BACH: Six Brandenburg Concertos & Four Orchestral Suites (1949-53) – Fritz Reiner conducts – Pristine Audio (3 CDs)

by | Nov 17, 2014 | Classical Reissue Reviews

BACH: Six Brandenburg Concertos & Four Orchestral Suites – Julius Baker, flute/ Robert Bloom, oboe/ Hugo Kolberg, William Lincer, Nicholas Biro & Felix Eyle, violins/ Weldon Wilbur, horn/ William Vacchiano, trumpet/ Sylvia Marlowe, harpsichord – RCA Victor Orch. members/ Fritz Reiner – Pristine Audio PASC 425 (3 CDs) – TT: 3 hr.                            10 min. [avail. in several formats from] ****: 

For those admirers of conductor Fritz Reiner (1888-1963), the present collation of Bach performances, 1949-1953, edited and restored by Mark Obert-Thorn, fills a decided gap in the conductor’s available recorded oeuvre, restored from Columbia and RCA LPs. For the period, Reiner’s use of reduced strings and lively tempos might be construed as forward-looking; and given the excellent instrumental personnel available to him, Reiner managed to impose a strict discipline upon an ad hoc studio ensemble.  Among the stellar talents collaborating with Reiner, flute virtuoso Julius Baker (1915-2003) stands out in both the Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 2 in F and  4 in G and the Suite No. 2 in B Minor (30 April 1953) for his suave and plastic realizations that combine lightness, grace, and penetrating accuracy. The harpsichord continuo has an expert hand as well in Fernando Valenti (1926-1990).  For the virtuosic Fifth Brandenburg (3 November 1949) , Reiner employs Sylvia Marlowe (1908-1981), who, along with Wanda Landowska, virtually re-established the harpsichord as a viable instrument for ancient and modern music-making. The dependable Robert Bloom (1908-1994) provides incisive oboe work in the aforementioned Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, while the principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic, William Vacchiano (1912-2005) contributes a glossily sparkling series of ecstatic and jarring fanfares against the chugging ripieno ensemble in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (2 December 1949).  The G Major Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (26 October 1949) for strings will likely appear too slow and stodgy – but not in the bravura Allegro assai second movement – for those who see Trevor Pinnock as the ultimate arbiter of Bach tempos.

Obert-Thorn himself comments in his liner notes that Reiner’s decision to reduce the number of string players adds significantly to the clarity of the musical line, permitting the oboes and other soli to project their figures while maintaining dynamic balance throughout the ensemble. No less significant, Reiner’s active tempos project the music without dire heaviness, particularly in the Suite No. 1 (14 October 1952), whose Overture has been known to suffer undue “profundity” at the hands of the German school of conducting. The Polonaise of the B Minor Suite provides a good case in point of Reiner’s applying a martial sensibility – and definite, articulate bass line – without its bogging down in somber heaviness. After a Spartan Overture to the Suite No. 3, the famous Air proceeds with aristocratic expansiveness, aerial, flexible, and romantically (via portamentos) dignified.

Violinist Hugo Kolberg (1899-1979) rarely receives the credit he deserves for his contribution to chamber music ensemble, but he had studied with Huberman and became concertmaster in Oslo, Berlin and Pittsburgh. His plangent tones do full justice to the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 (28 October 1949) and the ingratiating Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 (21 October 1949), especially in the latter, where he shares concertino honors with Julius Baker and Ralph Eichar. For my own particular favorite Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major (27 October 1949), the most tragic version remains that by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. William Lincer (1907-1997) performs here on the violin along with Nicholas Biro, although Lincer made his reputation on the viola. To this day, I seek a tape or record – if one exists – of his Harold in Italy with Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic.

As documents of the “transitional” period of Baroque style – from the thickly monumental interpretations of Furtwangler, Klemperer, and Scherchen – to the streamlined, linear styles of the moderns via original instruments like Wenzinger, Ristenpart, and Pinnock – the Reiner inscriptions hold their own in terms of “reconstructed authenticity.” The restored sound has bite, resonance, and eminent clarity of ensemble definition. Certainly a sustained look at the Reiner conception of Bach warrants our appreciation.[And don’t forget the available Ambient Stereo version, since this was recorded in the mono era…Ed.]

—Gary Lemco

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