphone (it all but obliterates the other players at the start of the finale). We have been used on these records to slower tempi than are the norm today, but Cortot pitches in very briskly indeed, so fast that at times the performance has to slow down to fit in all the notes. Wobbly tempi, poor ensemble and lack of dynamic contrast are the principal features of the first movement, and much of the second is insensitively loud. The finale has a certain Beethovenian conviction which is impressive in its way, but all in all I get the idea that Cortot the conductor was no match for Cortot the pianist.

No. 5

The use of a piano rather than a harpsichord is mitigated by the (intentionally) rather backward placing of the instrument which stands in relation to the flute and violin much as a harpsichord would, rather than dominating as might easily have happened. But above all it is mitigated, especially in the first movement, by the extreme translucency of Serkin’s playing, by the clarity with which he brings out the contrapuntal lines, and by the unforced dialogue which is set up between the solo instruments. The artists’ love of the music shines through every bar of this big movement which proceeds inexorably to its climax, the great keyboard cadenza which Serkin plays with much unforced mastery. Would that more harpsichordists would approach it so musically!

The second movement brought a few doubts. Theoretically Serkin is quite right to thicken up the texture with chords (Bach actually provided a figured bass) but in practice it sounds heavy on the piano. And Busch’s old-fashioned portamentos sound very odd today in this context. Whether through a fault of the balance or because it really was like that, Marcel Moyse’s admittedly very fine flute-playing dominates the movement excessively.

In the finale the player’s literal treatment of the dotted rhythms (did people really not know in those days that they are to be evened out to go with the triplets?) detract from the gigue character of the movement. Still, the performance is to be treasured for its first movement.

No. 6

Reiner’s 6th is a relatively modern recording and it sounds remarkably well. He has a harpsichordist (not very audible) and a small group of players (one-to-a-part on the lower lines if I am not mistaken). He adopts a golden mean between detached bowing and musical phrasing, adopts plenty of dynamic shading without exaggerating in the Stokowski manner and sees that every contrapuntal strand is beautifully clear. The first movement flows beautifully, the second is gravely, broadly expressed and the finale has a wonderful vitality. For a 6th on modern instruments, if you don’t insist on state-of-the-art sound this is still as good as you can get.


Conclusions: one thing that emerges is a certain consistency between several very different conductors over the interpretation of long orchestral movements such as the overtures to the Suites and some of the Brandenburg first movements, in which they use dynamic gradation as a means of structural shaping. We find this in Mengelberg, Weingartner, Koussevitzky, Furtwängler and Reiner. I would also refer to my comments on the fourth Suite about the "timeless inevitability" which impresses us in the finest Bach performances. The lesson of this set seems to be that great artists of all epochs were able to perceive and communicate this basic essential, and as long as this essential has been perceived and communicated, the spirit of Bach will come across. I remain of my initial opinion that a more substantial survey was really needed. During the period covered, for example, such conductors as Boyd Neel and Mogens Wöldike were setting down performances that were the prototypes for post-war Bach interpretation. The final offering under Reiner does suggest this, but the album might have gone a little further down this line. All the same, it provides much food for thought.

Christopher Howell

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