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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concertos BWV 1046-1051
Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin/Isabelle Faust (violin) Antoine Tamestit (viola)
rec. March and May 2021, Christuskirche, Berlin
Reviewed as a 24/192 digital download with pdf from eclassical.com.  Also available in 16-bit and from dealers on CD.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902686.87 [38:28 + 48:58]

Going right back to the first recordings of the Brandenburgs from Cortot and Busch, the versions I have enjoyed the most are those who find within them a sense of leisure. They aren’t in a hurry or trying to force a point but radiate a joy in taking one’s time to relish the invention in the music. This sense of musicians savouring a long lunch of delicious music radiates from every bar of this new recording.

This isn’t really a matter of speed. The finale of the third concerto here is as fast anybody’s. It is more a matter of attitude. In the case of this movement, it means having the technical proficiency not to be stretching for the notes even at top speed. Faust and colleagues make it seem like a breeze. The joie de vivre is infectious!

That spirit of joy runs through the set in a way that makes many famous, older recordings such as Pinnock’s with the English Concert, which first introduced me to the joys of period instrument ways with this music (DG Archiv 4234922, with Orchestral Suites), sound a little hard driven and unsmiling. This new recording joins the inimitably characterful Café Zimmerman version (Alpha ALPHA300, budget price download only – DL News 2015/9) as my current favourite amongst modern recordings.

I derived immense enjoyment from the set of the Bach violin concertos plus other delectable morsels from these same performers last year (HMM902335.36: Recommended - review). Whilst Faust is used a lot more sparingly on this new set, the same joyful standards prevail. She features in the solo role in the 4th and 5th concertos and, for some unknown reason, amongst the first violins in No 3 but not elsewhere.

Looking at this new performance in more detail, what better place to start than the opening of the slow movement of the fourth concerto, which is heart stopping in its emotional intensity yet the texture is as light as air shot through with light. The call and answer of the music is like listening in on a friend consoling another in their deep sorrow.

Consolation of a different sort is on offer in the slow movement of the final concerto. Here everything is warm and close like the company of good friends after separation. The interplay of the musicians shows them to be the best of musical friends. The way in which the recurring trills in the main melody are made each time into spontaneous sighs of feeling, rather than just formal decorations is typical of the living breathing aspect of this performance. Even baroque sequences are not mechanical but made of blood and muscle and nerves. Everything here is felt, though not in a hysterical or theatrical way.

Polyphony is, obviously, central to Bach and the way the polyphony emerges in this recording is a reflection of social interaction. The final movement of the sixth concerto sounds for all the world like jocular banter down the pub or, more likely, in Bach’s case, the coffee house.

Do I have any gripes at all? I am all in favour of horns making a positive contribution in the first concerto but I feel that the producers have let them dominate the sound picture a little too much at the expense of the other instruments. This is only a minor issue and strictly a matter of taste. I did enjoy the effect of the two horns calling to each other as a direct reference to their hunting origins. By comparison the horns on the Café Zimmermann recording are just as fruity but don’t dominate quite so insistently.

In all honesty, I am most certainly nit-picking. I expect that, like me, many listeners have a default setting: if it involves Isabelle Faust it must be worth listening to! There is much more to this recording than a superstar fiddler. This set doesn’t make any big sweeping dogmatic points about performing this music and is all the better for it. The focus is on playing it as well as possible and, as I have already mentioned, experiencing the joy of playing. I could stick a pin in any movement and come up with something treasurable. Right now, as I write this, I am listening to the last movement of the fifth concerto, whose rhythms are as far from the mechanical as dance is from a factory machine. There is a gentleness and affection about the performance as a result, which is the musical equivalent of a broad smile. This is music making that makes me happy!

David McDade



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