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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concertos
CD 1
Concerto No. 1 in F major BWV 1046 [19:12]
Concerto No. 2 in F major BWV 1047 [10:40]
Concerto No. 3 in G major BWV 1048 [11:59]
CD 2
Concerto No. 4 in G major BWV 1049 [14:50]
Concerto No. 5 in D major BWV 1050 [20:31]
Concerto No. 6 in B flat major BWV 1051 [15:23]
Kati Debretzeni (violin, director) English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner (1 & 2)
rec. during and after a live performance at the Cité de la Musique, Paris, 10-12 January 2009, and at Cadogan Hall, London, 13 April 2009 (Concerto No. 6)
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG707 [41:32 + 50:32]
Experience Classicsonline

So extensive is the discography of Sir John Eliot Gardiner that it came as a real surprise to read in his note accompanying this release that he has not recorded the Brandenburg Concertos before. But, on reflection, that’s not perhaps such a surprise because he is a conductor rather than an instrumentalist and most recordings these days seem to be directed by instrumentalists. In any case, he makes it clear that he sees the Brandenburgs essentially as chamber works and takes the view that only the first two concerti are “grand and complex enough for the presence of a non-performing instigator and co-ordinator to be useful.” His solution, therefore, on this occasion has been to be fully involved in the rehearsals for the whole set but, when it came to the live performances, to conduct just the first two concerti and then, literally, to retire to a seat in the audience, leaving the direction in the clearly very capable hands of the EBS concertmaster, Kati Debretzeni.

The result of this approach and the evident care and study on the part of all concerned has been to give us a set of splendid performances, which sound collegiate and manage to combine spontaneity with careful consideration of the music. Let me give one illustration of the care and attention to detail behind these performances. In one of a series of very interesting short booklet essays by members of the EBS, principal violist Jane Rogers writes that it is always a challenge for violists to match their tone as well as their playing in the Sixth Concerto. To obtain the best possible results in these performances she and her colleague, Stella Wilkinson, went to the trouble - and expense, one presumes - of commissioning a pair of new, matching instruments from a Polish maker. If that’s not dedication I don’t know what is!

Kati Debretzeni is much to the fore in these performances, as violin soloist in the first two concerti and then soloist and director in numbers 3 to 5 - she’s also, apparently, the director of the Sixth Concerto, though, of course, she doesn’t play in that performance. By coincidence, she’s also very prominent in Trevor Pinnock’s much-admired 2007 set with the European Brandenburg Ensemble for Avie (AV2119). I like Pinnock’s performances very much and it’s been fascinating to compare the two sets. One general observation is that Pinnock’s recording seems to be cut at a higher level than the EBS performances - and, perhaps, the microphones are also placed a fraction closer by the Avie engineers. This meant that when playing the two versions side by side, without changing the volume settings, the Pinnock performances are louder and, as a result, seem a bit more public. That’s not an implicit criticism, by the way. It’s also interesting to note that in several cases, mainly in outer movements, Pinnock and his players adopt tempi that are just a fraction steadier than those on the EBS set. One key thing that both sets have in common, however, is superlative playing.

The EBS performance of the First Concerto gets off to a cracking start, thanks in no small measure to the marvellously rustic rasp of the horns. Horn player Anneke Scott observes of this music that ”it feels as if Bach really was bringing the horn players straight from the field into the concert room” and the EBS horns make a wonderful impact here. Pinnock’s excellent players don’t quite match them in attack and sheer brio. The EBS give a fine, spirited account of I while II, featuring some excellent oboe playing, is stately and the music breathes nicely. The reading of III evidences great energy and while the horns once again make their presence felt they don’t dominate, so that it’s perfectly possible to hear what the violin and oboes are up to - and the ripieno band as well. Incidentally, Gardiner employs a ripieno band of eleven plus harpsichord here; Pinnock has two fewer in his band but generally both versions deploy similar forces throughout the set.

SDG helpfully divide movement IV into six separate tracks. The EBS impart a nice lift to the Minuet and Trio I is charming. My favourite passage in their account of this movement is Trio II, where the horns and oboes are superbly agile and produce some real excitement. Both Gardiner and Pinnock do this concerto very well indeed but I think the extra frisson provided by his horns just edges the verdict Gardiner’s way.

I said that generally both versions field similar sized forces. The exception to this is the Second Concerto, for which Gardiner once again has a ripieno band of eleven plus harpsichord but Pinnock contents himself with just six ripienists plus himself. But, oddly, it’s the Gardiner performance that feels a bit more intimate and I think in large part this is to do with the contributions of the respective trumpeters. David Blackadder is marvellous for Pinnock, but for Gardiner Neil Brough delivers something very special indeed, producing a much slimmer, lighter tone, which means that he’s superbly balanced against the violin, oboe and recorder. Blackadder is just that bit more prominent in the textures of the outer movements. In I Brough is wonderfully athletic in his playing and all four soloists display real virtuosity and offer some marvellously lithe playing. Pinnock’s tempo is just a notch steadier than Gardiner’s and though his performance is very fine indeed I love the quicksilver delivery of the EBS players.

In II three of the soloists - the trumpeter is silent - treat listeners to some delicate solo work, tastefully accompanied by their EBS colleagues. The reading of III features some more fabulous trumpet playing, though Neil Brough’s three soloist colleagues are by no means put in the shade. The effervescent performance of this movement is sheer delight; it’s champagne Bach. Even the excellent Pinnock performance, at a slightly steadier speed, can’t trump this.

With Sir John comfortably installed in his stalls seat, Kati Debretzeni and her colleagues address the Third Concerto. Incidentally, there is a recording of this work in Volume 27 of Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series (see review). I don’t know whether or not he directed that very sprightly performance by the EBS - I’d assumed he did - but Miss Debretzeni is, I think, the sole player common to both performances. Both this new EBS account and the Pinnock performance are winning ones. In his excellent essay accompanying the Pinnock discs John Butt comments that this concerto displays “the fleet interplay of forces, a celebration of the entire violin family.” That’s just the feeling one gets when listening to either of these recordings. Pinnock adopts a fractionally steadier tempo in I but, frankly, it’s hard to put the proverbial cigarette paper between the two performances. Both versions feature improvisations by Miss Debretzeni as the second movement. I don’t know what is the basis for her improvisation on the Pinnock set. For the EBS version she tells us that she plays a written-out improvisation loosely based on the opening bass line of the Grave from Bach’s second sonata for solo violin. The EBS reading of III has a seemingly unstoppable impetus, though the music is certainly not rushed off its feet. I think the EBS have a slight edge over the steadier Pinnock forces here in terms of speed and musical excitement. You get the distinct impression that the EBS players are having fun.

The Fourth Concerto brings a pair of recorders into the solo team alongside Miss Debretzeni. The piping sound of these instruments in I is quite delicious. The EBS players display great agility and Miss Debretzeni’s violin scurries around to good purpose as well. This is a thoroughly engaging, smiling performance. The Sarabande-like second movement is beautifully played and the vivacious finale is excellently delivered as well. In this latter movement, as well as admiring the dexterity of the three soloists in alt, I love the firm but not overdone bass line in the ripieno band.

The Fifth Concerto brings the harpsichord centre stage to join the solo violinist and flautist. John Butt draws attention to Bach’s innovative scoring here. Not only was the transverse flute pretty new to Germany at that time but also the harpsichord was not thought of as a concerto instrument. He speculates that the fact that the Cöthen court had acquired a large new harpsichord from Berlin in 1719 may have encouraged Bach to give it prominence.

It’s interesting to compare the contributions - both excellent - of Malcolm Proud (EBS) and Trevor Pinnock. I don’t know if Pinnock had a larger instrument at his disposal or whether questions of musical style or recorded balance come into the equation but Pinnock is a more forward presence. Indeed, some listeners may feel Proud is a shade reticent. For myself, I quite like the balance and one gets the feeling that the EBS soloists play as a genuine trio. Proud gives a splendid, dextrous account of the famous cadenza and he builds up to the return of the ripieno band excitingly. Pinnock is a bit more self-evidently a primus inter pares - I don’t think that’s a bad thing - and he seems to project the cadenza a bit more strongly. On the EBS disc there’s some exquisite interplay between the soloists in II and the finale, a gigue that is infectious and light-footed in this performance, is sheer delight.

Finally, the Sixth Concerto, the one for which the EBS viola players had instruments made specially. Whether it’s on account of these custom-made violas or not the ensemble produces a lovely nutty sound in I. The viola tone is husky and warm and the instruments do indeed blend with each other and with the pair of gambas - though I fancy the skill of the various players has something to do with the quality of the blend too! Bach’s highly imaginative, low-voiced sonorities are expertly realised. The gambas are nicely to the fore in II, though not intrusively so. John Butt suggests that the prominence of the gamba in this concerto may be a compliment by Bach to his employer, Prince Leopold of Cöthen, who himself played the instrument. The players make the music of the gigue finale dance very nicely. 

This new set of the Brandenburgs is a delight. Of course, the number of recordings of these six concerti is legion and many adopt different stylistic approaches. It seems to me that this EBS set - and the Pinnock set too - is distinguished by careful preparation and scholarship; by a fine sense of style; by a feeling of the players’ sheer enjoyment of the music; and, of course, by pretty flawless execution. There have been a number of places where I’ve expressed a preference for the EBS recording over Pinnock’s version but I must emphasise very strongly that any such preferences are relatively slight, a matter of degree and usually a matter also of subjective taste. In fact, comparing the two sets side by side has reinforced my great admiration for the Pinnock set even though I warmly welcome this newcomer. Both sets, incidentally, come with first-rate documentation and are most attractively and tastefully presented.

What to advise? Well, of course, I’ve only compared two of the huge number of recordings of the Brandenburgs and other collectors will undoubtedly have their own favourites. But, confining myself just to these two recordings, I think that if you have the Pinnock recording you can probably rest content. However, if you don’t then this EBS recording is a most attractive proposition. It would be an irresponsible extravagance to have both - or would it …?

I feel sure that anyone acquiring this marvellous EBS set of the Brandenburgs will find it a lasting source of enjoyment and a recording that makes us marvel afresh at the musical skill, imagination and invention of J. S. Bach.

John Quinn 

 


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