J.S. BACH: The Orchestral Suites: No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066; No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067; No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068; No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069 – La Petite Bande/ Sigiswald Kuijken – Accent ACC 24279, 79:17 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (10/8/13) ****:
The four Orchestral Suites of Bach defy both clear chronology (c. 1725) and instrumentation: neither a precise year can be assigned their creation – whether in Coethen or Leipzig – nor whether they require single or doubling of the parts. La Petite Bande prides itself on restoring the original sound and instrumentation as much as possible, a relatively modest ensemble here employing trumpets without vent holes, so that players produce tones from the natural overtone series with mechanical aids. The bass group consists of a couple of large violones, over-sized cellos (almost double-basses) that do not need to be doubled in the lower octave for their presence to be felt.
Besides the idiosyncratic sonority of these performances, I find Kuijken’s renditions of individual dances highly stylized, and not always to my taste. My ears perked up in tiny revolt at his odd shaping of the Courante from Suite No. 1 in C. On the other hand, the Menuet I & II enjoy a lithe transparent texture that bears repeated listening. Kuijken admits that his former concept for these suites – based on Lully and the decidedly French tradition – has altered significantly. The close microphone placement to the woodwinds in the Bourree I & II captures the sound of the players’ hitting the stops. The final Passepied I & II move in a brisk andante tempo, a singularly athletic and flexible line’s extending itself in the diverse colors that make any of these movements typical fare of cantatas.
Kuijken assumes that the popular Third Suite in D originally existed for strings alone, and that Bach added the wind parts later. The brisk tempo has the effect of rendering the fugato and counterpoint elements waspishly pert and virtuosic. Violins, horns, and tympani add a decided drama to the progress of this syncopated moment of bravura. The “rocket” figures in the strings would seem to anticipate the later work of the so-called Mannheim composers. The familiar Air in D (on the G string) projects an antique eerie transparency, with many added turns and mordents. Some real buoyancy occurs in the Gavotte I & II, fluent, even debonair in spirit, especially as the trumpets inflect their individual colors. A deciso, militant Bourree bursts forth to lead us to the final Gigue in skipping figures. Benjamin Alard’s busy continuo adds a charming color and contour to the proceedings.
For the Suite No. 2 in B Minor, Barthold Kuijken provides the obbligato transverse flute. The antique sound often reminds us how close the recorder is to this sonority. Sigiswald Kuijken speculates that the original form of this suite consisted of violin and strings in A Minor. Nevertheless, the momentum of the lyrical Ouverture with flute captivates us in its deft, optimistic, contrapuntal facility. The Rondeau will raise some hackles, given its rather waltzy, jazzy accents. To my taste, the Sarabande drags a bit. The Bourree I & II return to a more familiar style of realization, as do the Polonaise I & II, whose heavy beat manages to find aerial serenity in its refined figures. The long-held notes at the turn in the Menuet remind me of the Scherchen exaggerations of phrase, and the final Badinerie chugs in moderate tempo, not so bravura in execution as eminently civilized and tuneful.
The rousing Ouverture to Suite No. 4 exits in another form, as the opening chorus to Cantata No. 110, with dazzling imitation in dotted rhythms, in lovely transparent voicings from La Petite Bande. The entire suite marks a departure from any standard “form,” since Bach finds pleasure in combining alternative dances in unique combinations and pairs. The ensuing series of Bourrees, Gavotte, Menuets, and concluding Rejouissance communicate a witty, even rustic, joie de vivre, in what qualifies as the most infectious of the readings on this disc.
Recorded 29 September-1 October 2012 in Belgium, the elegant sonorities of La Petite Bande enjoy a warm, often reverberant sonic patina, Bach’s lines crystal clear.