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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046 [19:09]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047 [11:20]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048 [10:59]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049 [15:15]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050 [21:02]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat major, BWV 1051 [16:28]
Concerto Copenhagen/Lars Ulrik Mortensen
rec. 2017, Eslöv kyrka, Sweden.
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
CPO 555 158-2 [2 SACDs: 41:36 + 52:50]

Concerto Copenhagen now has a distinguished and growing catalogue of titles on the CPO label, the last of which I reviewed being of Bach’s Violin Concertos (review). I like this recording very much though it hasn’t really stood out over time in a highly competitive field. If anything, the glut of recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos currently available makes this an even tougher prospect, but I always take on new recordings with an optimistic attitude.

Period instrument performance and historically-informed interpretations have long blown away any old-fashioned cobwebs when it comes to fleetness and transparency in the performance of these concertos, but there is still plenty of leeway when it comes to differing approaches. The First Concerto shows Lars Ulrik Mortensen taking us on quite leisurely ride, not going for extremes of tempo or hard-hitting virtuosity, but allowing the music to breathe and resonate. These are not slow performances by any means, but the horns in the first movement are perhaps a little too polite, and while the final Menuetto sequence trundles along briskly enough it could all do with a little more oomph. I’m not sure if it’s a side-effect of the stereo mix in these multi-channel surround recordings, but the violins sound a bit odd especially in the Allegro third movement in this concerto. I’ve listened in both standard and SACD stereo, and the violins seems be in a little bathroom all of their own. Maybe there’s something strikingly 3D going on in surround mode that the stereo mixes miss. The Second Concerto is great fun, with the solos in the first movement nicely distinctive, well-balanced in terms of sound and conversational in character. Mortensen doesn’t do a massive amount when it comes to dynamic contrast, allowing Bach’s own textures or orchestration to shoulder that burden. He tends to swell dynamics a little as a feature of phrasing, making for a feel of rise and fall which is kept nicely in proportion and avoids becoming mannered.

Small string groups ensure that the Third Concerto is crisp and light, and effect enhanced by Mortensen’s sprightly and rhythmic harpsichord. The urgent tempo of the final Allegro had me looking up the Swiss Baroque Soloists on Naxos which are good for most speed records in this repertoire, and they still beat Concerto Copenhagen by a good 40 seconds. The Fourth Concerto with the two recorders brings us back into respectable tempo territory, and no drinks will be spilled during this performance. The mad violin solo in this first movement is well played but a little recessed in the recorded balance. The central Andante is nicely turned out but didn’t particularly move my emotions, though the wide-awake feel of the final Presto is very good. The Fifth Concerto with its concerto grosso feel and significant harpsichord part is given a fine workout in this performance, the harpsichord nicely audible but not pushed forward in the balance in comparison with the other concertos. The Sixth Concerto is also given plenty of harpsichord support, the articulation of the six-strong string ensemble sounding light and crisp while also attending to expressive details of line in the music. The final Allegro is stately rather than energised, though this allows all of those animated inner voices a chance to cope with their notes.

There is of course no shortage of Brandenburg Concertos from a diversity of ensembles. When it comes to recordings on period instruments I’ve enjoyed the Swiss Baroque Soloists conducted by Andrés Gabetta on the Naxos label (review), while admitting that their extremes of speed might not be to everyone’s taste. There’s the Freiburger Barockorchester on Harmonia Mundi (review), which gives a more exciting impression than Concerto Copenhagen with more verve especially in the wind instruments. The Dunedin Consort with John Butt on Linn (review) comes highly commended, and then there’s the European Brandenburg Ensemble with Trevor Pinnock on Avie (review) which has if anything an even more chamber-music feel than Concerto Copenhagen. If you’re not so keen on period instruments then I stand by my comments on Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhausorchester on Decca (review), which has the best of both worlds in a modern orchestra that sounds spot-on Baroque. There are heaven knows how many more, and some of these reviews will send you on a crusade of comparisons. In the end you have to plug yourself into an online streaming service and see what takes your fancy.

Other than being on a fine SACD surround recording this CPO release doesn’t have much in the way of a USP to make it stand out from the crowd, and I certainly didn’t come away feeling I’d learned much new about these works. If you are a fan of Concerto Copenhagen and are collecting Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s output then you will in no way be disappointed by this recording, but otherwise it’s one of many – good to be sure, but good may just struggle to cut the mustard in this huge pond.

Dominy Clements

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