J. S. BACH: The Four Orchestral Suites, BWV 1066–1069 – Le Concert des Nations/ Jordi Savall – Alia Vox multichannel SACD AVSA 9890 A-B (2 discs), 53:12; 61:22 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Like the Brandenburg Concertos, dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, the Orchestral Suites (or Overtures, as they would have been called in Bach’s day) were composed over a number of years, for Bach’s own uses, possibly for the orchestra at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, more likely for the Collegium Musicum orchestra, which he led during his Leipzig years. While the suites are numbered in what was once thought to be chronological order, that’s probably not so. Today, scholars conclude that the first and fourth suites come from around 1725, the other suites from around 1730, by which time Bach would have been installed at the Collegium Musicum.
Unlike the Brandenburgs, however, the suites were not bound into a collection by Bach himself. Indeed, there’s no manuscript copy of the suites; they’ve come down to us from copies made by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel and other contemporaries Given Bach’s hyper-productivity and the fact that he led orchestras for years at both Cöthen and Leipzig, we can assume there were other suites by Bach that are lost to us.
The suites aren’t all cut from the same cloth: Suite No. 2, for flute and strings, is intimate and comparatively sober, being cast in the lugubrious key of B minor. However, it is only comparatively sober: the light orchestration and the fact that the suite of dances is capped by a movement entitled Badinerie, which implies a certain playfulness, the overall impression is anything but heavy That last movement, by the way, is a lightning-quick display vehicle for the flute, and so the suite ends on a note of dazzle and derring-do.
Suite No. 1 is a bit more bulked-up in orchestration, adding two oboes and a bassoon to the strings (no flute), while No. 3, with the famous Air on the G String second movement, cast in the festive key of D major, adds trumpets and timpani. Bach must have had the services of an extra oboist when he wrote Suite No. 4, also in D major, because it adds a third oboe to the complement. Bach takes advantage of his wind ensemble to create a sort of concertino-ripieno effect, playing the four winds off against the larger body of strings, making this suite perhaps the most interesting in terms of texture.
As these are suites in the French style, they constitute a series of dances that follow an opening number, the overture proper, which is all cases an expansive tripartite structure. The A sections are generally slow and stately but with the swaggering dotted rhythms that the French loved. The B section is up-tempo and contrapuntal in nature, a dazzling polyphonic whirl in the suites with trumpets and drums.
The current performances from Jordi Savall and his Le Concert des Nations is one in a series of reissues on Alia Vox of recordings that originally appeared on the Astrée label. This one was set down in 1990 and, like others in the series, was remastered in credible surround sound. I admire Savall and think there are many, many more hits (at least among the recordings I’ve heard) than misses in his discography. The current offering is no exception. The performances are emotionally very satisfying, whether in capturing the intimate, almost chamber-musical quality of Suite No. 2 (with fervent solo work from flutist Marc Hantaï) or the heady triumphalism of Suites 3 and 4.Savall has a splendid group of players at his command who don’t even seem to break a sweat as Savall whips them up in the faster pages of Suite No. 4.
As I say, the surround-sound treatment is very convincing, imparting a realistic sense of spaciousness and depth. I compared the Alia Vox recording to the mostly well-regarded Telarc recording of Martin Perlman and Boston Baroque, and while I had thought Perlman was accorded a pretty good recording, it sounds positively two-dimensional next to the Alia Vox. Perlman’s performances are even a tad more fleet of foot, without the subtle instances of rubato that Savall employs, but Perlman also seems a trifle bland by comparison. If anything, Savall’s recording is a shade too resonant, resulting in a slight loss of detail and imparting a dullness to the timpani compared to Perlman’s. So the very lively recording venue for Savall giveth and taketh away, but on points this is quite a decent piece of engineering and reengineering. And the performances are among the very best I’ve heard in an extremely crowded field.
Incidentally, like Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan on Bis (a recording I’ve not heard, though I’m a Suzuki fan as well), Savall’s version takes up two CDs to Perlman’s one. Suzuki’s recording, also in surround sound, is offered at a two-for-one price, while Savall’s comes in at a few dollars more—worth considering even with the many virtues of Savall’s beautifully-performed set.
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