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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Bach Unbuttoned
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (for Flute, Violin & Harpsichord) BWV 1050 [20:33]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 (for Violin, Flute & Oboe) BWV 1049 [14:51]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (for Trumpet, Flute, Oboe & Violin) BWV 1047 [11:04]
Concerto for Two Violins (Flute & Oboe) BWV 1045 [14:28]
Badinerie from Suite No 2 (for Flute, Strings & Basso Continuo) BWV 1067 [1:24]
Ana de la Vega (flute)
Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin)
Ramon Ortega Quero (oboe)
Cyrus Allyar (trumpet)
Johannes Berger (harpsichord)
Wurttembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn
rec. 2020, Aula of the Bildungscampus in Heilbronn, Germany
PENTATONE PTC5186893 [62:26]

From the outset it is prudent to dispel any initial impressions that the title, Bach Unbuttoned is a PR/marketing gimmick, a clever way to mask average performance. Nothing could be further from the truth; it is in fact first exposure to the creativity that abounds in the entire recording project. The iconic stature of J.S. Bach that stands outside St Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, portrays him with vest buttons incorrectly fastened, leaving one free. A musical genius, but a mere mortal with all that implies.

This is the third recording that Australian flautist Ana de la Vega has made with Pentatone. On this occasion she is joined by four other young, and most-capable soloists: Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Cyrus Allyar (trumpet), Johannes Berger (harpsichord) and Ramon Ortega Quero (oboe). The accompanying orchestra is Wurttembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn.

Bach presented the Brandenburg Concertos to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721. This recording celebrates the 300th anniversary of Bach’s monumental works. The programme comprises three Brandenburg Concertos, the Double Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043, and the Badinerie from Orchestral Suite No 2 BWV 1067. The liner notes go into some rationalization about why ‘original’ instrumentation has been significantly changed in this recording. Perhaps the most valid justification is that Bach was a prolific transcriber of his own music, and regularly repurposed music for other compositions and applications. Ana de la Vega cites the example of Violin Concerto in A minor BWV 1041 which he later revised as Harpsichord Concerto in G minor BWV 1058. Also his E major Violin Sonata which he arranged for keyboard into D major. Additionally, the point is made that Bach often used whatever instruments were available at a particular time, and employed whichever musicians were accessible and up to the task at hand. Irrespective, the changes in instrumentation on this occasion work admirably, and present old treasures in new and enjoyable guise.

Ana de la Vega speaks of the recording process as being ‘full of love and life’. These sentiments are conveyed through the performances in various and unique ways, more discernible with repeated auditions. We may take some lead from Vega who noted that the initial rehearsal was challenging, but ‘by the final take the new way of listening and communicating with one another was second nature’. The whole process was achieved without a conductor. In the faster movements there is an irresistible desire to ‘tap one’s foot’; a sure sign that refined musicality abounds.

Among hardened Bach aficionados there may be aspects of this recording that will not supplant the original versions. A case in point is the Largo from the Double Concerto where the flute and oboe struggle to replicate the plangent sounds of the original violins. Others will miss the unique beauty of the recorders in the Brandenburg No. 4; Bach may have been much more accepting, given he arranged this same concerto for harpsichord. The plot thickens when we take into account that Bach was not precise in identifying the lead instruments in this concerto. The instrument designated was ‘fiauti d’echo’ which today is generally interpreted in performance as alto recorder, although some believe originally it was probably the treble recorder or flageolet. It has also been suggested that the designation was rather more on how the instrument should be played (with echo).

Even when the harpsichord in this recording is given pre-eminence, it is rather subdued, and would have offered a more pleasing result if moved forward in the sound stage. However, all in all, the performances are lively, often joyous, and thoroughly engaging.

Zane Turner

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