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Downloads of Bach’s Orchestral Music: A Survey

As a fairly recent convert to the world of music downloads, I have been looking at the available online versions of J.S. Bach’s orchestral music. With almost as many choices to download as there are on CD, a little guidance might be useful to the potential buyer. I make no apology for concentrating on performances using period instruments or modern-instrument versions employing some period techniques.

To begin with the obvious: the Brandenburg Concertos. 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 with The English Concert directed by Trevor Pinnock – rather short value with just three concertos per CD in their original format, but more recently reissued at mid-price with fillers. In this reissued format, these Brandenburgs are available from Universal’s classicsandjazz.co.uk website – Nos.1-3 with two oboe concertos (471 720 2) and Nos.4-6 with the Triple Concerto BWV1044 (474 220 2) – follow this link and type ‘Brandenburg’ into the search box. Make sure that you buy the newer versions – rather confusingly, the original, less generous couplings are also available for the same price. 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, and I cannot imagine anyone being seriously unhappy with their purchase.

There is, in fact, a bewildering choice on just the Universal website, all available for £7.90 per CD in mp3 or wma format. Those who like their Bach to be ultra-lively may prefer the version by Musica Antiqua Köln: I tried their 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 one 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 (458 069 2) but, at £14.99 this strikes me as over-priced when the equivalent 2-CD set is widely available for less than that price. 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 rather over-priced at £14.99.

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan set is not only too expensive – in fact, bizarrely, it’s available both for £14.99 and for £9.99, the cheaper version adding Orchestral Suites 2 and 3. Few now will warm to its big-band style. If you must have Karajan, go for the cheaper, better-filled version (453 001 2). I Musici (438 317 2) are less expensive (£9.99 for the complete set) 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) (£7.90) or as a complete set (427 143 2, £14.99), very good in their own terms, as KM’s review makes clear.

Most, if not all, of these Universal recordings of the Brandenburgs are also available from Apple iTunes: the Pinnock, Goebel and Karajan recordings, for example, at £7.99 per CD, the 2-CD ASMF set for £15.99, which makes them slightly more expensive than their equivalents on classicsandjazz.co.uk. (No catalogue numbers on iTunes.)

The Warner Classics website (www.warner.freshdigital.co.uk) also offers several fine versions of the Brandenburgs. There’s more Karl Richter here (with the Richter Chamber Orchestra) as well as Concentus Musicus 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: follow link to the relevant page. His recordings are available on two separate Apex issues at £3.00 each or as the equivalent of a 2-CD set 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: follow link. 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, though my Archos is perfectly happy with this format. Nor will programmes like Roxio Disc Creator recognise the files to burn them to CDR or convert them to mp3, since they are ‘locked’ and can be opened, in my experience, only via Windows Media Player, with its annoying habit of inserting gaps between tracks. 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 mention here have banished DRM, this makes Warner downloads more awkward.

If it’s Italian performers that you’re looking for, you may prefer Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini, a Naïve recording (OP30412) on emusic.com – follow the link to the page. You’ll need to sign up with emusic first, following which you’ll get free downloads, even if you decide not to join. If you do join, a monthly subscription will buy you the right to a certain number of tracks – for example £11.99 buys 50 tracks per month, which works out at under £1 for a 4-movement symphony. That means that you get the Alessandrini Brandenburgs for just over £6 – mp3 only, but I haven’t found anything on emusic at less than 192kbps and much of their music is at 320kbps. This recording is also available from itunes for £15.99.

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, 20 tracks of your monthly subscription from emusic – follow link – or from another favourite site, classicsonline.com for £19.98 – follow link. 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, of which more below.

I end as I began, with Trevor Pinnock and his recent re-make with the European Brandenburg Ensemble on the Avie label. This, too, is available from emusic – follow the link – and also from the Chandos website, theclassicalshop.net, as a 320kbps mp3 download at £7.20 per CD – follow link. classicsonline.com offer the set complete for £19.98 – follow link – which is less competitive than emusic and theclassicalshop, especially bearing in mind that classicsonline offer some of Chandos’s recordings more cheaply than Chandos themselves and when the CDs are available from Avie and from dealers for less than £19.98. see MusicWeb review by Jens Laurson

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. 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. If you can’t be bothered to download it, I urge you to buy it on CD (AV2119). See the Musicweb review of a concert performance of the Brandenburgs by these performers and JFL’s less enthusiastic review of the CDs.

I haven’t been able to locate a download version of the AAM/Manze performances which JFL prefers – they aren’t among the Harmonia Mundi recordings available on emusic, but I have just heard the Radio 3 broadcast of the performances which the AAM gave under their new director, Richard Egarr, at the Wigmore Hall in May 2008. I expected these to be so good that they would become my benchmark but, in the event, was disappointed: some excellent moments but I felt that the music was often being pushed harder than it warranted and the horns at the opening of Concerto No.1 are even more painful to listen to than on the Giardino Armonico recording.

Nowadays the Orchestral Suites receive almost as much attention as the Brandenburgs. The Universal classicsandjazz site (type ‘Bach Orchestral Suites’ into the search box) again has a wide range to offer: Karl Münchinger’s 1986 version (448 231 2) for the nostalgic or those who like old-school performances, ASMF/Marriner (430 378 2) for those who are looking for a middle-of-the-road interpretation – this Decca recording on one CD can be strongly recommended in any format: it’s the version I play when I don’t especially want ‘authenticity’ – and the English Concert/Pinnock in various permutations for the authenticists (three different catalogue numbers: go for 463 013 2). Some reviewers have felt that this Pinnock version is a little lacking in dignity but I have happily lived with it in CD format for a long time. I haven’t heard either the ASMF or English Concert versions as downloads, only as CDs, but I have never had problems with downloads from this site, especially with the wma versions. All these are on offer at £7.90, which makes their AAM/Hogwood version (458 069 2) seem over-priced at £14.99, even with fillers – better value purchased as a lower-mid-price CD set. itunes offer the ASMF and Pinnock versions for £7.99 each.

Warner Digital offer Ton Koopman’s Suites with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Like his Brandenburgs, these are very reliable interpretations – 0630-17868-6: follow link – and very good value at £5, but remember my earlier caveat concerning their DMR wma format. itunes also offer this Koopman recording for £5.49.

itunes also offer the Brandenburg Consort/Roy Goodman version on Hyperion Dyad for £15.99, a good recording which nevertheless seems to me over-priced, since this version is generally available from online dealers in physical CD form for less than this.

Best of all are probably the Bach Collegium/Masaaki Suzuki interpretations, from emusic (24 tracks of your subscription – follow link) or classicsonline (good value in 320kbps mp3format at £9.99 – follow link). These versions have now become my standard listening for the Orchestral Suites. Though in mp3 only, my ears find them perfectly acceptable, but younger, sharper hearing may notice a small degree of congestion at climaxes. Incidentally, I have always found emusic prompt to add bonus tracks to my account for anything which proved to have technical flaws. Apple’s price of £15.99 for this recording seems too high by comparison with classicsonline: I cannot imagine that their itunes plus format can be much, if any, superior to 320kbps.

Of the versions of the Violin Concertos offered on the classicsonline site – follow link and type ‘Bach Violin Concertos’ into the search box – those by Arthur Grumiaux (420 700 2) should more than satisfy those seeking a modern-instrument account and those by Simon Standage, The English Concert and Trevor Pinnock the authenticists – the latter in a choice of couplings (410 646 2 or 463 014 2) – at £7.90 each. David Oistrakh at the same price (419 855 2) offers a ‘traditional’ alternative to both, while for £9.99 Viktoria Mullova (475 7451) couples the Concertos with three of the solo Partitas. My colleague AN thought the version by Hilary Hahn, also available from Universal, technically excellent but not well considered – 474 199 2: see review. itunes also offer the Oistrakh, Hahn and Standage versions for £7.99 each and the Mullova for £10.99. Avoid the Salvatore Accardo recording – the illogicality of Universal’s one-price-fits-all policy for downloads makes this much more expensive than the CD equivalent on Eloquence (£7.90 as against £5-6).

The well-liked version by Daniel Hope with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe – modern instruments but influenced by ‘period’ performance thinking – is available from Warner Digital – 2564-62545-6: follow link – for £8. (But remember the DRM/wma limitations.) Those who like period instruments will prefer Andrew Manze with the Academy of Ancient Music in a Harmonia Mundi recording (HMU90 7155) on itunes for a penny less.

Once again, however, those seeking a version on authentic instruments are most likely to be satisfied by the Bach Collegium/Masaaki Suzuki, with Ryo Terakado, etc. – 12 tracks on emusic – follow link – or £9.99 from classicsonline – follow link. The latter is at 320kbps, I’m not sure about the emusic offering. For once, the itunes price of £7.99 seems more competitive than classicsonline, especially as this is an itunes plus recording. (BISCD961)

Ton Koopman on Warner offers four of the Harpsichord Concertos (Nos.1, 2, 5 and 6, 2564-60329-6) – follow link – for £3 (but in DRM wma format only). There is a Richard Egarr/Academy of Ancient Music/Andrew Manze set of the solo harpsichord concertos plus the Triple Concerto, BWV1044 (HMU90 7283.84), on emusic, 24 tracks of your monthly allocation for the equivalent of two CDs – follow link. These are both well worth considering. My strongest recommendation for these works, however, must rest with the Chandos recordings made by Robert Wooley (with assistance from Paul Nicholson and others in the multiple concertos) and the augmented Purcell Quartet.

This runs to four discs as opposed to three for most similar collections, but you get the Fifth Brandenburg thrown in on the first disc – a harpsichord concerto in all but name, especially as it is performed here – and the performances are superb. 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 them 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. None of the other downloads which I have mentioned come with such fine notes – in most case, none at all.

Piano fanciers should note that I have included only harpsichord versions in this list, though I might make an exception for Angela Hewitt’s Hyperion versions from itunes – available as two separate recordings at £7.99 each (CDA67307 and 67308) or as a single album for £15.99.

The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock set on DG Archiv (471 754 2), hitherto my staple for these works – available on classicsandjazz and good value at £14.99 for the equivalent of 3 CDs – and the Koopman recordings to which I have referred are now replaced in my affections by these Chandos recordings. Even if you think downloading too much of a nuisance – it can be like watching paint dry – their unavailability on CD makes it worthwhile to make the effort to acquire them.

You might also wish to consider the two revelatory Chandos recordings of Bach’s early cantatas made by Emma Kirkby et al with the augmented Purcell Quartet. I hope to provide a separate review of these in due course, or include them in a future round-up of Bach’s cantatas as downloads. Meanwhile, I cannot speak too highly of them: CHAN0715 and CHAN0742, £8.40 as mp3s and £10 in lossless format from theclassicalshop.

I hope that this brief résumé has provided food for thought, though I cannot pretend that it has been a thorough review – nothing from EMI, whose download mechanism seems totally at odds with Windows Vista; despite my following all the instructions on their website and the advice offered when I phoned them – they were very polite and did their best to be helpful – one track of the only recording I ordered from them resolutely and repeatedly failed to download, leaving me with the sole option of ordering the CD, which proved to be considerably cheaper than the price of the download.

Details of availability and prices were correct at the time of writing in early July 2008. Always remember to check these and catalogue numbers before ordering, of course.

Finally, if you really want to go to town on downloaded Bach, Hänssler have just released the Bachpod – an 80GB ipod with all of JSB’s music pre-loaded and plenty of spare space to add more music. I haven’t mentioned these Hänssler recordings, mostly made with Helmuth Rilling at the helm, though they are good ‘also-rans’ in just about every category and you can find many of their recordings of Bach’s music on the classicsonline website (type ‘Haenssler Bach’ into the search box) and on emusic. Rilling’s Cantatas are especially competitive, but that’s one that I’m saving for my Cantata overview.

Brian Wilson

 


 




 


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