Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-51
Giuliano Carmignola (principal violin)
Orchestra Mozart/Claudio Abbado
rec. live, Teatro Municipale Romolo Valli, Reggio Emilia, 21 April 2007.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8908 [47:26 + 44:00]

What struck me first about Abbado’s account of Concerto 1 was its luminescent quality. This is achieved through lightness yet clarity of texture and fine balance in the opening movement between the two horns, three oboes and strings. You appreciate the variations and elaboration as one instrument echoes another or sustained notes flare over the predominantly semiquaver flow. The effect is refined and refreshing but I wonder how natural it is: how ‘baroque’ in its original sense of something to a degree grotesque and therefore arresting. I compared the 1996 recording by Il Giardino Armonico (Das Alte Werk 256469812-3). IGA’s horns are more prominent, raucous, adventurous, Orchestra Mozart’s seem carefully blended, even tamed into the ensemble, though the movement has plenty of momentum and brio. Abbado’s second movement Adagio keeps up this momentum in being at least Adagietto. This makes for a sunny oboe presentation but his silky violino piccolo partner is a shade reticent despite the fine interweaving between the two. At a truer Adagio, timing at 3:33 against OM’s 3:02, IGA offers more savoured reflection. The dominant impression is of the sweetness of the high violin in its own world, occasionally graced by oboe backing.

To the following Allegro Abbado brings a light-clipped stylishness. The solo violino piccolo is folksy to a degree. The oboes and horns, always in soft focus, work wonders in keeping up with the violin’s dazzling flurry of counterpoint. Still the IGA horns here are more engagingly perkier. Next from Abbado comes a firmly phrased yet also lilting and lively Menuet. The first Trio for two oboes and bassoon with more ornamentation in the repeat of the first strain and thereafter. Abbado’s Polonaise begins soft and stately, the repeat of its first strain even softer, before a second strain which is suddenly loud and rugged. The second Trio, featuring the two horns and three oboes, is evenly balanced and pure in tone. On its fourth and final appearance Abbado brings more than a touch of swagger to the Menuet which arguably becomes a little too skittish. I prefer IGA’s more biting horns’ undercurrent in every Menuet appearance. Abbado’s basic approach to the work is of classical restraint where IGA is more flamboyantly baroque and interventionist.

Abbado gives the finest account I have heard of Concerto 2 in terms of the balance and companionable unanimity of its four interweaving solo instruments: trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin. The recorder usually gets rather obscured, but not here and the high clarino register trumpet part is accomplished with smooth aplomb. The opening movement is all chirpy and animated without seeming hectic, partly because of the lightness of the ripieno strings. The entries of the soloists in turn are delightfully clear as the others give them space without unduly spotlighting them. The second movement, a trio for recorder, oboe and violin, languishes luxuriantly, a slightly laid back Andante. IGA shows more insistent momentum but their playing is less assured than OM’s where again all the soloists are in accord. Their embellishment, as the movement progresses, is increasingly imaginative. In Abbado’s finale, perky and certainly Allegro assai, all four soloists match one another in ebullient trilling.

OM’s Concerto 3 begins unassumingly but its contrapuntal dazzle and rhythmic incisiveness is appreciable as soon as the three groups of three violin, three viola and three cello parts are clearly separated in imitation (CD1, tr. 5 0:21). This performance has fine vertical as well as horizontal clarity and features nifty playing of great crispness, precision and alertness. The two chords between the two movements are decorously filled out by the harpsichord in a solo which doesn’t outstay its welcome. The second movement is deft and scintillating in its cascades of semiquavers. The string bass (tr. 7 1:05) and first violas (from 2:05) are as agile as the violins, though IGA in this movement are more feathery and animated.

Concerto 4 has an opening movement in which imitation abounds. The concertino recorders are fresh and cheerful companions for the violin while the division between concertino and ripieno strings is clear and neat. Abbado’s slow movement has more of a formal than expressive gravity because of its slowish Andante. A little faster (3:23 against 3:43), IGA provides a greater sense of urgency. Abbado’s finale is smooth, relaxed yet also decisive in manner through a tempo which is more Allegro than the marked Presto. IGA is more brisk, jolly and lively (4:43 against 5:20), less orderly and classical, but more baroque.

Concerto 5 is striking for its swiftly projected sense of joint purpose in its flute, violin and harpsichord soloists, an improvisatory quality which is the gain of this live performance. The harpsichord contributions are deliciously light from CD1 tr. 8 5:14 when the ripieno has disappeared and the other soloists are about to fall away. The harpsichord solo at the end of the first movement is presented with clarity, crispness and delight in precision though that for IGA has more tension and vision of the wood as well as the trees. Abbado’s slow movement is one of cool reflection, notable for its stylish, creamy flute. In the finale we’re back to a sprightly Allegro but with a nicely contrasted, more intent central section (tr. 10 1:13).

Concerto 6 is typical of Abbado’s approach overall in being refreshingly different. It’s presented in relaxed chamber style, domestic, small scale. Nevertheless its inner momentum is undoubted. The opening movement is engaging and lightly sprung so that some jazzily flattened harmonies become very clear (CD2, tr. 1 1:11). With this approach, however, also comes some underplaying of the dynamic contrasts, 1:46 could be more piano, 2:01 more suddenly forte. This you do get from IGA whose account has more gusto, projection and edge. Abbado’s slow movement is also understated albeit beautifully so. As a distillation of pure songlike contrapuntal texture it’s marvellous, but IGA is more expressive. Abbado’s Allegro finale is a bit steady. It’s firmly accented and the syncopation is clear. The semiquaver runs have a sense of free wing but are more notable for their intricacy than the sense of release and allowable fun that IGA conveys.

In technical accomplishment, execution of ornamentation especially, Abbado’s performances are second to none. But they didn’t realize for me the emotional range and colour of Bach that I find in IGA’s accounts. Abbado celebrates Bach’s fluency rather than his energy. His is Bach on the quiet side. You may prefer this. I fancy Dominy Clements who reviewed its original release on DVD (Medici Arts 2056738 review) did. I’m uncertain whether this sound recording at two-thirds the price of the DVD is a good buy, especially when the IGA CDs come at three-quarters of the price of these DG ones. On the other hand, in sampling the DVD I found listening in sound alone a more relaxing experience. Seeing the performers standing and regarding their music quite diligently was a bit off-putting, though I agree with Dominy that Abbado’s minimalist conducting is an object lesson.

Michael Greenhalgh

Bach on the quiet side but refreshingly different.