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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046-1051)

La Petite Bande
Dir: Sigiswald Kuijken

rec: Oct 19 - 23, 2009, Mol (B), Galaxy Studios
Accent - ACC 24224 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (1.36'50")

Concerto No 1 in F (BWV 1046); Concerto No 2 in F (BWV 1047); Concerto No 3 in G (BWV 1048); Concerto No 4 in G (BWV 1049); Concerto No 5 in D (BWV 1050); Concerto No 6 in B flat (BWV 1051)

Pierre-Yves Madeuf, horn; Jean-François Madeuf, , horn trumpet; Bart Coen, recorder; Barthold Kuijken, recorder, transverse flute; Patrick Beaugiraud, Vinciane Baudhuin, Rodrigo Gutiérrez, oboe; Rainer Johannsen, bassoon; Ann Cnop, Annelies Decock, violin; Luis Otavio Santos, violin, violino piccolo; Sara Kuijken, violin, viola; Giulio D'Alessio, violin, violoncello da spalla; Marleen Thiers, violin, viola da gamba; Makoto Akatsu, viola, violoncello da spalla; Masanobu Tokura, viola, viola da gamba; Ronan Kernoa, basse de violon; Ewald Demeyere, harpsichord

Recently I wrote a review of three recent recordings of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, with the English Baroque Soloists, directed by John Eliot Gardiner, the Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of Richard Egarr and with the Bach Collegium Japan under Masaaki Suzuki. Whereas Gardiner's recording didn't offer any new insights in regard to the performance practice, the other two came up with some interesting things which were important enough to justify their release. But I regretted that both Egarr and Suzuki hadn't dared to have the trumpet part in the Concerto No 2 played on a real natural trumpet, without any aids to correct the intonation. I didn't know that such a recording was going to appear very shortly. It has arrived and is the subject of this review.

Some years ago the Belgian ensemble La Petite Bande was to lose its state subsidy because it was not "innovative" enough. This recording shows that this is a serious misjudgement. This recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos is as innovative as one would wish. The director of La Petite Bande, Sigiswald Kuijken, is never satisfied with the state of affairs in regard to performance practice. He is always looking for new information and for solutions to still existing problems.

One of these problems is the performance of the trumpet part in the Brandenburg Concerto No 2. In his liner notes he refers to the two previous recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos he was involved in. The first was with a baroque ensemble under the direction of Gustav Leonhardt (1976/77, Seon/Philips), the second with La Petite Bande (1993/94, deutsche harmonia mundi/BMG). In the first recording the trumpet part was played on a "pseudo baroque trumpet", as Kuijken calls it, without valves but with holes and with a modern mouthpiece. As Kuijken was not satisfied with this 'compromise instrument', in the second recording this part was scored for horn instead, "(based on a manuscript from Bach's milieu)". Since then attempts have been made to play this part - and trumpet parts in other baroque music - on a trumpet without holes and with an authentic mouthpiece. This is the first recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos where this is practiced, and that in itself is important enough to justify this recording.

There are three other things to take note of. Firstly, all concertos are played with one instrument per part. "For a number of years now I have held the view that the first two concertos should not be considered as concerti grossi, and thus that a scoring of one player per part (even for the "tutti" accompanying parts) is more faithful to the composer's intentions". It is not the first time these concertos are played this way: it was already practiced in the recording under Leonhardt's direction. And there are also other recordings with one instrument per part, as recently Egarr's, but Gardiner, for instance, uses a larger ensemble in the first two concertos, and Suzuki doubles the violins in the Concerto No 1.

Secondly, in all concertos the cello parts are played on the violoncello (or viola) da spallo. That is also the first time this is practiced. In his recent recording Suzuki used this instrument in four of the six concertos (2-4,6). "It is becoming increasingly clear (research and practice both point in the same direction!) that especially in the works of J.S. Bach, the word "violoncello" refers to the "shoulder cello" (violoncello da spalla) used in the composer's time and milieu." The instrument had no standardised measurements. "In Bach's time, the instrument was likely a good deal smaller than, for instance, today's cello". The instrument is suspended horizontally at chest level by a strap around the neck, and is supported on the right shoulder.

Thirdly, in this recording the part usually played on the violone is performed here on the instrument which was called basse de violon. Kuijken believes the performance with a double bass was not Bach's intention. "In the kind of scoring encountered in these concertos, the "violone" is the latter sense [an 8' foot instrument, sounding at written pitch] (occasionally in combination with the "violoncello da spalla", depending on the indications in the score) provides a very transparent and yet solid support to the whole, without "darkening" it".

As one can see there is plenty to justify this recording and plenty to debate. This is not the last word on the issues Kuijken writes about, and he will be the first to acknowledge that. As he himself states in his liner notes, "it's essential to keep the flow going".

How does this all work out? First of all, this recording is not the most dramatic performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. My favourite recording is the one by Musica antiqua Köln, and anyone who is acquainted with their performance - or, more generally, their style of playing - will understand that I am missing some sharp edges here, and contrasts in tempo and dynamics. Having said that I would like to emphasize that this is a very good recording. The playing of all members of La Petite Bande is of the highest order. We have some of the best players in the business here, like Barthold Kuijken on the transverse flute, and the second recorder in the Concerto No 4, with another fine player, Bart Coen, on the first recorder. The harpsichord part in the Concerto No 5 is brilliantly played by Ewald Demeyere. His performance is rhythmically very strict, though, and I would have liked some rubato.

The playing of the natural horns in the Concerto No 1 is brilliant, in particular in the last trio. In the first movement these parts could have been given a bit more prominence. The trumpet, played by Jean-François Madeuf, does sound really different from what we are used to hear in the Concerto No 2. It is quite impressive how he manages to handle this instrument without 'help' from additional holes and his performance of the trumpet part is quite spectacular. Lastly the use of the violoncelli da spalla does have a noticeable effect on the interpretations. In particular the Concertos Nos 3 and 6 take profit from it, as they are more transparent and less heavy. The use of this instrument in the basso continuo of the other concertos makes this part less prominent, and that goes against the modern trend of giving the basso continuo more weight.

It is just one aspect which will stimulate the debate about how to perform Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Just like history the performance practice of early music is a debate without end.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

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