Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
CD 1
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046 [19:25]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047 [11:10]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048 [12:41]
CD 2
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049 [15:42]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050 [19:29]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat major, BWV 1051 [17:11]
Gewandhausorchester/Riccardo Chailly
rec. Gewandhaus, Leipzig, 22-23 November 2007
DECCA 478 2191 [43:17 + 51:11]

My recent experiences with Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos have been positive, with very good recordings both from Andrés Gabetta on Naxos, and Claudio Abbado on a Medici Arts DVD. These are both essentially chamber orchestra performances, so I was intrigued to find out what Riccardo Chailly would do in this repertoire. His is not a name one would immediately think of for a new recording of this music, and I would bet few would have put the Gewandhausorchester at the top of such a list either. This is not to say that they couldn’t make a decent job however, and the results here are truly far more than merely decent.

Although the Swiss Baroque Soloists on Naxos are a period instrument band, it is not entirely unfair to pit this new Decca release against them. Chailly has gone very much for an ‘early music’ feel, with a prominent harpsichord continuo, reduced vibrato and a generally un-stodgy pacing and orchestral sound. Refreshing my memory with Gabetta’s Naxos recording, I was once again staggered by some of the speeds he takes - taking one’s breath away on occasion, and taking off like a rocket in movements such as the first of the Concerto No. 3. His timing here is 4:51 compared to 5:22 with Chailly, but this is not to say that Chailly is particularly slow, and in fact many of the timings throughout both recordings are so similar as to make little difference. There are enough cases where Chailly is shorter as well, so it’s more a case of extremes, and I’m not sure I always prefer Gabetta’s supersonic pace - invigorating though it may be. He also has a tendency to rush at the middle of phrases, which breaks up the essential inner motor rhythm of the music. The main differences are in the sonorities of natural horns against modern valves, the rather more nasal replica oboes, and modern flute against traverso instruments. This is one area in which I can imagine arguments against a recording like this, welding early music performance style onto a mixture of instruments both early and modern. Chailly uses recorders for Concerto No.4 and a modern flute solo in Concerto No.5, violas da gamba in the concertino strings against his modern orchestra ripieno in Concerto No.6, but do we care?

Riccardo Chailly may be having his cake and eating it, but by giving us the best of both worlds he does provide a cracking good set of the Brandenburgs. The full orchestra is always crisp and superbly articulated, none of that claggy heaviness we had with Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1960s. If you want romantic Bach with full-fat vibrato all over the place then I won’t try and dissuade you from trying Karajan, but when I go back to those recordings these days I do tend to come out in a kind of spiritual hives. Authentically aspirational Chailly may be, but his period style performances are anything but anaemic. With sensible pacing of the fastest movements we do get a more relaxed overall feel than with Gabetta, but feeling your brain cook on high wattage isn’t necessarily what you want with Bach. What Chailly does is swing. Right from the start of Concerto No.1 you are caught in a groove which carries you forward like a walk through a park filled with fountains, inspired and refreshing. He doesn’t linger over the slow movements, but neither does he deny them the space to develop their expressive potential. The violino piccolo solo in the Adagio of the first concerto is less warm than that of the oboe, but I don’t find the clean vibrato-free line objectionable, and those rising dissonances in the bass are delicious. I mentioned the horns before, and while I am a big fan of the natural horn sound there are few moments in this concerto where juicy out-of-tune notes occur - Bach being such a stickler for idiomatic correctness with his instruments you hardly notice the difference here, and in any case you should be dancing halfway to the supermarket by this time on the surf of the Allegro, life enhanced, job done.

That tasty rhythm is set off again in Concerto No.2, a superb high trumpet solo from Julian Sommerhalder crowning multi-faceted layers of counterpoint. It’s not all speed and well articulated 16th notes though - listen how the phrases are shaped through the entire orchestra, and how those descending imitative sequences are set off expressively against the rest of the material. This is a triumph of musicianship, as is the darker schwung of the all-string Concerto No.5, kept energetic through the lively impetus of the basses, and just the right kind of dynamic weight in themes and accompaniment. Chailly keeps a chamber music feel in this music, accuracy of intonation and articulation keeping everything together, but still with a big-crowd heft to the sound which is quite stunning after all those small ensemble single-voice to a part recordings. Sebastian Breuninger’s Adagio solo is suitably dolorous, and the final Allegro is another seriously uplifting experience.

Before you know it, we’re on to disc 2. Chailly’s feel for a kind of ideal tempo brings us an initial Allegro in Concerto No.4 which errs on the side of refinement rather than on that of excitement, but there is always a risk of having these outer movements in too much of the same tempo every time, and this music can take a little more space in which to breathe. Even when marginally slower these performances never sound laboured, and that crazy violin solo in the middle is spectacular enough. The unison recorders over the rest of the orchestra is one of the highlights of this entire cycle of concertos in my opinion, and they get me going all over again here - wonderful stuff. Cornelia Grohmann’s flute in Concerto No.5 always ran the risk of sounding a bit too fat and succulent, but she approaches the part in a sympathetically baroque sounding way, moulding her tone to suit the instruments around her. I think if I was pushed I would have preferred a traverso here, but the modern flute does perhaps compete more effectively with the full orchestra. I’m not so keen on her fingered ‘vibrato’ ornamentation at 3:40 in the first movement and Jacques Zoon does this far better on the Abbado DVD, but this is a small point, and still a very fine performance. Michael Schönheit’s harpsichord solos are hot stuff in this concerto as well. More groovy playing and a welcome change of string sonority with those gambas bring us into Concerto No.6, again more refined than urgent, but none the less effective for that, and with those strong harmonic bass lines brought out to full rich effect this is a sound in which to bathe and revel. Always tricky, the intonation in these lower instruments is done very well here, though not without some quasi-edgy moments in the Adagio ma non tanto. Dancing merrily through the rather formal sounding but suitably bouncy final Allegro brings us to the conclusion of a very enjoyable set of Brandenburg Concertos indeed.

This pair of CDs is given good booklet notes by Andreas Glöckner, and very nice they look too in their deep green livery. Do I have any complaints? Well, it would be a bit picky to point out that little nest of instruments on the cover which looks a bit like a music school logo; though this does helpfully provide a warning to eagle-eyed experts that non-authentic instruments have been used. My only real beef is with the playing time, which sails just about 15 minutes into two-disc territory. Knowing Chailly’s imaginative programming when he was with the Concertgebouw I can’t imagine he and Decca couldn’t have come up with something to add to these concertos. The argument for changing the order as Abbado does on his recording might have helped here as well, with the final Concerto No.6 not really providing the strongest finale to all these performances, but this is comment which might be applied to any such set. In the end, this is a strong competitor in a vibrant market. The sheer depth and detail in the recording is a tough act to match, and the life and vibe in the performance is just the start. Chailly manages to give Bach’s creations a sense of organic pulse and cadence which grabs you and never lets go: not, that is, until you’ve really become rejuvenated and inspired. It is these qualities which make this recording worth the asking price, and then some.

Dominy Clements