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Johann Sebastian BACH & Georg Philipp TELEMANN: Concertos & Overtures

[I] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046 - 1051)
Il Gusto Barocco
Dir: Jörg Halubek
rec: August 3 & 4, 2019, Ansbach, Orangerie
Berlin Classics - 0301676BC (2 CDs) (© 2021) (1.32'47")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

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)

Janine Jonker, Georg Fritz, recorder, oboe; Claire Genewein, transverse flute; Johannes Knoll, oboe; Russell Gilmour, trumpet; Alessandro Denabian, Elisa Bognetti, horn; Andrew Burn, bassoon; Anaďs Chen, violino piccolo, violin; Naomi Burrell, Stéphanie Erös, Felicia Graf, Adam Lord, Priska Stalmarski, Rahel Wittling, violin; Barbara Konrad, violin, viola; Chen Ying Lu, Carlos Vallés Garcia, viola; Amélie Chemin, Sophie Lamberbourg, viola da gamba, cello; Jonathan Pesek, cello; Fred Walther Uhlig, violone; Alexander Gergelyfi, Jörg Halubek, harpsichord

[II] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "The Overtures - Original Versions" (BWV 1066 - 1069)
Concerto Copenhagen
Dir: Lars Ulrik Mortensen
rec: Nov 20 - 24, 2019, Copenhagen, Garnisons Kirke
CPO - 555 346-2 (© 2021) (72'58")
Liner-notes: E/D
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)

Katy Bircher, transverse flute; Antoine Torunczyk, Andreas Helm, Per Bentsson, oboe; Jane Gower, bassoon; Fredrik From, Hannah Tibell, violin; Torbjörn Köhl, viola; Judith-Maria Blomsterberg, cello; Megan Adie, double bass; Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord

[III] "The Hidden Reunion - Works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann"
Michael Schmidt-Casdorff, transverse flutea; Rainer Zipperling, viola da gambab
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century
rec: May & August 2021, Amsterdam, Keizersgrachtkerk
Glossa - GCD 921130 (© 2021) (60'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat (BWV 1051); Overture No. 2 in b minor (BWV 1067)a; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Overture for viola da gamba, strings and bc in D (TWV 55,D6)b

Marc Destrubé, Franc Polman, Irmgard Schaller, Annelies van der Vegt, Sophie Wedell, Staas Swierstra, Hans Christian Euler, Guya Martinini, Paula Pérez, Dirk Vermeulen, violin; Sayuri Yamagata, violin, viola; Emilio Moreno, Yoshiko Morita, Marten Boeken, Antonio Clares, Heleen Hulst, viola; Evan Buttar, viola da gamba; Rainer Zipperling, viola da gamba, cello; Albert Brüggen, Julie Borsodi, Bartolomeo Dandolo-Marchesi, cello; Margaret Urquhart, violone; Pieter Jan Belder, harpsichord

Scores Bach
Score Telemann

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and orchestral suites are among the most popular works of the baroque era. The number of recordings attests to that. Because of that, each new recording inevitably raises the question what it has to offer that is not already available on disc. It seems that many ensembles use these works for their portfolio, to demonstrate what they are capable of. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is no argument to add a recording to a collection which may already include several other recordings. In the booklet to his recording of the Brandenburg Concertos, Jörg Halubek, director of Il Gusto Barocco, explains the ensemble's approach. "We don't listen to benchmark recordings. What we do is work with instrumental tutors from the Baroque era, or we read Charles Burney's travel diaries. All these things flow into our interpretations". He also emphasizes the importance of taking time to find the right interpretation. "That isn't possible when you do only two days of rehearsal". He sees himself as primus inter pares: all members of the ensemble have their say. This is undoubtedly the right attitude. However, I can't see that it has resulted in anything that is really new. In the liner-notes, much attention is given to the role of the violino piccolo in the first concerto, suggesting that this is something unusual. However, this instrument is used in all recordings that I have in my collection. There is also some talk about the highly demanding trumpet part in the second concerto. Unfortunately, Halubek did not decide to use a trumpeter who plays an instrument without holes. Other recent developments, such as the use of a violoncello da spalla instead of the common baroque cello, as in Sigiswald Kuijken's recording, are also ignored here.

That said, this recording can be counted among the better performances released in recent years. Enjoyable is the marked role of the horns in the Concerto No. 1, which - together with the violino piccolo part - attest to a scoring that was quite unusual at the time. The solo parts are played very well in this recording. The balance is not always ideal: in the Concerto No. 2 the trumpet still dominates too much. In the Concerto No. 5 the harpsichord is a little overshadowed by the violin and the transverse flute. A particular issue is the choice of tempi. Sometimes I find the tempo too slow. That goes, for instance, for the two fast movements of the Concerto No. 6. At the other end of the spectrum, the menuetto from the Concerto No. 1 is among the fastest of the recordings that I know, faster even than Musica antiqua Köln. However, as nice as it sounds, I am not sure that it does justice to the character of the menuet. The tempo of the andante from the Concerto No. 2 is spot-on: it is rightly not treated as a slow movement. The few chords in the Concerto No. 3, marked adagio, raise many questions, and some interpreters decide to work them out in a more or less improvisatory manner, but here they are played as they are notated.

All in all, these are very respectable performances, which are not entirely convincing - like any other recording - but can compete with many recordings that have been released in recent years. I certainly have enjoyed them. It is just a shame that some recent developments in historical performance practice have been ignored. From that angle this production is also a bit of a missed opportunity.

There is more chance of something new in the second production under review here. At least, that is what its title suggests, as it announces that the Overtures are performed here in the "original versions". What does that mean?

Not much is known for sure about these four overtures, which root in a tradition established in the late 17th century, when many aristocrats were so impressed by the splendour of the French court, and in particular that in Versailles, that they wanted their chapels to play the same kind of music as was common in France. The instrumental music in the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, arranged into suites for orchestra, became extremely popular, and some German composers started to write in that style. They became known as Lullists. However, with time the pure French form of the overture was mixed with elements of the Italian style and with German contrapuntal tradition. The overtures by the likes of Telemann, Graupner and Fasch became the hallmarks of the 'mixed taste' which would become dominant in Germany. Bach also contributed to the genre, but when exactly he composed his four overtures and for which occasion is not known. There are also many doubts about their scoring. Lars Ulrik Mortensen and Concerto Copenhagen present here two of the four overtures in scorings that are 'reduced' in comparison with the versions mostly performed today.

The Overture No. 1 is performed here in its usual scoring for two oboes, bassoon, strings and basso continuo. This was also the most common scoring of such works, as the oeuvres of above-mentioned composers show. The Overture No. 3 is performed here with strings and basso continuo. The parts for oboes, trumpets and timpani have been omitted. The American performer and scholar Joshua Rifkin has suggested this was the original scoring of this work. It is argued that the winds "merely contribute with non-essential independent material". Karl Aage Rasmussen, in his liner-notes, adds: "It is unlikely that Bach would have written a larger orchestral work with oboes and trumpets without assigning them obbligato passages, in which case they would have been indispensable for the work". That may sound plausible, especially considering that the oboes and the bassoon do add essential material to the Overture No. 4, but this view cannot be considered conclusive. In the end, the suggestion that the Overture No. 3 was originally intended for strings alone is a matter of speculation.

Given the reference to Rifkin, it seems rather odd that his view that the Overture No. 2 was originally intended for violin, strings and basso continuo, and was written in the key of A minor, has been ignored. We get here the common version with a solo part for the transverse flute, the instrument that became so popular during Bach's time in Leipzig. This issue is entirely ignored in the liner-notes. The Overture No. 4 includes oboes and bassoon, but is still different in that it omits trumpets and timpani.

A few years ago CPO released a recording of the Brandenburg Concertos by Concerto Copenhagen. I was not very enthusiastic about those performances, but am more positive about what is on offer here. As in the concertos, the orchestra plays with one instrument per part, which lends these performances a strong amount of intimacy, in addition to the lack of trumpets and timpani. The winds add quite some ornamentation to their parts, which is nice to hear, but also a matter of debate. It is rather odd that in the gavotte of the Overture No. 1 the dacapo is performed by strings alone, without the winds. The overtures - the opening movement of each 'suite' - is in ABA form; Mortensen did not repeat the A part a second time (as did, for instance, Reinhard Goebel with Musica antiqua Köln). Some movements are played in a pretty fast tempo, but there are also some which I find too slow. That goes, for instance, for the famous air from the Overture No. 3. Its violin part receives an excellent performance by Fredrik From, though. Now and then I would prefer sharper articulations and stronger dynamic accents.

On balance, this is a recording that deserves a recommendation, first because of the performance of less common versions - which seem not to be available in that many recordings - and second because of the overall level of playing. This production is undoubtedly an essential contribution to the Bach discography.

It is not that long ago that Bach and Telemann were compared with each other, and every time Bach came out on top. That was already the case in the 19th century, when their respective oeuvres were discovered and researched. It was rather painful when it turned out that some cantatas by Bach that were used to prove his superiority to Telemann, later turned out to be from Telemann's pen. Bach did not have such prejudices: he performed Telemann's cantatas in Leipzig, and Telemann became the godfather to his second eldest son Carl Philipp Emanuel.

Bringing Bach and Telemann together in one recording makes much sense. The title of the disc with recordings by the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, "The Hidden Reunion", has nothing to do with the connection of the two composers or the compositions included here, but with the trials and tribulations of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had and still has such far reaching effects on the careers of individual musicians and the fate of ensembles. The orchestra sees itself as a group of friends, and when they are not able to play and rehearse together, they miss each other. In the booklet to the Glossa disc, Anna Enquist describes the experiences of the members of the orchestra, and how they attempted to deal with the situation. The restrictions imposed upon society - nationally and internationally - were even more damaging for this orchestra than for other ensembles, as the members are from around the world. In order to be able to keep things going, it was decided to make a recording with music for strings alone, as the blowing of wind instruments was considered too risky. Only flautist Michael Schmitt-Casdorff came to the recording venue, for the recording of Bach's Overture No. 2.

The recording was made under the current restrictions, such as a distance between the players. Schmidt-Casdorff had to play behind a high Plexiglass screen. It is inevitable that these circumstances had their effects on the outcome, especially with regard to acoustic. The atmosphere is less intimate than one would expect in this kind of music, and that is one of the downsides of this recording.

The disc opens with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, where the tempi are about the same as those of Il Gusto Barocco: too slow. The central movement is an adagio, but the performers seem to have overlooked the addition "ma non tanto". The third and last piece is Bach's Overture No. 2, and - like Concerto Copenhagen - the A section is repeated just once. However, its tempo is considerably slower than Mortensen's: 7'13" vs 6'09", and that is too slow. The same goes for most of the ensuing movements. I find both Bach works rather disappointing. In comparison, Telemann's Overture in D for viola da gamba, strings and basso continuo receives a much more convincing interpretation. The solo part is admirably played by Rainer Zipperling.

If one reads the story about the effects of the pandemic and the way the artists try to deal with them, one is perhaps inclined to turn a blind eye on the level of the performances. However, in the end and on the long run, music lovers won't enjoy a performance because of the circumstances under which it has been recorded, but on its musical merits. There can be no doubt about the quality of the orchestra or the individual players. It is just that the two Bach works don't compete that well with what is on the market. It has to be said that, even under the helm of its founder Frans Brüggen, the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century has never played a pioneering role in the performance of baroque repertoire. Historical performance practice was pretty much common at the time the orchestra was founded. Its main role was the exploration of late 18th-century and early 19th-century repertoire. That is still the orchestra's strength. In the field of baroque music, and especially in Bach, there are more energetic, differentiated and exciting performances available on disc than what is on offer here.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Concerto Copenhagen
Il Gusto Barocco
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century

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