Of making many recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos there is no end: Harmonia Mundi already had three in the catalogue, all of them of the historically-informed persuasion. I won’t however, continue in the vein of Ecclesiastes 12.12 and say that much hearing of them is a weariness of the flesh. Like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, of which there is a similar proliferation on offer, every new recording seems to have something new to say, even to those of us who have been around long enough to have thought Karl Münchinger and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra the last word on both composers circa 1960 (Decca stereo or the older mono set on Ace of Clubs).
If you want to try Münchinger’s 1950 mono recording of the Brandenburgs there’s an inexpensive transfer from Naxos Historical Archives, to which subscribers to Naxos Music Library can listen, though not in the USA and several other countries. Try the minuet finale of No.1 where Münchinger takes almost half as long again as most recent recordings.
The recordings which I’ve used for comparison – I won’t call them benchmarks because I’d hate to have to plump for only one or, indeed, to be confined to listening to just one recording – are:
Beulah 12PD42: New York Sinfonietta/Max Goberman (see March 2012/2 DL Roundup)
Dating from a time when most of us were listening to Karl Münchinger these performances still sound amazingly stylish and will do very well as an inexpensive purchase for those wanting modern instruments played without sounding stodgy.
Double Decca 4438472: English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
Another inexpensive recording from an earlier period which still sounds stylish if you want modern instruments.
Warner USB 256466112-7: Il Giardino Armonico
The complete extant works of Bach on a single USB stick – Bargain of the Month: Download News 2013/5. Stocks of this first-rate bargain are running low and inflated prices are being asked in some quarters.
BIS-SACD-1721/2: Bach Collegium, Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
Harmonia Mundi Gold HMG501634/5: Akademie für alte Musik, Berlin
Naïve OP30412: Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini (review)
Soli Deo Gloria SDG707: English Baroque Soloists/ John Eliot Gardiner and Katie Debretzeni (review)
Avie AV2119: European Brandenburg Ensemble/Trevor Pinnock – review and review
Harmonia Mundi SACD HMU807461/2: Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr – review
This recording has been aptly described as well-judged and moderate but that doesn’t mean that it’s boring.
Linn CKD430: Dunedin Consort/John Butt – review and DL News 2013/3
This is the most recent recording apart from the new Harmonia Mundi; it comes as a 2-for-1 offer in all formats and makes a very strong contender. Prices range from £8 for mp3 to £18 for 24-bit Studio Master.
I dipped into all these recordings and enjoyed them all without being able to nominate any one of them as first among equals, though the attractive price at which the Linn recording is offered, even in 24-bit format, is certainly a plus.
I can’t claim that the tempi on the new recording are universally ideal: I thought track 4 (No.1/iv) a little unfeeling – rather fast at the outset and the rubato later somewhat unnatural – and No.3/iii (track 12) sounds a little scrambled. At only a slightly slower pace John Butt on Linn shows how a more sedate tempo can be made to work in both movements as long as the rhythm and momentum are maintained. These are, however, minor concerns especially as the Freiburg train stays on track in track 12; it would have been different had some of the cars been close to coming off. The analogy I draw is with Bruno Walter in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony where the NYPO stay on track on the mono LP for his fast finale whereas the Columbia SO almost crash on his stereo re-make. In several other movements the Linn recording is a degree faster than the new Harmonia Mundi without sounding unduly hurried.
As with the comparison that I’ve made between the Linn and the new recording above in the minuet finale of No.1, it’s not possible to judge a recording just by comparing timings. Surprisingly, Goberman’s tempi are little different from Münchinger’s – even slower in some places, such as the slow movement of No.2 where both are much slower than the new Freiburg recording – yet there’s no doubt which of the two older versions I would choose for my Desert Island.
A distinctive feature of the new recording is that the Freiburg players have adopted a low pitch, even by historically-informed standards: A=392Hz. This tends to give them a darker sound than other period ensembles, though the effect is less noticeable here than on some of their other recordings.
One plus which is immediately apparent on the new recording concerns the natural horns in Concerto No.1. They aren’t the easiest beasts to manage and can sound rather ripe on some otherwise recommendable recordings, but here they are about as well-mannered as you could wish even by comparison with their modern cousins. That was apparently not the case in a live concert, as Stan Metzger writes in a less than complimentary recent review of this ensemble on an off day. The horns are also perfectly pitched on the Linn recording whereas even those on the first-rate John Eliot Gardiner recording (SDG) aren’t quite so well behaved as either of these.
On the Alessandrini recording the horns at the beginning of No.1 are somewhat over-ripe; it’s not a serious problem, but for that reason among others I preferred and still prefer Trevor Pinnock’s remake for Avie with the European Brandenburg Orchestra when I compared the two – review. You’ll also find an examination of the differences between the two in Jens F Laurson’s review of the Egarr recording. The reissued CD of the four concertos comes in tandem with another first-rate Alessandini recording – 1600: review – and can be found for around £7, so the eclassical.com download at $12.14 offers little, if any, saving.
Natural trumpets, especially the clarino instrument employed in No.2, can be as much a problem as the horns but the Freiburg variety behave themselves on the new recording, shining brightly and in tune, as in the finale of No.2 (track 10).
I must return to the burden of Stan Metzger’s review of the Freiburgers in live performance and his opinion that they have lost their fire in these works. Perhaps that’s because he heard them in January 2014, nine months on from the date of the recording, with, doubtless, many other performances intervening and the danger that the music had become stale by then. Certainly on the basis of this recording I didn’t share his reservations. I do, however, join him in wondering why the order 1-6-2-3-5-4 was chosen; I’ve asked a similar question with regard to the recent Zig-Zag Territoires recording of Corelli’s Op.6 Concerti Grossi (ZZT327 – review). Presumably both composers had good reasons for their chosen orders.
Those two other Harmonia Mundi recordings are among those which have been praised over the years: the older version, from the Akademie für alte Musik, Berlin, reissued at mid-price on the HM Gold label, also as part of a 10-CD set, and the more recent version with the Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr. Of these I very much liked the more recent Egarr version, which I also heard as a download from eclassical.com. Though there is no 24-bit version, the 16-bit lossless from eclassical.com is very good.
In the movements where I was a little uncomfortable with the timings on the new recording, as in I/iv, Egarr is much less controversial and his horns are just as well behaved. In 3/iii, too, his slightly slower pace seems more suitable. Egarr’s trumpets, too, are spot-on: there’s little to choose between them and their Freiburg counterparts in the finale of No.2.
Ninety minutes is a bit short on value for two upper-mid-price CDs, which is where the advantage lies with Linn’s 2-for-1 pricing (above) and with the eclassical.com download of the new Freiburg recording: $16.20 for the mp3 and 16-bit lossless and $24.30 for the better-than-CD 24/96 version, with the pdf version of the booklet thrown in in both cases. All three versions sound very good of their kind, with a small but significant advantage to the 24-bit. I made an mp3 CD for the car and that, too, sounds very well – but be careful to watch the speed limit in some of the fast passages.
The new recording doesn’t shake my enjoyment of several of the older versions that I’ve listed, especially the Egarr and Butt versions, but it takes its place among the best in a very competitive field. I shall also continue to listen to the Alessandrini, Gardiner and Pinnock versions with pleasure. If you want to try to make the impossible choice among these six, you should be able to test drive them all via the Naxos Music Library.
I haven’t included the Suzuki recording on BIS among my final six, though it, too, is a strong contender. By way of compensation let me add that as I was finalising this review I listened to a new recording of the concertos for two harpsichords, BWV1060-1062, played by Masaaki and Masato Suzuki with the Bach Collegium, Japan, and coupled with Orchestral Suite No.1, BWV1066, in an arrangement for two harpsichords (BIS-SACD-2051 – download from eclassical.com in mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless).
Look out for a more detailed review but my first thoughts are that this is a strong contender though, again, in a competitive field. I’m not too sure, however, about the arrangement of the Suite. We know that Bach rearranged much of his own music – BWV1060 and 1061 are cases in point – and Yo Tomita’s notes provide an argument that Bach may have made a 4-hand version of this suite, but the jury is still out for me on this one. It certainly makes the recording of more respectable length than some of the competitors which contain only BWV1060-1062.
Masterwork Index: Brandenburg concertos