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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concertos
CD 1
Brandenburg Concerto No.1 in F major, BWV 1046 [19:08]
Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major, BWV1048 [11:44]
Brandenburg Concerto No.5 in D major, BWV1050 [20:44]
CD 2
Brandenburg Concerto No.2 in F major, BWV 1047 [11:28]
Brandenburg Concerto No.4 in G major, BWV 1049 [15:00]
Brandenburg Concerto No.6 in B flat major, BWV 1051 [15:52]
European Brandenburg Ensemble/Trevor Pinnock
rec. Sheffield City Hall and Henry Wood Hall, London, December 2006 and September 2007. DDD.
AVIE AV2119 [51:49 + 42:34]

Experience Classicsonline

This new recording has now become my version of choice for Bach’s best-known orchestral music. Reviewing it offers me the opportunity for an overview; if you don’t want to read this, cut to the chase and go to the end of the review.

Having lived with several recordings in the age of LP, each an improvement on the previous version, from Karl Münchinger on Decca Ace of Clubs onwards, I thought I had found my ideal CD version in Trevor’s Pinnock’s earlier DG Archiv recording with The English Concert – rather short value with just three concertos per CD in their original format, but more recently reissued at mid-price with fillers – Nos.1-3 with two oboe concertos (471 720 2) and Nos.4-6 with the Triple Concerto BWV1044 (474 220 2). You can buy these online from Universal or itunes, but, at £7.90 or £7.99 per CD, they are about the same price as the CD versions. Furthermore, the itunes versions are not in the newer ‘plus’ format, so you may find the bit-rate unacceptably low. Make sure that you buy the newer versions – rather confusingly, the original, less generous couplings are also available for the same price.

Original instrument playing has moved on, but these versions have served me very well since soon after the beginning of the CD era, as have the English Concert versions of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, also reissued at mid price, more generously coupled, and I cannot imagine anyone being seriously unhappy with their purchase.

There is, in fact, a bewildering choice from the Universal recording stable. Those who like their Bach to be ultra-lively may prefer the DG Archiv version by Musica Antiqua Köln: I tried their version of Concerto No.2 and, though I imagine that some would find Reinhard Goebel’s tempi a little too fast and furious in places, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out of court. (1-3 on 447 287 2; 4-6 with Suite No.4 on 447 288 2). Ultimately, however, I find myself preferring Goebel’s Telemann recordings to his Bach. See the review of this recording in another of its CD reissues by DW, who is a greater fan of Goebel’s Bach than I am.

Other honourable mentions must go to the Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood on a mid-price 2-CD set (458 069 2). The same applies to the New London Consort/Philip Pickett (440 675 2) and Academy of St Martin’s/Neville Marriner (468 549 2) versions, as also to the English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten set (443 847 2) which now almost qualifies as an historic document. All these are available as downloads (Universal or itunes) but rather over-priced at more than you might expect to pay for the CD equivalents.

In download or CD form the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan set is not at all to my liking – few now will warm to its big-band style in any format. If you must have Karajan, go for the cheaper, better-filled version (453 001 2). I Musici (438 317 2) are less expensive as downloads (£9.99 for the complete set) than on CD, but their Bach has not stood the test of time well. If it’s Brandenburgs from the older school that you want, go for the Munich Bach Orchestra/Karl Richter in Nos. 1-3 with BWV1055 and 1064 (463 011 2) or as a complete set (427 143 2), very good in their own terms, as KM’s review makes clear.

Warner Classics also offer several fine versions of the Brandenburgs on CD and as downloads. There’s more Karl Richter here (with the Richter Chamber Orchestra) as well as Concentus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt but the ‘safest’ recommendation is to go for the 1992 Erato version with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under Ton Koopman – very fine middle-of-the-road period-instrument interpretations in Koopman’s best manner. His recordings are available on two separate Apex issues (2564 61363 2 and 2564 61364 2) or as a download for £5.00 – the latter excellent value (0630-13733-6), except that the advertised filler, the so-called Organ Concerto in d, BWV1059, turns out to be a repeat of the three tracks of Brandenburg No.2. I have drawn this problem to the attention of Warner Digital and I hope that they will rectify matters, but try the preview button before you buy.

To be fair to Warner Digital, they offered me in compensation a free download of their version by Il Giardino Armonico under Giovanni Antonini – 4509-98442-6. (CD equivalent on Teldec 2000, 8573 81216 2, which seems to be on sale for less than the 2-CD Elatus set). This is a less ‘safe’ version than the Koopman – in fact, it’s really for those who like to live a little dangerously – but I found myself preferring it. Don’t be put off by some rather unpleasant and strident horn playing at the beginning: it does get (much) better. This is about as far removed from that old Münchinger ACL recording (or Karajan’s big-band Bach) as you can get.

A word of warning about Warner downloads – they come as wma files, which means that you get better sound quality than from mp3, but it does limit where you can play them: not all mp3 players can cope with wma and Windows Media Player, with its annoying 2-second pauses between tracks, has to be used to burn them to CD. Each purchase comes with the right to open the files on three players – every time you want to play them on a new machine, you have to have a live internet link, for the programme to open one of the three licences. Now that all the other providers whom I use have banished DRM, this makes Warner downloads more awkward. Until they become more user-friendly, you can buy the 2-CD set for little (if any) more than the download without any of these problems.

If it’s Italian performers that you’re looking for, you may prefer Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini, a Naïve recording (OP30412). This version is also available digitally from itunes but, again, the saving over the CDs is not very great.

The Bach Collegium of Japan/Masaaki Suzuki have won golden opinions for their Bach Cantata recordings. Their versions of the Brandenburgs (BISCD 1151-2) are also very well worth considering on CD or as downloads from classicsonline. This BIS set includes an early version of a movement of the Fifth Brandenburg, but if you are looking for a first-rate version of this concerto alone, try Volume 1 of the Chandos complete harpsichord concertos, regrettably now deleted as a CD but available digitally.

I am amazed that music-making of this quality appears to have been deleted on CD and all the more grateful, therefore, that Chandos have made the recordings available as downloads: all are on offer from theclassicalshop in mp3 format (£6) and some of the volumes also in lossless format (£10) – CHAN0595, CHAN0611, CHAN0636 and CHAN0641. It’s no exaggeration that these performances bowled me over completely, with the players ‘nudging’ and ‘leaning on’ the music very subtly and totally delectably. The booklets of notes for this series, with Brueghel illustrations on the covers, are a delight. These versions have replaced the DG Archiv versions of these Keyboard Concertos (Pinnock again) as my recordings of choice.

I end as I began, with Trevor Pinnock and this recent re-make of the Brandenburgs with the eponymous European Brandenburg Ensemble on the Avie label. Like those original DG Archiv issues, this Avie version comes without fillers, so it isn’t such good value as some of the versions I’ve mentioned, but it is worth every penny and it does come at mid price. I never thought that Pinnock could improve on his original versions, but I’m so thoroughly convinced by his second thoughts that these versions now replace everything else in my affections. I shall still want to hear the Koopman, Antonini and Alessandrini accounts and Pinnock’s own earlier versions, but this new Avie set now becomes my version of choice, even bearing in mind JFL’s admiring but not quite enthusiastic review of the CDs.

I agree rather with Robert Costin’s Musicweb review of a concert performance of the Brandenburgs by these performers. This is period performance without tears – the opening of the First Concerto, for example, has all the energy without the rawness of the horns on the Alessandrini recording. I was even more disappointed with the stridency of the Academy of Ancient Music under Richard Egarr in their recent Wigmore Hall performance. If there is a criticism to be made, it is that the performers are too careful not to hit any false notes. They play sweetly and tunefully, but I don’t wish to make this the major criticism that some reviewers have made it – it’s not the baroque equivalent of Karajan’s sometimes over-drilled BPO recordings.

The recording is good, with excellent balance, though the continuo is just a little too reticent; this is due in part to Pinnock’s decision to go for a fairly light touch in this department. Continuo balance is always a problem: the harpsichord, in particular, needs to be audible without being in your face – except, of course, in No.5, where it is meant to be prominent.

If you want to live a little more dangerously, the Giardino Armonico and Concerto Italiano versions may well be your preferred versions – I shall certainly continue to play these as well as the new set. Otherwise, for what I think the best of all worlds – period playing without the problems that early instruments sometimes bring with them, avoidance of the breakneck tempi that some performers seem to feel necessary, and good well-balanced recording – the new Pinnock set should be your choice.

Brian Wilson

see also review by Jens F. Laurson





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