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Jonathan Woolf
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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concertos (c.1721)
Concerto No.1 in F major, BWV 1046 [23:02]
Concerto No.2 in F major, BWV 1047 [12:33]
Concerto No.3 in G major, BWV1048 [13:55]
Concerto No.4 in G major, BWV 1049 [17:29]
Concerto No.5 in D major, BWV1050 [21:22]
Concerto No.6 in B flat major, BWV 1051 [18:01]
Hamburg Chamber Orchestra/Harry Newstone
rec. Hamburg, 1959
HERITAGE HTGCD195/6 [49:30 + 56:52]

In the years after the War, performances of Bach, and baroque music generally, on big modern orchestras were giving way to those with smaller forces though still with modern instruments. Yehudi Menuhin, Benjamin Britten, Karl Münchinger and later Neville Marriner were active in this way. Then the period instrument movement started, with such people as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner and Christopher Hogwood leading the way and, as they grew in skill and confidence, they gradually swept all before them. Now, indeed, the influence is working the other way, as full orchestras offer ‘historically informed’ performances which have learned from period performance while retaining modern instruments.

Harry Newstone (1921-2006) was part of the earlier wave of baroque performance and his 1959 set of the Brandenburg Concertos was enthusiastically received when it first came out. It held its place in the catalogue for a number of years. Newstone studied baroque practice carefully and followed it, though using modern instruments. For example, the string band was small and the wind instruments could easily make themselves heard. The timpanist used hard sticks. He followed the written ornaments, occasionally and discreetly adding a few others in the right style. Tempi were faster than previously and the phrasing and articulation followed the written directions where available and were consistent with them and musical where not.

I should explain that modern instruments, as we call them, were mostly developed in their present form in the mid-nineteenth century. Woodwind instruments were fitted with elaborate keywork and brass instruments with valves so that they could command a full chromatic range with ease. The material they were made of also changed and they were made somewhat wider and more powerful. Violins had their necks lengthened and steel strings replaced gut. The cello replaced the viola da gamba. All this was to make the right sound for the larger orchestras and concert halls of the Romantic period. In the course of this, the timbre of the instruments changed subtly, generally towards a smoother and more rounded sound. In comparison, earlier instruments tend to sound thinner and more pungent to our ears.

These performance were with the Hamburg Chamber Orchestra, which was drawn from members of the city’s two resident full orchestras. The players were therefore not baroque specialists, as would happen now, but normal orchestral players with modern instruments. They enter into this project with gusto, with rhythmically alert and beautifully phrased performances. A particular pleasure is the way the wind interact with the strings, for example in the fourth and fifth concertos, and also the lovely tone of these instruments: the first flute, Gertrud Weitz, is a particularly fine player. So is the highly virtuosic trumpeter Adolph Scherbaum, who plays the stratospherically high solo part in the second concerto. This was apparently his party piece and he played it some 400 times in all. The solo violinist Friedrich Wührer, who also plays violino piccolo in the first concerto, is also a fine player. I should also note the attractive and also secure horn playing of Heinrich Keller and Gerd Haucke in the first concerto. Two harpsichordists were engaged: Karl Grebe plays continuo in all the works except the fifth concerto and also plays the sarabande from the fifth English Suite (BWV810), interpolated between the two movements of the third concerto. Bach would have done something like this, though there is, as far as I know, no record of what he actually played. In the fifth concerto, Waldermar Döhling does the honours, including the long and tricky solo – it is not really a cadenza – in the first movement.

The recording is early stereo and at first it sounds a bit raw, rather close and a bit airless. However, the ear soon adjusts and when I went back to the recording I found I was no longer noticing it. It has been carefully transferred direct from vinyl by John Whitmore; there are no surface noises or blemishes. There is a very interesting sleevenote by Tully Potter, in English only, dealing with Newstone’s career. He was not simply a baroque specialist but conducted later composers up to Lutosławski.

This is obviously not a recording to put in the hands of someone new to the works. For them, there is an enormous choice as you can see from the MWI listing here. I shall mention two others I enjoy: the recent one by the Dunedin Consort under John Butt (review) and the older one by the orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Virgin Veritas 7243561552). Both of these use period instruments. But for those interested in the development of performance practice there is both pleasure and instruction to be had from this set.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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