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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Brandenburg Concertos & Overtures

[I] Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046 - 1051)
Orchestra of the Antipodes
Dir: Neal Peres Da Costaa, Erin Helyardb, Anna McDonaldc, Antony Walkerd
rec: August 7 - 11 / 22 - 25 / 27 - 30, Sept 1 & 10 / Dec 14, 2003, Sidney, ABC Ultimo Centre (Eugene Goossens Hall)
ABC Classics - 476 1923 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (2.01'55")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, cantata (BWV 42) (sinfonia)a; Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F (BWV 1046)d; Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F (BWV 1047)d; Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G (BWV 1048)c; Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G (BWV 1049)c; Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D (BWV 1050)b; Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat (BWV 1051)b; Die Elenden sollen essen, cantata (BWV 75) (sinfonia)a; Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, cantata (BWV 106) (sonatina)a; Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, cantata (BWV 182) (sonata)a; Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, cantata (BWV 21) (sinfonia)a; Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, cantata (BWV 174) (sinfonia)d; Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, cantata (BWV 156) (sinfonia)a; Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, cantata (BWV 29) (sinfonia)d

[II] "Ouvertüren (Complete Orchestral Suites)"
Freiburger Barockorchester
Dir: Gottfried von der Goltz, Petra Müllejans
rec: Jan & Feb, 2011, Freiburg, Paulussaal
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902113.114 (© 2011) (1.33'42")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

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)

[III] "Suites (alternative versions)"
Apollo Ensemble
rec: August 2008 & July 2009, Deventer, Doopsgezinde Kerk
Centaur - CRC 3083 (© 2011) (67'41")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

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

Ofer Frenkel, Gilberto Caserio, Peter Tabori, oboeb; Thomas Oltheten, bassoonb; David Rabinovich, Igor Rukhadze, Daria Gorbana, violin; Tamara Mkrtychyan, viola; Sergei Istomin, cello; Marion Boshuizen, harpsichord

It is not without risk to release recordings of such famous compositions like Bach's Brandenburg Concertos eight years after the date of their recording. As far as I know the recording by ABC Classics has not been released before. It is quite possible that the interpreters would perform these concertos differently nine years after. That is at least what one would hope, because these performances are anything but convincing. The baroque period is a time of strong contrasts, and that doesn't come off in these interpretations. They are far too moderate and middle-of-the-road in regard to tempo and dynamics. The players hardly create any accents within phrases and episodes. In the liner-notes the singularities of the various pieces are explained. But the interpretation hardly makes them audible. The music doesn't speak nor does it breathe.

Considering the overall straighforwardness of these performances the interpretation of the harpsichord solo in the first movement of the 5th Concerto by Erin Helyard is pretty surprising. The diminuendos and accellerations are at odds with the strict tempi which dominate these performances, but they lack logic, and in the second part his moves to make the whole more interesting are overdone and anything but convincing.

The sinfonias from eight cantatas don't fare really better. The organ in the sinfonia from Cantata 29 produces a thin sound and lacks character; the balance with the orchestra is unsatisfying. It is rather surprising that the sinfonia from Cantata 174, which is an arrangement of the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 comes off better than the original. There are some moments which have been done better than others, but on the whole this set is not a really worthwhile addition to the large discography of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.

That is quite different in the case of the recording of Bach's Overtures by the Freiburger Barockorchester. There are many recordings of these four compositions on the market, but few are so exciting as this one. Technically they are simply brilliant, showing why this orchestra is one of the world's best on period instruments. The interpretation is convincing in nearly every respect. Among its virtues are the clear differentiation between good and bad notes and the dynamic accents. As a result the rhythmic pulse is fully exposed; the dance movements which dominate these overtures are really made felt. Phrasing and articulation always make sense and are based on a thorough understanding of the music's rhetorical character.

Particularly notable is the fact that all repeats are observed. The overtures get their full length: ABABA, and in the dacapos all repeats are played as well. There are a couple of debatable features. The 'air' from the Overture No. 3 seems too slow, as in almost any recording. I have never understood why this piece is played rather slowly; I don't think it is meant as funeral music. In the Overture No. 2 Karl Kaiser adds a lot of ornaments to the solo flute part. Admirable and stylish as they are I wonder whether this is appropriate in Bach's oeuvre. The polonaise is a bit awkward; the accents are a little too strong. The closing 'badinerie' is always played pretty fast, and this recording is no exception. I believe that a more moderate tempo would suit this movement better.

Even so, this recording is going to be one of my favourites, alongside the one by Musica antiqua Köln. Despite the obvious differences they have much in common, in particular the overall approach of these overtures from a rhetorical angle.

The Apollo Ensemble recorded three of the four Overtures in early versions. They are not the first to do so. In 2009 a recording with all four Overtures was released, performed by the Ensemble Sonnerie, directed by Monica Huggett. In my review you will find more information about these versions. According to Joshua Rifkin the solo part of the Overture No. 2 in the first version - in the key of a minor - was for violin, and that is how it is played here. The Overture No. 3 in D is usually heard with oboes, bassoons, trumpets and timpani; here we hear the 'bare' form of strings and bc. In the Overture No. 4 in D the oboes and the bassoon stay, the trumpets and timpani are gone. The differences are not confined to the scoring; there are also some melodic variations, for instance in the réjouissance of the Overture No. 4.

There is no unanimity in regard to the time Bach may have composed these early versions. Some scholars suggest they date from Bach's time in either Weimar (1708-1717) or Cöthen (1717-1723). This could have consequences for the pitch of the performance. The presence of French woodwind players at German courts at the time could be an indication that the French pitch of a=392' to 394' was used. That is also practised here. Another notable feature of these performances is the scoring with one instrument per part. It is hard to say whether this is in accordance with the performance practice at the time. It is probably true that the ensembles were mostly smaller than we tend to think. We are used to rate Bach's Overtures among his 'orchestral music', but the very term is highly questionable. In regard to scoring there is probably no fundamental difference between the 'orchestral music' - Overtures, Brandenburg Concertos, solo concertos - and his solo and trio sonatas. As far as this recording is concerned this small line-up works quite well, with the exception of the Overture No. 4 where the wind sometimes tend to overshadow the strings.

The playing is something one probably has get to used to. It is not exactly smooth or polished; there are many rough edges. The tone of the violins can be pretty sharp; some may experience it even as scratchy. Some tempi are also quite uncommon, sometimes faster, sometimes slower than we are used to. I didn't always find the playing pleasant to the ear, but these performances are at least always interesting and sometimes though-provoking. I greatly appreciated the clear distinction between good and bad notes, which is not common practice these days. This recording is also different from Monica Hugget's because of the lower pitch and the one-instrument-per-part scoring. In her recording the solo part in the Overture No. 2 is played at the oboe. The Apollo Ensemble's performance with violin is clearly better than the recent recording of Tafelmusik. All things considered this disc is a valuable addition to the Bach discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Apollo Ensemble
Freiburger Barockorchester

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