musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Brandenburg Concertos"

Apollo Ensemble

rec: August 2008 & July 2009, Deventer, Doopsgezinde Kerk
Centaur - CRC 3067 (© 2010) (44'39")
Liner-notes: E

Brandenburg Concerto No 2 in F (BWV 1047a); Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D (BWV 1050a); Concerto for harpsichord, 2 recorders, strings and bc in F (BWV 1057)

Annelies Schraa, Reine-Marie Verhagen, recorder; Kate Clark, transverse flute; Ofer Frenkel, oboe; Hans-Martin Rux, trumpet; David Rabinovich, Igor Rukhadze, violin; Tamara Mkrtychyan, viola; Sergei Istomin, cello; Marion Boshuizen, harpsichord

In the baroque era music was supposed to be new. Performances of left-overs were not appreciated. Therefore if a composer decided to reuse old stuff he mostly rewrote it or adapted it to the present circumstances. Johann Sebastian Bach was no exception. Many of his instrumental works exist in various versions, and when no other version is known it is assumed that it has been lost. Regularly attempts are made to reconstruct such lost 'original' versions.

Among the concertos which exist in various versions are the Brandenburg Concertos. On this disc we hear three of them. That is to say, the Concerto in F (BWV 1057) which is presented here as an alternative version of the 4th Brandenburg Concerto, is commonly known as one of the harpsichord concertos. Unfortunately that is not specifically mentioned in the tracklist. It is also different from the other two concertos in that here we don't have to do with an 'original' version, but rather with a later arrangement. That has consequences for the performance. More about that later.

The 'alternative' versions which are mostly played are based on the copies which were made by Christian Friedrich Penzel, a scholar at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, between 1751 and 1756. He continued the work which Johann Gottlob Harrer, Bach's successor as Thomaskantor had begun. In Harrer's hand the version of the Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D (BWV 1050) has been passed down. This version is played here, and differs in particular from the 'common' version in that the harpsichord cadenza in the first movement is much shorter and less virtuosic. This version has been recorded previously, and in that respect this recording breaks no new ground. One aspect needs to be mentioned, though. It seems the string bass was originally intended for a violone in G. Here we hear a cello which is rather inconsistent.

The version of the Brandenburg Concerto No 2 in F (BWV 1047) which is presented here is - as far as I know - different from any other recording of its 'original' version. There are only minor differences between the version which is mostly performed today and the 'original' version as copied by Penzel. The main difference between this and previous recordings is the absence of strings. The liner-notes of this recording say: "The 2nd Brandenburg concerto is still scored for the same soloists - violin, recorder, oboe and trumpet - but in this version there are no other strings, no ripieno group. Rather than sounding like a small orchestral work is now sounds like a chamber concerto in the Vivaldian style". It is suggested here that this scoring is what is indicated in Penzel's copy. But as other recordings of this concerto include ripieno strings the Apollo Ensemble seems to present a version which has no historical foundation. The liner-notes don't give much away about the reasoning behind this scoring.

Another feature of this recording is the use of the low French pitch of a=392 Hz. It is assumed this was the preferred pitch in Weimar and Cöthen because many French instruments were used there. First of all, as far as I know this is a presumption but not an established fact. It is plausible to perform the early versions of the Brandenburg Concertos 2 and 5 at this pitch. But it is historically indefensible to use it in the Concerto in F BWV 1057. This arrangement of the 4th Brandenburg Concerto dates from Bach's Leipzig period. Here the low French pitch was definitely not used. The Apollo Ensemble has fallen in the same trap as Concerto Köln in its recording of Bach's orchestral suites.

This is a serious blot on a production which gives much reason to enjoy. The general level of playing is very good. Marion Boshuizen deserves praise for her account of the harpsichord parts. The tempi are mostly well-chosen. I was particularly pleased by the pretty swift performance of the andante from the Brandenburg Concerto No 2. It is nice to hear a real andante, and not a kind of adagio here. The allegro assai of the Concerto in F (BWV 1057) is too slow, though. I also would have liked more dynamic shading.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Apollo Ensemble

CD Reviews