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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concertos 1-6
Orchestral Suites 1-4
Hugo Kolberg, William Lincer, Nicholas Biro, Felix Eyle (violins); Julius Baker (flute); Robert Bloom (oboe); Weldon Wilbur (horn); William Vacchiano (trumpet); Sylvia Marlowe (harpsichord)
RCA Victor Orchestra (members)/Fritz Reiner
rec. 1949-53, New York City, USA
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC425 [3 CDs: 61:24 + 62:47 + 67:20]

We owe a debt of gratitude to Mark Obert-Thorn for issuing these remarkable historical transfers, originally recorded between 1949 and 1953. The Brandenburg Concertos were in the Columbia catalogue throughout the 1950s on three successive issues: full-price Masterworks and then on their budget Entré and Harmony series. However, they have not seen light of day since then. French RCA re-released the Suites on LP in the early 1980s but not on CD. These new transfers were made from Harmony LPs for the Brandenburgs and from the French RCA pressings for the Suites. Obviously, these are very old recordings and miracles simply cannot be achieved even when working with the original masters, let alone the vinyl sources used by Pristine. The recording quality is clear but not particularly glamorous and it does have some patches of distortion. However, despite the edgy top-end the sound is perfectly acceptable and Mr. Obert-Thorn has managed to remove the background noise very successfully without dulling the treble. You don’t have to “listen through” the sound, so to speak. The ear gets used to it very quickly after a few bars and the three CDs are enjoyable in their own right.

Fritz Reiner was a stern disciplinarian with an immaculate ear. He is well known for his work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the golden age of American music-making when we also had the Szell/Cleveland, Dorati/Minneapolis and Ormandy/Philadelphia partnerships setting the world alight with their new levels of technical excellence. His Richard Strauss recordings for RCA are still up there with the best, musically and technically, and I suppose that most readers will remember him for those recordings. Reiner conducting J.S. Bach comes as something of a surprise and I had never thought of this as being his normal territory.

Reiner’s sumptuous big band Strauss is replaced here by J.S. Bach pared to the bone. The orchestral forces are reduced to chamber orchestra proportions. The string section is: 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and 2 basses. This gives his Bach recordings great clarity and lightness of texture. Reiner was decades ahead of his time in this respect. These recordings must have come as something of a shock to an audience brought up on the heavy big-band Bach that was the order of the day. Every part is as clear as a bell. The conductor also brings his renowned discipline to the proceedings and the players at his disposal were the crème de la crème. Not surprisingly, the results are well worth hearing. The brilliant flautist Julius Baker is outstanding in the Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 2 and 4 and also in the Suite No. 2 in B Minor. He combines virtuosity with a gentle style that belies the difficulty of the music. Mr. Baker’s wonderful playing is perfectly matched by that of violinist Hugo Kolberg in the Brandenburg Concerto No.4. Robert Bloom, oboist with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski, stars in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 and trumpet player William Vacchiano (New York Phil) is completely secure on piccolo trumpet in Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 and elsewhere in the Orchestral Suites.

All in all I found this set to be something of a revelation. There’s some outstanding playing and Reiner’s approach is direct and enjoyable. There are also some moments that make you smile such as the slightly soupy Aria from the Suite No.3. This is an important historic document and would I commend it to you, not as a primary choice, but as an interesting alternative in any collection. My allegiances still lie with the classic Argo set of Orchestral Suites (Marriner) and Britten’s Brandenburgs on Decca. I find both sets illuminating, beautifully recorded and musically satisfying despite their old-fashioned pre-period instrument approach. Reiner’s recordings are a worthy addition to the Bach catalogue.

John Whitmore

Previous review: Ralph Moore
 

Full track details

CD 1:
Brandenburg Concerto No.1 in F major, BWV 1046 [22:37]
Hugo Kolberg (solo violin); Weldon Wilbur (solo horn); Robert Bloom (solo oboe)
rec. 28 October 1949
Brandenburg Concerto No.2 in F major, BWV 1047 [12:55]
William Vacchiano (trumpet); Felix Eyle (solo violin); Julius Baker (flute); Robert Bloom (oboe)
rec. 2 December 1949
Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major, BWV1048 [10:15]
rec. 26 October 1949
Brandenburg Concerto No.4 in G major, BWV 1049 [15:37]
Hugo Kolberg (violin); Julius Baker (flute); Ralph Eichar (flute, tracks 10, 12); Frederick Wilkins (flute, track 11).
rec.21 October 1949

CD 2:
Brandenburg Concerto No.5 in D major, BWV1050 [21:02]
Sylvia Marlowe (harpsichord); Hugo Kolberg (violin); Julius Baker (solo flute)
rec. 3 November 1949
Brandenburg Concerto No.6 in B flat major, BWV 1051 [18:59]
William Lincer, Nicholas Biro (solo violins)
Chamber Group/Fritz Reiner
Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York City
Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major BWV 1066 for 2 oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo (c.1717-23) [26:46]
rec. 14 October 1952

CD 3:
Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor BWV 1067 for flute, strings and continuo (late 1730s) [24:34]
Julius Baker (flute)
rec. 30 April 1953
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major BWV 1068 for 3 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, strings and continuo (c1729-31) [21:13]
rec. 8 October 1952
Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D major BWV 1069 for 3 oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo (c1717-23) [21:33]
rec. 23 October 1952

 

 




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