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Bach Brandenburg 0301676BC
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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-51 (1721)
Il Gusto Barocco/Jrg Halubek (harpsichord)
rec. 3-4 August 2019, Orangerie zu Ansbach, Germany
BERLIN CLASSICS 0301676BC [40:02 + 52:31]

If I could only have one of the six Brandenburg Concertos it would be Concerto 1 because it has the most colourful mix of instruments and variety of movements. Distinctive in the first are the two horns and from Il Gusto Barocco (hereafter IGB) they bray exuberantly, combative from the outset, the second horn opening and the first horn interrupting and also completing the fanfare. Yet reasonable balance is still maintained as three oboes remain a cheery presence and the violins a smiling backcloth. I would have liked even more force in the times of highest tension from 1:35 (CD1, tr. 1) when the horns’ entries again overlap and then the oboes (1:40) interchange with the horns’ continuation, all rising ever higher, and later (2:48) a higher still contest between them, but I like the belligerent atmosphere. There’s an element of earthiness and raucousness: think Pieter Bruegel.

I compare the most recent recording, made in 2021 by the Akademie fr Alte Musik Berlin (hereafter AFAMB) on Harmonia Mundi HMM 90268687. This is flashier, more stylishly played but feeling rather swept forward, though only a little faster (3:26 against IGB’s 3:38) yet hence less celebratory. The movement’s structure, balance and interplay between instruments are admirably clear with brighter strings and horns, but I find it all a bit too polite.

The slow movement’s distinction is the violin piccolo, a smaller, higher pitched and brighter instrument than the standard violin, quite a fast-flowing Adagio from IGB here, and expressive intertwining in imitation with oboe soloist while the lower strings and bassoon provide a solemn backcloth. This makes for an oasis of eloquent, D minor sorrow in an otherwise upbeat concerto, climaxing in a sustained, though soft, top D sigh with the first violins (tr. 2, 2:07). AFAMB’s account, timing at 3:15 to IGB’s 2:59, is a truer Adagio which allows more sensitive shaping, greater clarity and refinement to the elaborate ornamentation of the soloists and more appreciation of the piece’s inwardness.

The third movement Allegro sees the return of dancing horns, jolly as ever with bubbling oboes close by, then the surprise of a now folksy violin piccolo solo turn (tr. 3, 0:31), yet it’s the first horn that has a climactic ascending solo (0:56). This latter is well realized by IGB while also having a degree of delicacy, where its AFAMB equivalent is for me too reticent. Maybe IGB’s a touch greater breadth, timing at 4:11 to AFAMB’s 3:54, helps, though AFAMB’s violin piccolo’s solos I prefer for their greater thrust and character. As before, the choice is between IGB’s breeziness and AFAMB’s lighter, discriminating style.

The finale begins and ends with a Minuet, a stable force also recurring between the variety of three ‘Trios’, the second a Polonaise. Part of its steadiness arises from its melody and rhythms being ingeniously fully or partially echoed in counterpoint between instruments at one phrase distance. IGB’s harpsichord-conductor, Jrg Halubek jettisons stability and clarity of the instrumental echoes in favour of a very fast, frolicsome Minuet which is great fun and challenges the Trios to be as distinctive. Trio 1, for 2 oboes and bassoon, is chirpy indeed and you admire the oboes’ virtuosity in negotiating the trills and semiquavers. The Polonaise is warm yet remains tasteful because, although you feel in the first strain something growing, not until late in the second (tr. 4, 3:21) are the demisemiquavers unleashed in short, skipping forte bursts. Trio 3, with 2 horns nicely balanced against 3 oboes, bubbles along smoothly until Halubek allows the horns to open out gleefully in the repeat of the second strain and I wish he’d done the same in the first strain repeat. However, he does consistently and judiciously vary the dynamics in the repeats of the Minuet’s strains, with louder delivery in the opening and final presentations.

Timing at 1:01 with strains repeated, in comparison with IGB’s 0:45, AFAMB’s concertmaster Georg Kallweit provides a smooth, sedate Minuet with clearer contrapuntal echoes, but by not including the strain repeats in the Minuets after Trio 1 and the Polonaise he denies himself Halubek’s dynamic variation.
Kallweit’s Trio 1 is more graceful, even a touch languorous. His Polonaise is friskily purposeful with crisp demisemiquavers, but the late burst less forte than Halubek’s. Kallweit’s Trio 2 is livelier and spikier than Halubek’s.

Two best movements from the other concertos? The first of Concerto 3. Scored for string orchestra, the concertino comprises 3 violins, 3 violas and 3 cellos which can act in groups or individually or as part of the tutti and this enhances the movement’s exhilaration. I always look forward to the passage near the end when a motif passes from second violin (4:31) to first (4:34), third (4:36), first viola (4:39), second (4:41), third (4:44), then tastefully growls in the three cellos (4:46). IGB’s light concertino delivery here ensures clarity despite the intricacy of the blending. Theirs is a quieter, more measured approach than AFAMB’s, the same passage for them beginning at 4:02 in an account with more incisive entries and stronger dynamic contrasts.

And one more: the first movement of Concerto 5, the first concerto ever with a solo keyboard part. Although the concertino comprises flute, violin and harpsichord (from CD2, tr. 4, 0:20), the latter’s role becomes increasingly flamboyant, culminating in a marvellous cadenza (6:14), here taking 2:53. Its immediate preparation is a shimmering backcloth of demisemiquavers (5:34), then demisemiquavers in falling groups of three (5:53), a delectable parallel to the flute and violin’s pairs of quavers falling and rising by turns. AFAMB’s movement before the cadenza is friskier where IGB are a touch broader and sunnier. I feel it’s an advantage for IGB to have a harpsichord director because Halubek’s solo then continues seamlessly, where Raphael Alpermann’s for AFAMB, very deliberate in clarifying structure, takes 3:24. I enjoyed more Halubek’s sustained trills and his flood of demisemiquavers from 7:57, ratcheting up the tension to the close before smoothly slipping into the orchestra’s final parade of the opening theme.

Michael Greenhalgh

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