Since Johann Sebastian Bach didn't write symphonies - they didn't exist in his time - the closest we can come to that type of music is his Brandenburg Concertos. They're not really like the symphonies that Haydn and Mozart later wrote. They do however provide music for a full ensemble without a specific solo instrument, though the ensemble used is much smaller than an orchestra, even one of Haydn’s time. Originally entitled “Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments”, each of these concertos features a different set of instruments. The first deploys hunting horns, the second uses trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin, and the third only strings and harpsichord. Others include flute or a pair of violas da gamba.
Countless recordings have been made of these works, some with large forces, others small, some with original instruments, and many with modern ones. It's fair to say that this recording represents one extreme. No instruments are doubled, and the entire ensemble comprises only ten performers. Original instruments are used and the pitch is 392 Hz. In the liner-notes, John Butt, director of the Dunedin Consort, says the following about the pitch:
"The low pitch - which adds an element of technical complexity - does have several significant effects on the sound of the performance. First, it is perhaps more suited to smaller rooms than the higher pitch levels, which tend to render the music more penetrating, but it brings a warmth and glow to the sound that is well suited to the euphonious textures of the Brandenburg Concertos. Secondly, it tends to encourage a slightly slower but more subtle articulation for most instruments, which means that both fast and slow tempi can generate a rich array of note shapes and dynamic shadings."
I've quoted the above passage because I feel that the pitch here does make a great difference; more than I had suspected in simply playing the music a whole tone lower than normal. The tone that the Dunedin Consort achieves in this recording is one of great homogeneity, yet the small forces allow each instrumental line to be clearly heard. The impeccable recording also helps this; the balance among the instruments is ideal, and this disc sounds great both on speakers and on headphones.
While Butt says that this pitch encourages "a slightly slower but more subtle articulation for most instruments", this doesn't mean that the concertos are played with Richterian tempi. Some movements are markedly slower than other versions, but many are faster and dance-like. The first movement of concerto No. 5 and the final movement of the sixth concerto both have me tapping my feet. Overall, this set is slower than the version recorded by Café Zimmermann - a group that takes a similar historically-informed approach - in their sets of “Concerts avec plusieurs instruments”, by nearly five minutes. But there's no feeling of stodgy playing here - quite the contrary. The instrumental textures are airy and light, the interplay of the musicians exemplary.
We live in a gilded era for recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos. If you want historically-informed, you have many excellent choices. My favorites include recent recordings by John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists; Trevor Pinnock and the European Brandenburg Ensemble; the aforementioned Café Zimmermann recordings; and an older set by Jordi Savall with Le Concert des Nations. All of these are wonderful, and will satisfy the discriminating HIP aficionado.
So why choose this one? If you love these works, you'll be entranced by the excellent quality of the Dunedin Consort and the warm listening experience. The small forces and lower pitch give this a wonderful sound and feeling. This one is a keeper.
Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just music on his blog Kirkville.
Masterwork Index: Brandenburg concertos