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Johann Sebastian Bach on recorders

[I] Goldberg Variations (BWV 988)
Seldom Sene
rec: March 20 - 22, 2017, Diemen, Schuilkerk De Hoop
Brilliant Classics - 95591 (© 2017) (75'00")
Liner-notes: E/NL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Stephanie Brandt, Ruth Dyson, Eva Gemeinhardt, Hester Groenleer, María Martínez Ayerza, recorder

[II] "Flûtes en fugue"
Consort Brouillamini
rec: July 12 - 3 & 17 - 18, 2017, Lyon, CNSMD (salle Varèse)
Paraty - 218168 (© 2018) (56'28")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto in d minor (after Concerto for organ in a minor, BWV 593); Concerto in f minor (after Concerto for two harpsichords, strings and bc in c minor, BWV 1060); Concerto in G (after Concerto for harpsichord in D, BWV 972); Concerto in c minor (after Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in g minor, BWV 1058); Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot (BWV 678) [2]; Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 659) [1]; Prelude in c minor (after Prelude in c sharp minor, BWV 849) [3]; Prelude in d minor (after Prelude in b flat minor, BWV 867) [3]

Guillaume Beaulieu, Virginie Botty, Elise Ferrière, Florian Gazagne, Aránzazu Nieto Vidaurrázaga, recorder

Sources: [1] 18 Choräle von verschiedener Art; [2] Clavier-Übung, III; [3] Wohltemperirtes Clavier, I


During the renaissance ensembles of instruments of the same family - or sometimes of different families (the so-called broken consort) - were quite common. They played instrumental music, but also vocal works, either sacred or secular. It gradually disappeared during the 17th century, except in England, where it held its ground until the Restoration. In France Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed a piece for viol consort, and around 1700 such music was still popular at the imperial court in Vienna. However, if a recorder consort of our time wants to play baroque music, there is little to choose from. It is questionable whether the pieces by Charpentier and those played in Vienna, which were intended for viols, can be played on recorders, especially because of a difference in dynamic range of the respective instruments.

Therefore such ensembles rather choose to perform music for other instruments or combinations of instruments, which can be adapted to recorders without too much trouble. Keyboard and especially organ music is mostly well suited to a performance on recorders. Both are unable to change dynamics during play, and most of the repertoire is dominated by counterpoint, which is also a feature of music for recorder consort. Bach is an obvious favourite of recorder consorts, which often play chorale preludes as well as preludes and fugues.

The Goldberg Variations are probably not the most obvious choice for an adaptation to a recorder consort. The aria and the canons are well suited to such an ensemble; one could compare them to the Kunst der Fuge, which is performed by recorder consorts quite often. The pieces which have the character of dances also mostly do rather well in this scoring. That said, the work as a whole is not so easy to perform in this line-up, as María Martínez Ayerza explains in her liner-notes. Whereas in some variations only two or three players are involved, "in most tracks you will hear us all: due to the relatively small range of the recorder, five players are needed to play the complete Goldberg Variations comfortably without making any modifications, which, for us, is an essential condition. The 'toccata'-variations, particularly, require a very wide range and agile playing in very high and low registers and provide plenty of work for all five players (...)".

I have to admit that I was sceptical about this approach to the Goldberg Variations. It seemed to me that two players sharing a single line would only be possible with the help of modern recording technique. As I believe that a recording should stay as closely as possible to what can be done in a live performance, I generally don't like that. However, the players have performed some of the 'toccata' variations live, which suggests that they are able to perform it without technical assistance. That only enhances my admiration for this performance. In my reviews of previous recordings of this ensemble I have already noted that they are one of the best of their kind, and that is confirmed here.

That said, I am not convinced about every single variation. Some include figures which are so idiomatic for the harpsichord that they don't do that well on recorders. Examples are Variatio 5 with its many short notes, which can only be played staccato on recorders, and Variatio 14. Musically speaking I would prefer to omit them, but then obviously the whole concept of the Goldberg Variations goes out of the window.

It should not withhold anyone from purchasing this disc. The playing of the highest order, and both Bach lovers and recorder aficionados will greatly enjoy this disc.

On the next disc we meet another recorder quintet, the Consort Brouillamini. It also presents a programme of music by Bach, but it follows a different route. They include four pieces which are the natural subject of performances by recorder consorts, as their polyphonic structure is ideally suited to such an ensemble. We hear two chorale preludes for organ; these are obvious choices as the organ is a wind instrument, like the recorder. Here we also don't have the problem of a difference in dynamic range. In addition the ensemble has selected two pieces from the first volume of the Wohltemperirte Clavier: a prelude and a fugue which are not connected, and which are both transposed in order to suit the instruments.

And that brings us to the aspect of this disc in which it differs from Seldom Sene's performance of the Goldberg Variations. As I quoted from their liner-notes, it was essential for them not to make any modifications. Exactly that is what the Consort Brouillamini has done. That is already suggested by the choice of pieces from Bach's oeuvre. Two concertos for one and two harpsichords respectively cannot be played without adaptations.

Three kinds of arrangement have been practised. The first was transposition: the Concerto BWV 1058 for harpsichord is written in the key of g minor and has been transposed to c minor, whereas the Concerto in c minor (BWV 1060) is played here in f minor. Secondly: the solo parts sometimes exceeded the range of a recorder. "[We] solved this issue by transposing the problematic notes of the melodic line one octave up or down, or splitting the melodic line in different sections to be played by different recorders according to their ambitus (doing that way, recorders playing the intermediate parts usually become soloists sometimes)." For idiomatic reasons, "sometimes we had to modify the melodic line, sometimes we took the option to restructure certain sections too much proper to the violin or keyboard playing in order to make them proper to the recorder playing." Thirdly: in some cases the number of parts needed to be reduced in order to make a piece suitable for five recorders, whereas in other cases new parts had to be added.

This is justified by referring to Bach's own organ transcriptions of concertos by Antonio Vivaldi. Two of such transcriptions have been included here; in these cases the performers have mixed the original versions with Bach's arrangements. It is certainly true that it was common practice in the baroque era to arrange compositions by others. However, modern performers are not the composers of that time, in this case Bach. It is almost impossible to emulate the quality of Bach's own arrangements. The arrangements on this disc attest to that: in the first movement of the Concerto BWV 1060, for instance, the solo parts have been changed in such a way that they are considerably less interesting than the originals.

Arranging Bach's music for recorder consort causes sometimes problems because of the limited melodic range of the recorder. Another issue is the difference in dynamics. Seldom Sene adapted music intended for harpsichord, an instrument which is unable to change dynamics. That is a major difference with the programme recorded by the Consort Brouillamini: the tutti parts of the two Bach concertos are for strings which have a far wider dynamic range than recorders.

Having listened to this disc, I have come to the conclusion that Bach's instrumental concertos are not the most obvious part of his oeuvre to be adapted to a recorder consort. That said, the playing is very good: the four keyboard pieces receive fine performances, and among the four concertos BWV 1058 comes off best as it is played with panache and much sense of rhythm.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Consort Brouillamini
Seldom Sene

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