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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concertos
Concerto No. 1 in F, BVW 1046 [22:00]
Concerto No. 2 in F, BVW 1047 [12:31]
Concerto No. 3 in G, BVW 1048 [9:23]
Concerto No. 4 in G, BVW 1049 [16:04]
Concerto No. 5 in D, BVW 1050 [22;16]
Concerto No. 6 in B flat, BVW 1051 [17:45]
Walter Schneiderhan (solo violin)
Wiener Soloists/Jascha Horenstein
rec. 21-25 September 1954, Vienna
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC468 [43:54 + 56:05]

A typical performance of the Brandenburg Concertos given in 1954, the year of this recording, might have used a sub-set of a modern instrument symphony orchestra, augmented by a harpsichord.

Horenstein, however, assembled a group of twenty-two players and used a mix of modern and period instruments.  Among the latter are a violino piccolo, violas da gamba, recorders and a harpsichord.  The other winds and strings are modern instruments.  Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Paul Angerer (both to become conductors and, in Angerer's case, also a composer) are among the players.

As a comparison, I listened to a Philips recording made by Neville Marriner and the Academy of Saint Martin's in the Fields in 1980 (their second recording of these works).  Marriner, like Horenstein, uses a combination of modern and period instruments, many played by distinguished guest artists including Jean Paul Rampal, Carl Pini, and Henryk Szeryng.

Most of Marriner's tempos are faster than Horenstein's, but not by huge margins, and there are a few movements where Horenstein's are swifter.  I infer from this that Horenstein's speeds are fast for their time.  The playing in both sets is alert and polished.

Horenstein's sound is bright, full and clear, with the horns excitingly forward in the First Concerto.  The strings, as the accompanying notes acknowledge, have an 'edge' and this adds a touch of astringency which devotees of 'historically informed' performances may enjoy, but which others may tire of, if too much is heard at one sitting.  It's better, perhaps, to hear each disc at a separate listening session.

Marriner's Philips sound is more refined, marginally warmer and has the benefit of stereo engineering.  His horns in the First Concerto are more recessed, but still satisfying.  An oddity in his set is the addition of a middle movement in the Third Concerto.  Officially, the work has only two movements and, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Music, this has led to much speculation by scholars concerning the 'missing' movement.  Marriner has 'solved' this problem by inserting a brief Adagio identified by Philips simply as 'BVW 1019a'.  Investigation shows this to be part of the first version of the Sonata for violin and keyboard No. 6 in G Major.  It sounds quite effective in the concerto.

It is in the Sixth Concerto that the two conductors differ most in their approach (specifically in the last two movements).   The Second Movement is marked Adagio ma non tanto ('Slow but not too much').  Horenstein ignores the qualifier and directs a leisurely, 'heavenly' Adagio.  He follows this without pause with a swift and energetic Final Movement Allegro.  This slightly unorthodox approach provides a contrast between the two movements which is extremely exciting.  It is a master stroke by a master conductor.

Marriner obeys the tempo marking of the Second Movement and 'pushes' it slightly, without losing all repose.  His following Allegro is comparatively leisurely with the result that there is less contrast between the movements and less excitement than Horenstein finds.

I rounded off my Brandenburg Concerto listening sessions with some extracts from a period instrument set performed by the Dunedin Consort conducted by John Butt and released on Linn Records. The Consort has ten musicians, one to a part, with Butt conducting from the harpsichord. As reported in Kirk McElhearn’s review of this set, the pitch is a low 392 Hz and Butt is quoted as saying that this ‘brings a warmth and glow to the sound’ which ‘tends to encourage a slightly slower but more subtle articulation for most instruments’.

I did find these qualities of warmth and subtlety in the extracts I heard and, whilst these are unmistakably ‘historically informed’ performances, my ears weren’t taxed in a way they might have been by a colder and more relentless approach. In the Sixth Concerto, Butt doesn’t make the dramatic contrast Horenstein did between the last two movements, but in the Slow Movement he is more relaxed than Marriner and faster than him in the Finale. The set has received enthusiastic reviews.

In sum, Horenstein's well executed and sometimes exciting performances can be regarded as advanced for their time, a kind of 'half-way house' between the traditional approach to these works and modern renditions.  Making due allowance for their relatively unrefined string sound, they would make a worthwhile supplement to much more recent recordings Bach lovers might have in their collections.

Rob W McKenzie



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