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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concertos
Brandenburg Concerto No.1 in F major, BWV 1046 [18:02]
Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major, BWV1048 [10:19]
Brandenburg Concerto No.5 in D major, BWV1050 [19:01]
Brandenburg Concerto No.6 in B flat major, BWV 1051 [16:29]
Brandenburg Concerto No.4 in G major, BWV 1049 [15:53]
Brandenburg Concerto No.2 in F major, BWV 1047 [13:24]
Encore – Concerto No.2, Allegro assai [3:03]
Giuliano Carmignola (principal violin)
Orchestra Mozart/Claudio Abbado
rec. Teatro Municipale Romolo Valli, Reggio Emilia, 21 April 2007
Sound: PCM Stereo – Dolby Digital 5.1 – DTS 5.1
TV Format: NTSC, 16:9 anamorphic. Region Code: 0

Experience Classicsonline

This is one of those discs which, thirty years or so ago, probably wouldn’t have raised any odd questions. Numerous established conductors of heavyweight orchestral repertoire have recorded J.S. Bach. While the Brandenburg concertos were more usually the terrain of the chamber orchestra, they can, even now, be bought with the likes of Karajan at the helm. So, what is the great Beethoven and Mahler interpreter Claudio Abbado doing directing Bach amongst a seriously high quality list of chamber music specialists? Not a huge amount judging by this new DVD, and this is all to his credit. Abbado started the Orchestra Mozart in 2004 with Mozart as a central figure in its repertoire, later adding other Viennese composers Haydn and Beethoven, as well as Schubert and even venturing into contemporary music. Abbado clearly recognises the quality of his players in this production, and while guiding them in a fairly low-key fashion knows that in this repertoire they could probably do almost as well without him.

Baroque music is one of those styles which precedes the rise of the conductor as a force with which to be reckoned. Once you switch on the motor in these pieces there are few places where even the slightest variation in tempo should occur. There are some little musical commas where transitions occur between the dances of the Trio movements and at repeats, but if the conductor has to do anything it is to make sure that the music doesn’t become slower and s l o w e r – something I can’t imagine the experienced musicians on this recording allowing in the first place. Look at the opening of the Concerto No.3. Abbado almost literally pulls a string, turning on the most delightful bathroom light and then basking in its glow while hardly moving a muscle. This is good conducting – not waving your arms around when there is no need. You can also clearly see the musicians communicating with each other on camera, and I can assure any doubters that the chamber music feel of these excellent performances is never compromised by having the great maestro as a figurehead.

All this said; this is a chimera of more than one kind. The set-up follows pretty much all of the currently accepted standards for baroque performance practice.  There are a limited number of musicians. Those who can play standing up. The harpsichord has an important continuo role. The whole thing has a minimal-vibrato lightness of touch and feel of Bachian authenticity. This is something of a conjuring trick, since the bulk of the Orchestra Mozart and most of the soloists play on modern instruments. Violinist Giuliano Carmignola has what looks like an early-music kind of bow, but I think that’s about as far as it goes for the first three concertos in the programme. In any case, what we do have is a bunch of musicians who are sensitive to Bach’s idiom, and who are never less than entirely convincing. Flute soloist in the Concerto No.5 is the incomparable Jacques Zoon, who always plays a wooden flute anyway. Even though this is a later Böhm system instrument and not a ‘traverso’ he has no problem fitting in with the early-music sound like a wind chameleon. He even introduces some ‘key vibrato’ in some of the sustained notes, something all us flute players will no doubt go out and try for ourselves when the concert has finished.

The six concertos are, as you can see above, not performed sequentially by number, and this works very well as a programme. The less sparkly strings of the Concerto No.6 take the central position in the order rather than being tacked on at the end when we’re all a bit too tired to appreciate them. Here we also have the different, early-music colour of two violas da gamba to go along with the cello. The inner, innig conversations of the musicians are lively and engaging in the outer movements, moving and intimate in the Adagio ma non tanto. Abbado leaves the stage for this concerto, taking a break and leaving the seven musicians to create their own magical world in miniature.

The Concerto No.4 sees Michala Petri and Nikolaj Tarasov in the flute, or rather recorder duet. The opening Allegro is very nicely played, but with a marginally too pedestrian tempo. I missed the tension which can be heard in the other fast movements, but this movement has to accommodate some fearsome virtuosity for the violinist, so it’s better to have good measure than a feel of haste-panic. Phrasing is a bit two-dimensional from the soloists in the Andante, and I would have expected some more dynamic contrast even from recorders. Carmignola plays the Vivaldi-like solos out of his skin, and I do love that unison recorder sound in the final Presto, though toward the end the intonation ain’t always what it could be. This is maybe not the most exciting of the set, but is still very easy on the ears.

The final work is the Concerto No.2, with piccolo trumpet played in superb style by Reinhold Friedrich, oboist Lucas Macias Navarro and Michala Petri on recorder. The opening Allegro swings along with great panache – barock’n roll of the highest order. The final Allegro assai get another airing as an encore, played after the musicians have been pelted with flowers from the stage-side boxes. This time the tempo is a bit more daring, and Petri takes her part with a sopranino recorder. The audience has clearly loved every minute, and the standing ovation is fully justified.

This is a wonderful release, but once again I would beg DVD producers NOT to put bits of the programme in as an introduction before the concert starts. We’ve bought the disc already, and need no further convincing. There is not only some Bach with the menu page, but also a quick blast during the opening credits. Like Daniel Barenboim’s artistic insight and complaint during the 2006 Reith lectures, the music should come from silence, and not be preceded by ‘tinned’ versions in the hotel elevator – or in this case in the button-pushing phase beforehand, which can be irritating and stressful enough. Just some gentle audience noise would have been fine. Anyone listening ...?

Well, at least it went quiet after that question he said, kicking aside some tumbleweed.

The recording of this music is very good indeed, with a very realistic soundstage in stereo. It was recorded live, but there is hardly any audience noise other than between movements. I didn’t spot any ‘tidying up’ or editing, and the whole thing does have a spontaneous, live feel with the occasional moments of danger kept intact. The filming is done well, with a good sense of the scale of the venue and plenty of variety in terms of angle and detail. Close-ups concentrate mostly on the musicians rather than conductor, which is the way it should be. This is an excellent live performance of the Brandenburg Concertos even without the pictures, but as a DVD it is a joyful experience.

Dominy Clements


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