BACH: Six Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051 – Wiener Soloists/ Jascha Horenstein – Pristine Audio (2)

Horenstein’s 1954 survey of the Bach Brandenburgs proves compelling and musically intelligent.

BACH: Six Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051 – Wiener Soloists/ Jascha Horenstein – Pristine Audio PASC 468 (2 CDs), TT: 1 hour 40 minutes [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Horenstein spent much time and effort searching for the right combination of original instruments, not as easy to find then as now, and auditioning the musicians to play them. In the end he settled for a twenty-two piece orchestra that featured a harpsichord, a violino piccolo, two recorders, two viole da gamba, two natural horns and a clarino trumpet in addition to modern instruments. This formation (rec. 21-25 September 1954) represented a revolutionary new approach to these masterpieces, which until then were usually performed in a romantic style, mostly by large orchestras with modern instruments – Horenstein’s tutti utilizes modern stringed instruments – often with the keyboard part taken by a piano.

The players were drawn mainly from members of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra that included, most notably, the young Nikolaus Harnoncourt (viola da gamba) and Paul Angerer (viola, violin piccolo, harpsichord, second recorder), both of whom later became important figures in the development of authentic performances of baroque and classical era music. Flute Camille Wanausek dedicated considerable energies to work with Eduard van Beinum in period music. It is not inconceivable that these musicians, and some of the others, derived inspiration for the future direction of their careers from their work on this recording of the Brandenburgs.

What most impresses about this set, its consistent sonic glamour, resonates with a devotional authority that adds no small luminous quality to the interplay of forces Bach garners. The Allegro of the Fourth Concerto stands out, especially given its plastic, flowing tempo and the suave play of violinist Walter Schneiderhan and the active winds. The tempo of the last movement Presto Horenstein takes more marcato than some interpreters, but the effect proves undeniable in its balance and sense of musical closure. The opening attack in the Fifth Concerto’s Allegro should grip auditors enough to warrant their repeated listening. Aerial and eminently brightly colored, the flute part weaves through the ritornello and its harpsichord continuo (and subsequent solo) and sweetly intoned violins with resolve. The huge harpsichord cadenza becomes quite hypnotic, given its mezzo-forte level and the unusual warmth of the plucked sound. The sheer virtuosity of the realization compels our awe for its controlled furor. My own favorite among the Concertos – the Sixth in B-flat Major – projects an “old world” sound in its opening Allegro, the low strings especially lilting in their layered sonority. Horenstein betrays his Romantic ethos here, and in the elongated, held notes of the Adagio ma non tanto. The last movement dances, but its energies seem tempered by a tragic sense that we gather our musical rosebuds while we may.

Not just another (historical) venture into the Six Brandenburgs, this excursion consistently appeals to our musical intelligence and love of grand harmony. Engineer Andrew Rose has augmented the original Vox monaural records with an edgy patina that I find athletic and compelling.

—Gary Lemco

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