The Brandenburg Project
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concertos 1-6 (1721) [90:33]
Mark-Anthony TURNAGE (b. 1961)
Maya, for solo cello, two oboes, cor anglais, contrabassoon, two horns and strings (2016) [14:35]
Steven MACKEY (b. 1956)
Triceros, for piccolo trumpet, flute, oboe, solo violin, strings and harpsichord (2015) [18:56]
Anders HILLBORG (b. 1954)
Bach Materia, for violin and strings (2017) [22:19]
Olga NEUWIRTH (b. 1968)
Aello – Ballet mécanomorphe (2016-17) [17:12]
Uri CAINE (b. 1956)
Hamsa, for flute, violin, piano and string orchestra (2015) [30:37]
Brett DEAN (b. 1961)
Approach – Prelude to a Canon (2017) [12:50]
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
Reviewed in stereo and SACD surround
BIS BIS-2199 SACD [3 discs: 207:18]
This somewhat unwieldy package is the recorded manifestation of an idea that emerged 20 years ago when the conductor Thomas Dausgaard was chewing over the issue of the reification of familiar music (specifically the ’Brandenburgs’) with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra’s artistic director Gregor Zubicky. Their chat led to a lightbulb moment: why not commission half a dozen contemporary figures to each write a piece based upon the specific instrumentarium required for each concerto which could then be paired with Bach’s originals, with the intention of shedding fresh light upon these repertoire staples? Seventeen years down the line Dausgaard and his orchestra emerged onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall to play two concerts which included all six of Bach’s concerti, each paired with the matching commission, with the odd-numbered concerti in the afternoon and the even-numbered ones in the evening. I remember tuning in to Radio 3 and zoning in and out of the event rather than being completely won over or defeated. It was a lot to take in at once –the Bach performances seemed rather hit and miss – I wondered at the time if there were balance problems in the broadcast although I do recall No 5 sounding especially fine. I found it very difficult to evaluate those new pieces I did hear in toto – the Hillborg seemed equally moving and pretentious – it certainly didn’t strike me as a convincing entity at the time. I completely missed the Neuwirth piece whilst I admit I gave up on Uri Caine’s Hamsa. At the time it struck me as a characteristically enterprising Prom event which offered perhaps more than my addled brain could absorb over the course of a day. Inevitably this admittedly noble endeavour garnered extraordinarily mixed, inconsistent reviews.
Three disjointed summers later, Robert von Bahr has put his hands in his pocket (not for the first time) and issued Dausgaard’s Brandenburg Project as a three SACD set; the works all seem to have been laid down in the SCO’s base of Örebro during the months immediately before and after that Prom event. Accordingly, listeners now have the opportunity to take it all in at their leisure in far superior sound – indeed I should stress at the outset of this review that the sonics in both stereo and surround formats are most impressive; it might have been tempting to exaggerate some of the instrumental and vocal eccentricities of the new pieces but that isn’t the BIS way and there is a pleasing consistency of approach across all twelve works. Dausgaard himself has contributed a fine booklet essay; it contains insightful introductions to the Brandenburgs as well as concise and helpful guides to the commissioned works. It goes without saying that massive commercial success never seems to be first and foremost in the BIS supremo’s thinking and rooting around the web I note that this boxset is retailing at between thirty and forty quid – it’s a hefty outlay for this kind of thing, and I can’t help but wonder about the kind of punter who might be persuaded to shell out for it.
As far as the Bach performances are concerned, they’re, well… OK. They benefit from splendidly balanced, carefully tailored sound which exudes detail and definition especially in the surround option. The Swedish Chamber Orchestra play modern instruments but Dausgaard’s strategies are not untouched by HIP. Although the orchestra’s contributions seem conscientious and well-prepared, they seem a little polite to my ears. Having said that,
if one removes the commissions from the equation for a moment, this cycle’s USP is the stellar array of soloists which Dausgaard has been able to recruit. Standouts for me in the Bach are concertos 1,3 and 5, largely because of Mahan Esfahani’s alive, insightful playing. His playing exudes grace and respect, he emerges as characterful without being unnecessarily showy, whilst the results are frequently thrilling. It was evidently his contribution to No 5 that wowed me in the Prom broadcast and it’s the same here – the one Bach performance and recording in this set to which I will certainly return. No 3 features a bit of tinkering in that it includes a tiny central slow movement fashioned by Anders Hillborg (it seems sufficiently apt and touching). I also enjoyed Tabea Zimmermann and Brett Dean’s tastefully matched violas in No 6, particularly in the still disarming novelty of its first movement. I was less taken by the performances of Nos 2 and 4 despite the presence of the likes of Håkan Hardenberger and Fiona Kelly in the former and the seraphic recorders of Per Gross and Katarina Widell in the latter.
Which in turn raises another question: are we even meant to regard Dausgaard’s Brandenburgs as a ‘cycle’? Is this product as presented not designed instead to encourage us to experience each piece as an individual entity, all the better to contemplate its singular instrumental requirements, and in so doing be more sympathetic and awake to the similar constitutions of each commissioned pairing? Frankly, if I was to evaluate these accounts purely as constituents of a Brandenburg cycle, I suspect I would be unlikely to remove them from my shelves again.
In any case, as a longtime HIP merchant I have long been intoxicated by Antonini’s matchless recording with Il Giardino Armonico (Das Alte Werk 2564698123) though in the last couple of years my head has been turned by Reinhard Goebbel’s punchy Sony recording with the Berliner Barock Solisten - review. However in the case of the unique set under consideration here, such comparisons seem both unfair and irrelevant.
So what of the six new works? Do they help us perceive or even evaluate Bach’s familiar patternings anew? If not, is it reasonable to just approach the commissions as stand-alone works and consider each on its own merits? On the face of it the connection between Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Maya and the first Brandenburg seems somewhat oblique; in his case he’s altered the instrumental requirements by ditching the harpsichord and creating a solo cello part for Maya Beiser (whose forename he borrowed for the work’s title). Dausgaard refers to the cantoresque qualities of the solo line – but I find it difficult to perceive anything particularly Bachian or Brandenburgian here (or Maya-like in the Bach for that matter). Fortunately the piece can stand on its own two feet – it’s actually a belter of a mini cello concerto. Its opening will likely evoke memories for many of well-known pieces by Tavener and Bloch but it gradually settles into something more idiosyncratic. Turnage’s writing for the string orchestra is tasteful and restrained; it provides a luminous backcloth for Beiser’s impassioned song. One would be hard-pressed to identify Turnage as its composer – although like his more challenging works it is as communicative as it is riveting.
In Triceros, the American composer Steven Mackey seems to stay a little closer to the brief. although he enables Håkan Hardenberger to extend the timbral possibilities of the single piccolo trumpet he used in the second Brandenburg Concerto by adding a trumpet in C and a flugelhorn; similarly Mackey adds piccolo and alto flute to Fiona Kelly’s weaponry and cor anglais to the oboist Mårten Larsson’s. The link between Bach and Mackey’s soundworlds is made manifest by the splicing together the final gesture of the Brandenburg with the opening of Triceros and following a few quietly sinister droplets of harpsichord the new piece finds its feet and slides into a colourful quasi-minimalist groove. In due course the work becomes more mercurial and unsettling. Mackey’s piece takes its name from a particular species of chameleon and accordingly it shifts between the agitated and the static, between darkness and light, along the way projecting a wealth of colour and texture which more than justifies the doublings. Mackey somehow seems to have pulled off the neat trick of creating a work which is both trumpet concerto and concerto for orchestra. It’s most engaging and for me at least recognisably American in style. Mackey’s detailed scoring makes for an agreeable surround experience, as timbres and pulses are cleverly blended and layered and successive events ricochet around one’s listening space.
Another musical chameleon is Anders Hillborg. I have been an admirer of his extraordinary versatility for nearly thirty years, since acquiring Clang and Fury (Phono Suecia PSCD 52) and the remarkable album Jag Vill Se Min Älskade Komma Från Det Vilda, a mesmerising collaboration with the Swedish pop chanteuse Eva Dahlgren, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Record Station STAT CD 52). Nevertheless, any partial enthusiasm I’d felt for Bach Materia at its Prom performance proved to be something of a mirage. I know that Hillborg has long been attracted to the theatrical (a terpsichorean Snape Proms performance of his clarinet concerto by Martin Fröst, his face concealed behind a variety of masks, has persisted in my memory for a decade or more) and this piece, conceived with the likeably ostentatious Pekka Kuusisto in mind seems to try too hard to be edgy. A glowing spread chord emerges from one of those ‘tuning up’ style intros (which seem a bit wearisome to my jaded ears these days) before the Finn enters with a galumphing ostinato figure. He subsequently plays, hums, whistles and engages in some playful if too-clever-by-half jazz improv with Sébastien Dubé’s string bass accompanied by an orchestral backcloth which seems to encompass new simplicity, Django Reinhardt, Metallica and random fragments of the third Brandenburg. I found repeated listening irritating; it’s entertaining first time around but I found the appeal ebbed away rather too swiftly thereafter. Kuusisto’s fans (and I would ordinarily count myself one of them) will lap it up, but as far as I’m concerned and notwithstanding one or two fleeting moments of authentic beauty Bach Memoria ultimately flatters to deceive.
Olga Neuwirth’s brilliantly odd Aello is for me the best thing in this set. Given that the commissionees’ brief involves retaining as much of Bach’s instrumentation as possible, it’s Neuwirth who bends the rules most unapologetically to her whim. Solo violin is replaced by solo flute (the magnificently inventive Claire Chase), the recorders make way for a pair of trumpets, whilst the harpsichord is aped by a collection of instruments (synthesiser and percussion), kitchenware (a milk-frother and wine glass) and arcane office equipment (a reception-bell and Neuwirth’s favoured Olivetti typewriter – she’s used this in the past - review). Aello sounds completely novel and yet of all the pieces here it is the one which is most identifiably aligned with its template, in its pacing, breadth of timbre and melodic phrasing. It is captivating; once the listener has got over the novelty of Neuwirth’s instrumentation, one is swept away by the Kagelian dimensions of her surreal imagination and the brilliance of Claire Chase’s playing. This is another piece which certainly gains from the surround option. Aello is outstanding – and its presence here is another welcome sign that more mainstream labels are increasingly waking up to Olga Neuwirth’s ever increasing renown and relevance.
I have enjoyed many of Uri Caine’s jazz-soused reworkings of Mahler over the years, but I’m afraid I struggled to respond to Hamsa, his angular, Stravinskian response to Bach’s fifth Brandenburg. Whilst he does stick closely to the brief, contenting himself simply by replacing Bach’s harpsichord with a modern piano, Caine rather over-eggs the pudding and the resultant contribution extends to a full half hour. Traces of its model abound throughout, and although the fifth is the longest in Bach’s cycle it is nonetheless concise and geometrically perfect its construction – not to mention the infinite vitality of its invention. There’s a spikiness to Hamsa’s introductory material which is both disarming and promising, but there’s simply insufficient variegation of timbre (despite the rather tokenistic attempt at novelty which kicks off the central Adagio) or fecundity of imagination to sustain three long movements. The playing of the three soloists lacks nothing in commitment – Caine’s writing for the flautist Fiona Kelly seems especially demanding; the jazzy piano solos are superbly dispatched by the composer himself, but as with Hillborg’s piece I detected a more than faint whiff of self-indulgence. Hamsa is superbly played and recorded but it far outstays its welcome.
At the other extreme, Brett Dean’s Approach - Prelude to a Canon is the briefest of the commissions (at thirteen minutes) and the only one designed to precede its source (the sixth Brandenburg). As a violist himself, Dean conceived Approach as a means of highlighting Bach’s pioneering idea of the original ‘Double Concerto’, in other words a work where the soloists’ contributions are equal and interdependent, rather than simply complementary. Approach is a spirited example of contemporary Bachian counterpoint, all the more arresting as being written for two violas, in this case played by the composer and Tabea Zimmermann. Approach is perhaps the work here which is most successful in meeting Dausgaard and Zubicky’s original aesthetic goal, namely magnifying one or two particular aspects of Bachian practice or style, in this case literally preparing the listener to re-hear the original, and in due course perhaps enabling them to re-evaluate it. There is perfectly sufficient material here for the listener to absorb and apply to what follows, justification in itself for Dean’s less-is-more Approach, as it were. It helps that this brief piece is both challenging and elegant. At its conclusion it elides seamlessly into its source material.
So in the final analysis, does Dausgaard’s original concept prove viable? That will depend on particular listeners’ levels of curiosity, adventure and tenacity. I certainly found a commitment of three and a half hours initial listening (followed by countless repetitions and intensive scrutiny of entire works and bleeding chunks) to be at the very least an invigorating and rewarding way to spend the best part of a week. There were moments of insight and enjoyment and frustration along the way, but no real answers. Hats off to Dausgaard, to all the players, composers and to BIS regardless. Try before you buy, perhaps. For better or worse, big projects like this are what render the reviewing process an enduring fascination, for this critic at least.
J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No 1 in F major, BWV 1046 [18:09]
Marten Larsson (oboe), Lisa Almberg (oboe), Daniel Burstedt (oboe), Mikael Lindstrom (bassoon), Terése Larsson (horn), Göran Hülphers (horn), Antje Weithaas (violin), Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord);
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Maya [14:35]
Maya Beiser (cello)
J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No 2 in F major, BWV 1047 [10:32]
Steven Mackey: Triceros [18:56]
Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Fiona Kelly (flute), Marten Larsson (oboe), Antje Weithaas (violin), Björn Gäfvert (harpsichord)
J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No 3 in G major, BWV 1048 (including a slow movement by Anders Hillborg) [11:19]
Pekka Kuusisto, Urban Svensson, Roger Olsson (violins); Göran Fröst,, Linn Elvkull, Kate Pelly (violas); Mats Levin, Andreas Tengberg, Rajmund Fullmann (cellos); Sébastien Dubé (double-bass), Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
Anders Hillborg: Bach Materia, for violin and strings [22:19]
Pekka Kuusisto (violin); Sébastien Dubé (double-bass)
J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No 4 in G major, BWV 1049 [14:42]
Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Per Gross, Katarina Widell (recorders); Björn Gäfvert (harpsichord)
Olga Neuwirth: Aello – Ballet mécanomorphe [17:12]
Claire Chase (flute), Anders Hemstrom, Margit Csökmei (trumpets), Oskar Ekberg (keyboard), Lars Fhager (typewriter)
J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D major, BWV 1050 [19:38]
Uri Caine: Hamsa, for flute, violin, piano and string orchestra [30:37]
Fiona Kelly (flute), Antje Weithaas (violin), Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord), Uri Caine (piano)
Brett Dean: Approach – Prelude to a Canon [12:50]
Tabea Zimmermann, Brett Dean (violas), Björn Gäfvert (harpsichord)
J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No 6 in B-flat major, BWV 1051 [16:13]
Tabea Zimmermann, Brett Dean (violas), Björn Gäfvert (harpsichord), Hannah Thorell, Andreas Tengberg (cellos/gambas), Mats Levin (cello), Peter Nitsche (double bass)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard
rec May 2017 at the Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden (Hillborg); and August 2017 - September 2018 at the Concert Hall of the School of Music, Theatre and Art, Örebro, Sweden