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Jonathan Woolf
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alternatively Crotchet  

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concerto for Flute, Violin, Harpsichord and Strings, BWV 1044 (1730) [20.38]
Stefano Bet (flute); Francesco Cera (harpsichord)
Brandenburg Concertos for diverse instruments (1721)
Concerto No. 1 in F, BWV 1046 [16.47]

Emiliano Rodolfi (oboe); Thomas Müller; Raoul Diaz (horns); Maria de Martini (bassoon).
Concerto No. 2 in F, BWV 1047 [10.19]
Gabriele Cassone (trumpet); Maurice Steger (recorder); Emiliano Rodolfi (oboe)
Concerto No. 3 in G, BWV 1048 [9.26]
Concerto No. 4 in G, BWV 1049 [15.03]
Maurice Steger; Stefano Bet (recorders)
Concerto No. 5 in D, BWV 1050 [19.09]
Stefano Bet (flute); Diego Fasolis (harpsichord)
Concerto No. 6 in Bb, BWV 1051 [14.28]
Dullio Galfetti, Giovanni de Rosa (violas)
Dullio Galfetti (leader and solo violin)
I Barocchisti/Diego Fasolis (conducting from the harpsichord).
DSD Recording location and date not given.
Co-production with Radio della Svizzera Italiana, Rete 2.
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français, Italiano.
Hybrid SACD
ARTS MUSIK 47715-8 [51.51] 47716-8 [54.28]
Comparison Recordings:
Karl Haas, London Baroque Ensemble. Westminster LP XWN 2211
Nicolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus Wien. Decca Laserdisc 071 204-1
Harry Newstone, Hamburger Kammerorkester. Saga LP XID 5031/2
Thurston Dart, Philomusica of London. L’Oiseau-Lyre LP SOL 60005/6
Mandeal, Enescu PO (3, 5 only) DVD Audio AIX 1338 AX
Carl Pini, Academy of St. James, Omega CD SKU 38753 and Silverline DVD Audio 288232-9

Confident announcements of the death of the SACD seem to be exaggerated as many labels continue to release them and new players continue to be introduced and sold. True, the real news in the music biz seems to be low-fi with “everybody” rushing out to buy iPods and iPod clones and compress and dump their entire CD collection into a tiny box which they carry around with them. But listening to music on the run, so to speak, is an inherently pop music thing to do, so I expect classical music-lovers will eventually drift back to their high resolution surround-sound media theaters for serious listening.

I wish I could unreservedly recommend this recording as an enticement to do so, but unfortunately it will probably sound better on your iPod than in your media theater. This recording began as a really good performance of the Brandenburgs, if you don’t mind that the musicians seem to have a plane to catch and are setting new records for speed. My favorite up-tempo performance of the Brandenburg No. 3 runs 12.27, as opposed to 9.26 for this recording. For the Brandenburg No. 5, 25 minutes is best, 22 minutes is OK, if a little brisk; but these people turn in at just over 19 minutes.

The two channel recordings, both SACD and CD — and there is precious little difference between them — sound good, if a little opaque. Just because this is an SACD with the DSD trademark on the cover, don’t assume that it is necessarily a high resolution recording. Naxos has released on SACD recordings made in 48/16, and Telarc at 50/16, just a hair above standard CD (44/16) in resolution. I believe that every SACD has to be remastered in DSD (or equivalent) as part of the SACD encoding process, but this adds nothing in resolution to an already digitized recording. On the other hand, an analogue tape remastered with DSD usually gains a great deal in clarity and depth over earlier PCM digitizations.

In No. 3 these performers opt for the brief chords separating the first and third movements which now seems to be the musicologists’ choice. The soloists are always clearly in front, and they tastefully embellish their parts to add a little spice here and there — if you’re a stickler, this may annoy you, but I loved it. The horn, trumpet, and flute players in particular do a great job. But the ripieno is something of a muddle. When I added the rear channels and tried to listen in 5.1 — well, I don’t know what happened, I don’t want to know. The sound sources sort of drift around the room and you are enmeshed in an acoustic mush that obscures the sound, until you turn the back channels down to inaudibility. You will most likely want to go back to the two channel tracks with your surround-sound decoder switched on if you like. Surround sound recording is now over sixty years old and there have been produced many outstanding examples from major and minor labels. We have every right to expect better than this.

I still recommend the Westminster monophonic recording because it was an excellent recording, performance and sound, the first one to make a serious attempt at original instrument technique while the performers still felt a need to engage the listener’s emotionally and project lyricism. The Saga stereo LP recording is on many lists as the single best version ever recorded — why isn’t it on CD? Either of these recordings will give you more transparency and allow you to hear the inner voices better than in this new SACD. 

The Thurston Dart set was the first to use raucous posthorn brass in the first concerto, a good idea which these performers emulate. Even if you don’t want to watch, the Harnoncourt video is an excellent performance of the standard versions, better than his CD set of “alternative versions.” And if you do want to watch, well, that helps clarify the texture; with the visual cue, you can easily follow all the voices even if the two channel sound isn’t always the clearest. The Carl Pini set is, like these disks, a good two channel recording that failed in the transition to surround-sound.

Buy these disks for the solo performances, but don’t expect to be bowled over by the sound, especially in comparison to the astonishing beauty of the AIX DVD-Audio recording where we get a real spread-out sound, a “stage mix,” the experience of actually being there, a member of the orchestra. But — so far — AIX has only done Nos. 3 and 5 (are you listening Marc Waldrep?).

Paul Shoemaker


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