Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Orchestral Suite no.2 in B minor, BWV 1067 [19:37]
Concerto in A, for oboe d'amore (reconstructed from BWV 1055) [13:45]
Concerto in C minor, for oboe & violin (reconstructed from BWV 1060) [14:16]
Concerto in D minor, for 2 violins, BWV 1043 [15:33]
'Brandenburg' Concerto no.2 in F, BWV 1047 [11:39]
'Brandenburg' Concerto no.4 in G, BWV 1049 [16:33]
'Brandenburg' Concerto no.5 in D, BWV 1050 [21:32]
Sheep May Safely Graze [from: Cantata BWV 208], arr. Daniel Pailthorpe [4:48]
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring [from: Cantata BWV 147], arr. Daniel Pailthorpe [2:49]
London Conchord Ensemble
Florian Uhlig (piano)
rec. The Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex, November 2004 (BWV 1067; 1060R); October 2005 (1049; 1055R); January 2006 (1043; 1047); April 2006 (147; 208; 1050). DDD
CHAMPS HILL RECORDS CHRCD014 [63:19 + 56:48]
 
On the face of it, this release seems to offer a standard selection of Johann Sebastian Bach's most popular orchestral works. All of this music has been recorded so many times before, often in very high quality performances, that music lovers will inevitably wonder what this release has to offer that the rest lacks. That this is actually a re-issue of a 2006 Quartz CD hardly adds to its case. 

But what makes this double disc stand out, besides the impeccable, not-for-profit ethic of Champs Hill Records, is the fact that these are performances of chamber music. According to London Conchord flautist Daniel Pailthorpe, in his foreword: "There is nothing in the autographs of these works to suggest that Bach intended anything other than one player to a part."
 
London Conchord's instruments are modern - especially, of course, the piano for the 'Brandenburg' Concerto no.5. Purists may blanch at this, in particular at Florian Uhlig's decidedly inauthentic use of piano and forte contrasts unavailable to any harpsichordist. They may also frown at the horn replacing the trumpet in the Second Concerto - though this was probably sanctioned by Bach - and the flutes standing in for recorders in the Fourth Concerto. Yet the small ensemble offers textures that are so much more Baroque than the thick, vibrato-heavy orchestral versions that were in vogue until not too long ago, and Bach's amazing counterpoint is all the more transparent. Period practice has in any case been more or less adhered to, and there really is very little in this release to polarise opinion in the way that, say, Glenn Gould's (in)famous 1955 recording of the 'Goldberg' Variations does.
 
Among the many highlights of these recordings are the revelatory, almost ethereal pared-down texture of the slow movements of the Second and Fifth 'Brandenburg' Concertos; the golden light cast by the flutes in the Fourth, especially in the glorious finale; the dreamy central flute-cello duet of the Polonaise of the Suite in B minor; and a gentle, heartfelt but not sentimental slow movement in the Double Violin Concerto.
 
After the proper music, some encores: two of Bach's "greatest hits" arranged by Pailthorpe, one delightful, one less so, but in both cases beautifully played. The successful piece is 'Sheep May Safely Graze', arranged for two flutes - both miraculously played by Pailthorpe! - and cello, with the piano serving as continuo. On the other hand, 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring' (this woeful 'translation' lives on) tends a bit towards 'easy listening' - perhaps deliberately so - with its deep bass, frothy oboe and bland piano all squeezed into a pop tune sized chunk, reminiscent at times of Jacques Loussier's abominations. Ideal for Classic FM, though!
 
There are many fine individual performances among the soloists, notably the oboe d'amore, oboe and three violins in the three Concertos proper. Somewhat strangely, only Florian Uhlig is named anywhere in the booklet - all the more odd because he only plays in the Fifth Concerto and Pailthorpe's arrangements. Uhlig's performance is certainly first-class and necessarily virtuosic, and the piano lends a new, interesting colour to Bach's Concerto - yet it would be wilful to deny that some of the chromatic brilliance and visceral excitement that only the harpsichord can provide is lost from the massive cadenza, and overall the tone of the piano ironically serves to accentuate the soloist pretensions of the flute and violin, pace the booklet notes which repeat the platitude that "this has been called the first ever keyboard concerto."
 
The recordings took place over a period of eighteen months, so some variation is to be expected in both the playing and sound. The Suite (or Ouverture, as Bach called it) in B minor has a slightly poorer definition, and there is a minor tendency towards flatness of sound in the piano perhaps, but in general, the reliable acoustic of the Champs Hill Music Room ensures a consistently high quality of recording. The only technical blip is a suspicion of an editing join towards the end of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring", but that is no great loss to music.
 
The booklet is fairly attractive, in the Champs Hill Records house style. The briefish notes are by Sandy Burnett, described as "Presenter, BBC Radio 3" - wishful thinking that will remind many of better days at that station. Burnett has certainly not gone for a scholarly approach, and occasionally shies away from facts - to describe the 'Brandenburg' Concertos as "part of a failed job application" is as daft as it is inaccurate.
 
Byzantion
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk

see also review by Oleg Ledeniov
 
What makes this stand out is the chamber music approach.