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

[I] Brandenburg Concertosa; Overtures (BWV 1066-1069)b
Bach Collegium Japan
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki

rec: Oct 2003, Kobe, Shoin Women's Universityb; June 2008, MUZA Kawasaki Symphony Halla
BIS - SACD-1721/22 (3 CDs) (© 2009) (3.11'02")

[II] The Academy of Ancient Music
Dir: Richard Egarr

rec: May 2008, London, St Jude's-on-the-Hill, Hampstead
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807461.62 (2 CDs) (© 2009) (1.36'20")

[III] English Baroque Soloists
Dir: Kati Debretzeni, John Eliot Gardiner

rec: Jan 10 - 12, 2009, Paris & April 13, 2009, London, Cadogan Hall (live & studio)
Soli Deo Gloria - SDG 707 (2 CDs) (© 2009) (1.32'04")

The Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach belong to te most frequently performed and recorded instrumental works of all time. Although recordings are taken off the market rather quickly these days, I think there are still many available to choose from. And when three new recordings are released more or less simultaneously, one wonders whether they have anything new to offer.

From a musicological point of view Gardiner hasn't. His recording doesn't reflect any new insights or unconventional decisions, for instance in regard to instrumentation.
The main feature of Egarr's recording is his use of the low French pitch (a'=392Hz). "This choice is suggested by the French-model (indeed French-played) wind instruments that dominated Bach's area of Germany at the time the Brandenburgs were written", he writes in the booklet. In the light of this reference to the historical circumstances the use of a guitar in the basso continuo is rather odd, in particular as he acknowledges that this is without any historical foundation.
Suzuki's recording is especially interesting in regard to the scoring: in various concertos the cello parts are played on the viola (or violoncello) da spalla, an instrument which is receiving quite some attention recently.
It is a shame none of the three musical directors has dared to ask someone like the French trumpet player Jean-François Madeuf to play the trumpet part in the Concerto No 2 without any aids to correct the intonation, as is common today.

There are other differences in scoring between these three new recordings. Richard Egarr is the only one who consistently performs all concertos with one instrument per part. Suzuki does the same, with the exception of the Concerto No 1, in which the two violin parts are doubled, probably in order to prevent the violins to be overpowered by the horns. Gardiner is the least consistent: the Concertos 3, 5 and 6 are played with one instrument per part, in the other three concertos we hear five or six violins, two violas, one or two cellos, violone and harpsichord.

What is very odd, though, is that Egarr's ensemble sounds as if it is the biggest of the three. In the Concerto No 1 it produces a larger sound than Gardiner's. In particular in the Concertos 3 and 4 one wouldn't guess Egarr uses one instrument per part. This is due to the venue where the recording took place. It is hard to understand why a church has been chosen to record repertoire like this.
Gardiner's recording, on the other hand, is a bit damaged by the very dry acoustics. The booklet tells that the Brandenburg Concertos were "recorded during and after a live performance at the Cité de la Musique (...) and at Cadogan Hall, London (...)". I can't hear any signs of these performances being recorded live, but I am surprised by the acoustical circumstances. I have been listening to these three recordings in the order Suzuki - Egarr - Gardiner. As Egarr also positioned opposing groups (soli - tutti) in such a way that they are clearly discernible the contrast with Gardiner's recording was particularly striking as here the sound is much denser and less spacious. In regard to acoustics Suzuki's recording is the most natural and most satisfying.

Let us have a look at the various concertos in more detail.

In the Concerto No 1 in F the role of the two horns is remarkable, and very unusual for the time. It is described in the various booklets as representing the element of the 'country' in opposition to the other instruments being connected to the court. In all three performances the horn parts have been given enough weight, and they are recorded in such a way that they are clearly audible. In Suzuki's performance they are probably sounding a bit rougher than in the other two, and that seems to me just right. In all three the violino piccolo is played well, but there is a difference in the overall performances of the string parts. Gardiner's strings are on top, whereas in Egarr and Suzuki they are too flat, with little differentiation between good and bad notes.
In all three the rhythm of the menuet is underexposed. Gardiner observes the repeats of the menuet only the first time it is played; the other three times he omits them. The trios are generally well played, but Gardiner's wind are less colourful, and the horns are less prominent than in Egarr. In the trio I the first oboe is too dominant in Suzuki. In trio II the horns are especially brilliant in Egarr, but the tempo is too slow. Egarr also has exaggerated rallentandos in the third movement and in the last menuet.

The Concerto No 2 in F is coming off best in Egarr's recording. The tempi and dynamics are just right - although there could have been stronger accents in the allegro assai - and the rhythmic pulse is well realised, in particular in the andante.
Suzuki is disappointing: there are few dynamic accents, the tempo of the andante is too slow and the allegro assai is not exactly sparkling. This is the first time the cello is replaced by the violoncello da spalla, and its lighter sound has a clear effect on the bass of the ensemble. The harpsichord is joined by the violone, but that is not really notable. This seems a general feature of the recording as in other concertos the lower end of the ensemble also misses presence.
Gardiner isn't really better here: the first movement doesn't breathe, the rhythmic pulse is underexposed, and the soli are pretty bland, with little differentiation. Whereas in many movements Gardiner is the quickest, the andante is the slowest in the three performances. The last movement is hurried and lacks beauty.

Concerto No 3 in G is particularly important, because here the three cello parts are played on three violoncelli da spalla in Suzuki's recording. It has a clear effect on the sound of the ensemble, and the concerto is getting a lighter touch and more transparency. It is just a shame the performance is not very inspiring. The allegro is performed at high speed, but that only comes off when clear dynamic accents are applied, and that is not the case here. Unconvincing to my ears is the middle movement. Here Suzuki has included the slow movement from Bach's Concerto for 3 harpsichords (BWV 1064), which is played here with three solo violins. It is rather odd to include a movement from a concerto with solo instruments in a truly ensemble piece.

Gardiner's solution isn't any more convincing: we get an improvisation of the violin, which is largely based on the Sonata No 2 for violin solo. This is a shame as otherwise Gardiner's recording is the best.
Egarr takes the middle movement as it is written down. He argues his decision with a reference to numerology, which probably won't convince everyone. As I wrote before it is here that the big sound of the ensemble is particularly damaging. The strings are rather bland and undifferentiated.

In Concerto No 4 in G Gardiner is the winner again, in particular in the fast movements. This is partly due to Kati Debretzeni who proves to be an excellent violinist. Her performance is very good throughout this concerto, and the recorder players also give fine readings of their parts.
Suzuki's recording is really boring: the soloists have nothing to say, and as a result this is a neat performance, which is not good enough by any standard.
Egarr's recording is again damaged by the acoustics; the dynamics at the close of the presto are just not right. The first movement is too slow, and the playing of the violin only so-so.

In Concerto No 5 in D all attention goes to the harpsichord because of the long and virtuosic cadenza in the first movement. All harpsichordists play it pretty well, but whereas Suzuki applies some rubato Malcolm Proud almost consistently plays in strict rhythm which makes his performance a bit mechanical. Egarr's performance is marred by frequent tempo fluctuations. In the slow movement he plays the solo part in a strongly improvisatory manner, which makes the part captivating. Suzuki is good here, with a clear articulation, whereas Malcolm Proud is a bit flat.
The last movement doesn't fare really well in all three recordings. In Egarr the bass is far too heavy, and Suzuki and Gardiner are alright, but nothing more. What is noteable in Egarr's recording is that he plays his part with coupled manuals. I don't see the need for that in a performance with one instrument per part, but this decision could well be the result of the acoustics again. The performances of transverse flute and violin are various: Egarr is better than Suzuki, where they are particularly bland in the affettuoso - much Affekt I haven't heard here. The same goes for Gardiner.

Lastly, Concerto No 6 in B flat. Here again we hear the violoncello da spalla in Suzuki's recording, and for me that makes his recording come out on top. It is especially the lighter touch and the transparency which make me prefer this performance over the others. In the first movement the players articulate especially well, the tempo of the adagio ma non tanto has been well chosen and the allegro is played with great rhythmical suppleness. In comparison the two other performances are a bit too heavy-handed. The first movement in Gardiner is too loud and too aggressive. In Egarr the dynamic contrasts in the adagio ma non tanto are exaggerated. The allegro comes of best.

I find it difficult to decide which recording I prefer. Basically I am largely disappointed by all of them. If someone is interested in new insights into these famous concertos, Suzuki is definitely the recording to look for, because of his use of the violoncello da spalla. Egarr may be interesting to experience the effect of the use of the low French pitch.

If I had to decide on strict musical grounds I wouldn't choose any of them. None of these three would accompany me to a desert island. I still would pick the recording by Musica antiqua Köln, which is stylistically most satisfying and highly exciting to boot. It just never bores, unlike these three new releases.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

The Academy of Ancient Music
Bach Collegium Japan
English Baroque Soloists

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