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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Ouvertures (Orchestral Suites)
No. 1 in C major, BWV1066 [26:04]
No. 2 in b minor, BWV1067 [23:49]
No. 3 in D major, BWV1068 [21:21]
No. 4 in D major, BWV1069 [24:49]
Johann Bernhard BACH (1679-1749)
Ouverture (No. 3) in e minor [21:31]
Johann Ludwig BACH (1677-1731)
Ouverture in G major [12:39]
Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini (harpsichord)
rec. 2018, Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra, Sala Accademica, Rome
NA¤VE OP30578 [2 CDs: 130:12]

Opinion, as demonstrated by the names given on recordings, seems to be divided between Ouverture and Orchestral Suite for these four works. Given the French style of the works, the former would seem the more appropriate, and is used here and also in one of my comparison recordings, that by Bach Collegium Japan (BIS). My other comparison (for Numbers 1, 3 & 4) is Tafelmusik (Analekta) which rather perversely given its French-Canadian origins, employs the other term.

The origins of the four works by Johann Sebastian are not entirely clear. The material in Bach’s hand derives from his Leipzig period, but there is no definitive proof that he wrote them during this time. What is fairly sure is that they were performed in Collegium Musicum concerts at Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig.

Concerto Italiano and their leader Rinaldo Alessandrini are among the most respected names in historically informed performance Baroque music. In their very extensive discography are numerous Vivaldi recordings, but much that is well off the beaten track, such as Bononcini and Melani. Here they are on well-trodden ground in the four works by JS Bach, but straying off the path with two of his second cousins, Johann Bernhard and Johann Ludwig. I have only one other recording by them, a set of Vivaldi concertos, to which I haven’t listened for a while, as my go-to artists in Vivaldi are Europa Galante and Fabio Biondi.

Alessandrini and his band are renowned for brisk tempos and energetic readings, which given my predilection for Biondi/Galante in Vivaldi doesn’t concern me. I wondered how this approach might lend itself to JSB. Bach’s music seems infinitely versatile – the extraordinary range of transcriptions bears testimony to this - but I was concerned that a headlong dash through the complexities of his counterpoint and the glorious melodies contained therein wouldn’t be a success. I shouldn’t have worried: these are wonderfully alive but sensitive readings that have given the four Ouvertures new life for me. The Suzuki readings now seem a little pedestrian, perhaps too respectful, and this is from someone who adores their cantatas. Tafelmusik falls somewhere in between, more energy than Suzuki but less character than Alessandrini.

It is not that Concerto Italiano are always faster. In the opening movement of the Ouverture No. 1, they are slower than both my comparisons, imparting a quite beautiful, poetic quality to the music. In the famous Air from No. 3, they don’t linger, being almost a minute faster than the comparisons, but not at the expense of the melody. Both ways seem equally valid, and might depend on one’s mood. The other movement where the different approaches really struck me was the Gigue from No. 3. BCJ and Tafelmusik gave it an almost stately grandeur, whereas CI’s version was rustic, a country dance in fact.

For many potential purchasers, it will be the non-JS works that create the most interest. They are not first recordings, but are certainly not well-known. They too were performed by the Collegium Musicum, their inclusion apparently aided by JS’s recommendation. Of the two, Johann Bernhard’s - for strings and harpsichord only as far as I can tell - is more substantial, though perhaps a little more old-fashioned. Conversely, Johann Ludwig’s is dominated by the wind instruments. I prefer the former, but that is perhaps because the wind dominance isn’t to my taste. There are four suites by JB – it would have been good to fill some of the space with another. Nevertheless, the inclusion of these works makes for better value than many of its competitors which only provide the four JSB works.

The sound quality is very immediate, especially for the winds, but not tiring. The notes, which run to nine pages on the music, are erudite, tracing in detail the history of the JSB works and their connection to the Leipzig Collegium Musicum.

Fans of these players won’t need much encouragement to purchase this; for those, such as myself, who had looked elsewhere for Baroque recordings, this should act as a reminder that Concerto Italiano and Rinaldo Alessandrini haven’t gained their reputation without good reason. I shall certainly be investigating some of their other recordings, because it seems that I have been ignoring them unjustly and unwisely.

David Barker

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