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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Orchestral Suites" (BWV 1066-1069)

Academy of Ancient Music
Dir: Richard Egarr

rec: Feb 4 - 7, 2013, Bury St Edmunds, The Apex
AAM Records - AAM003 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (1.39'49")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Overture No. 1 in C (BWV 1066); Overture No. 2 in b minor (BWV 1067); Overture No. 3 in D (BWV 1068); Overture No. 4 in D (BWV 1069)

Rachel Brown, transverse flute; Frank de Bruine, Lars Henriksson, Gail Hennessy, oboe; David Blackadder, Phillip Bainbridge, Timothy Hayward, trumpet; Ursula Leveaux, bassoon; Pavlo Beznosiuk, Bojan Cicic, violin; Jane Rogers, viola; Andrew Skidmore, cello; Judith Evans, double bass; Richard Egarr, harpsichord; Benedict Hoffnung, timpani

Since taking over as director of the Academy of Ancient Music Richard Egarr has largely confined himself to recording the standard repertoire of the 18th century. Part of that are the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Brandenburg Concertos and the four orchestral suites or overtures which are the subject of the set of discs reviewed here. I find that disappointing as there is still so much repertoire which needs to be explored. Some of his recordings may include aspects in the performance practice which are different from what is available - that is the case in his recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion - but it is questionable whether that is substantial or even makes sense.

There is much insecurity about the date of composition of these overtures. In his liner-notes Christoph Wolff states that "[the] sources definitely point to Leipzig, even though it remains unclear they were specifically written for the Collegium Musicum or perhaps for Bach's activities outside Leipzig". But he doesn't mention the possibility, suggested by other musicologists, that the overtures as we know them may have been adaptations of compositions which Bach originally composed before he moved to Leipzig, in Cöthen or Weimar. One of those musicologists is Joshua Rifkin who is also the main advocate of the view that Bach's sacred works were mostly performed with one voice per part. Wolff is on the other side of the argument here. As there seems to be quite some antagonism between the opposite sides in this debate, could this be the reason that he doesn't mention Rifkin's research into this matter?

One could ask whether this has any relevance. Probably not as far as this recording is concerned as here we get the familiar versions which are most often performed. But there is one thing which is connected to this issue: the pitch of the orchestra. In his 'Director's note' Richard Egarr writes that "we have chosen here to perform J.S. Bach's magnificent "Ouvertures" with single players and at a low pitch. Using one player per part creates a wonderful chamber-music feel and allows the flexibility that is essential in Bach's music. Also, any balance issues with the trumpets are obviated by playing at a low, "French" pitch and by not requiring the players to blast over a full string section". He refers here to the research of the American oboist Bruce Haynes who found out that at the German courts it was fashionable to invite French woodwind virtuosi and that this may have led to the adoption of the French tuning pitch of a'=392-394 Hz. First of all, this is still theory, not a proven fact - Haynes doesn't pretend it is. Secondly, it is hard to see what this has to do with the performance practice in Leipzig. I have not access to Haynes' book but from what I have read on the internet I understand that in his early years in Leipzig Bach may have performed some music at this low pitch. According to Wolff the first and fourth of the overtures date from around 1725, the third from 1731 and the second from 1738-39. That makes it rather unlikely that they were played at French low pitch. The fact that Egarr doesn't bother to give any historical argument for his decision suggests that it is basically a matter of taste. But that should never be decisive in matters of performance practice.

It is not the only issue where I find him unconvincing. He criticizes the tempi of many existing recordings. "Recordings of the opening fugal sections of the first movements are often ludicrously frenetic, especially so in interpretations of Suite No. 4. As this music also appears in the opening chorus of Cantata 110 (written for Christmas Day 1725), I recommend the listener to the content and meaning Bach associates with it before considering the speed at which it should be performed instrumentally". While not necessarily disagreeing with his criticism of exaggerated tempi in some recordings I don't quite follow his line of argument. The very fact that the same music is used in different contexts doesn't imply that it has to be performed the same way every time. Moreover, Bach always adapted secular music to a sacred context - for instance secular cantatas to sacred works - and never the other way around. That makes it reasonable to assume that the Overture No. 4 was written first, and as a result the 'sacred context' has no influence on Bach's idea of how this overture should be performed.

He has also something to say about the way a bourrée should be played. It "should have a slightly mucky, farmer-like tread". I don't exactly know what he means; maybe the bourrée from the Overture No. 3 is an illustration of what he has in mind. It sounds rather awkward, like a kind of clog dance. Could the fact that he has lived in the Netherlands for many years have something to do with that? The way the bourrées are played is not exactly a model of consistency. The bourrées I & II from the Overture No. 2 is considerably faster than those from the Overture No. 1. Those are only some of the inconsistencies. The opening ouverture from the latter is almost devoid of dynamic accents and there is hardly any differentiation between good and bad notes. That is much better in the ouvertures from the third and fourth overtures. The rondeau from the Overture No. 2 is not very well articulated and lacks any grace. The badinerie which closes this overture comes off much better, also thanks to Rachel Brown's nice ornamentation. As so often the famous air from the Overture No. 3 is too slow; as it lacks dynamic accents it gets an almost romantic character. Diego Fasolis and his violinist Duilio Galfetti need only 3'36" (Arts, 2006) to 4'21" in this performance by Pavlo Beznosiuk and Egarr. The Overture No. 4 comes off best; the bourrée is here nicely played.

However, all in all this recording is hardly a meaningful addition to the discography of Bach's orchestral overtures.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Academy of Ancient Music

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