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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Brandenburg Concertos

Brandenburg Concerto No.1, F-major, BWV 1046 (~1721) [19:08]
Brandenburg Concerto No.3, G-major, BWV1048 (~1721) [11:44]
Brandenburg Concerto No.5, D-major, BWV1050 (~1721) [20:44]
Brandenburg Concerto No.2, F-major, BWV 1047, (~1721) [11:28]
Brandenburg Concerto No.4, G-major, BWV 1049, (~1721) [15:00]
Brandenburg Concerto No.6, B-flat major, BWV 1051 (~1721) [15:52]
European Brandenburg Ensemble/Trevor Pinnock
rec. Sheffield City Hall / Henry Wood Hall, London – December 2006 / September 2007
AVIE AV2119 [51:49 + 42:34]

"There is such a variety of fine recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos that any new recording needs some justification." Thus writes Trevor Pinnock in the liner notes to his new recording of the Brandenburg concertos on Avie. He succeeds on paper – with his warm description for his personal reasons of re-recording the Brandenburgs, of differing musical choices, and on how the recording and the performances of the European Brandenburg Ensemble became a very personal tribute and cause as tragedy struck the ensemble and took violist Katherine McGillivray from them.

Whether Pinnock succeeds on record is more difficult to answer. At the least he adds yet another very fine recording to the many fine recordings available, a quarter century after his recording with the English Consort on Archiv came out.

The European Brandenburg Ensemble (EBE) was specifically founded to play these works. It is made up of players of all ages and European countries – particularly to eschew any one, nationally flavored style of baroque playing… to achieve the universality that makes Bach’s language so special. Pinnock succeeds on that point, too: There is no particularly "British" flavor to these Brandenburg concertos. He also succeeds in introducing a greater sense of spontaneity that comes close to spirit of the live performances that took the EBE all over Europe and to Asia with these works. All as part of a big Bach-embracing 60th Birthday tour of Pinnock’s.

Many listeners, record clerks, and Bach-lovers still consider Pinnock’s 1982 recording of the Brandenburg Concertos as one of the top choices among HIP versions. I might have agreed with that myself, based on memory. But pulling these recordings out again proved that they have not aged nearly as well as assumed. It also heightened my appreciation of the new Pinnock recording considerably.

The Archiv recording shows all too clearly how much Historical Performance Practice has improved. The natural horns and trumpets should not (or need not) sound like that – and they don’t, in more modern recordings like the excellent Academy for Ancient Music Berlin’s (HMU 2901634) or Musica Antiqua Cologne’s under Reinhard Goebel (part of Archiv 471656). Similarly the unlovely string sound is perhaps authentic in the true sense of the word, but not appreciated now, that we can have better.

The strings of the EBE are a delight, not just in comparison. The solo violin ‘cadenza’ in the Adagio of the Third Concerto that Pinnock opts for is but one notable example. The trumpet, however and the horns, too, continue to be a weak-spot. They were often off-color in concert – and they are surprisingly unreliable in this recording, too. That’s too bad – because where the earlier Pinnock recording manages to convey the architecture of the concertos with its steady paced, unexaggerated, sturdy way, the new recording manages to go about things in a much more free-wheeling manner. Tempos are – except in the Fifth Concerto – ever so slightly sped up… but more important, and decidedly unrelated: every movement sounds more alive, more energetic. This ‘new’ Bach is not as reverently worshiped, it is adored with coyness, sparkle, and a twinkle in its eye. Nothing limps, nothing lurches. Every concerto has a slightly different tone of voice, too, which makes listening to all six in a row a fairly stimulating – not tiring – affair. The atmosphere as a whole is quite light – partly a result of Pinnock opting for the cello (instead of bass) playing the continuo part in four out of six concertos.

Anyone who especially likes the performances and interpretations of Trevor Pinnock will find this recording to be a delight and probably a distinct improvement over its predecessor. If, meanwhile, someone were to hunt for the (elusive) ‘definitive’ version of HIP Brandenburg Concertos, this beautifully packaged and presented CD set might be a contender – but there are at least a handful of other accounts that should not be overlooked at the expense of this. Tuning is the HIP standard a’ = 415 Hz, although Pinnock suggests in his lucid liner notes that Bach’s tuning may have been as low as a’ = 390 at the time.

A final note of sheer curiosity: What exactly are those loud clicking noises during the horn-only part in the first concerto’s Menuetto? Sounds like a mad clarinetist’s keys clicking – except of course that there’s no clarinet or any other instrument with similar such keys involved. A strange, but not seriously off-putting phenomenon.

Jens F. Laurson


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