J.S. BACH: Brandenburg Concertos (6) [TrackList follows] – Freiburger Barockorchester – Harmonia mundi 902176.77, TT: 1:30:11 [44:43 + 45:26] *****:
Discovered in 1849 during an inventory taking at Berlin’s Royal Library, the Brandenburg Concertos (their original title was ‘Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments’) went from being undiscovered and in a deep, century-long slumber slumber to being thrust into the limelight as being among J.S.Bach’s most important works. Ever since, they have enjoyed a most privileged status and are to this day considered some of Bach’s most popular works. A form of music pioneered by the Italian musical schools, the concerto is a form to which German composers began to take in the early 18th Century, remodeling them to accommodate native German compositional styles and traditions (of which the Brandenburg Concertos are a wonderful example). A collection of six concerti presented to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721, the Brandenburg Concertos are almost certainly a compilation of works composed over the 1710s, and were scored for a variety of instrumental ensembles – such was their variety that the Margrave seems to have lacked the musicians to perform them!.
In this case of this recording, musical resources are certainly not a problem. The Freiburger Barockorchester is well-stocked with first-class musicians, and this is something that is abundantly clear from the off. The opening allegro of the First Concerto is lively and exuberant, with a vigorous horn part that is brimming with vitality, and the horn part’s triplet cross rhythms against the ensemble’s rhythm is masterfully managed. That said, the horn part is in no way boisterous, and the ensemble is well-balanced throughout – the brass and strings were always distinguishable from one another, but the music never loses its sense of unity. The first concerto’s adagio opens with a soaring oboe line that is beautifully played, and the transition into the yet higher violin solo was seamless. The bass section (consisting of the cello, double bass and harpsichord) is solid and sonorous, but still balances well with the rest of the ensemble, which, given the extremes of pitch range in this movement, is a sign of accomplished musicality. The second allegro was beautifully played, but I must make particular comment of the horn, whose output was practically virtuosic in its masterful management of trills and phrasing – playing of this high a quality on such an instrument is worthy of praise. The fourth Menuetto movement (the First Concerto is the only one with four movements) is likewise beautifully played. Of particular note were the two trios – the first (of oboes and bassoon) was dainty and refined, the second (of horns and oboe) lively and fanfare-like.
The next concerto on this recording is the Sixth, whose distinctive feature is that its star instrument is the viola. This often-maligned seconding instrument (just ask a classical musician you know if s/he has any viola jokes!) comes to the forefront, and does so in spectacular style. The first allegro is elegant and has a lovely sense of flow, and the Adagio Ma Non Tanto has a solemnity filled with movement and purpose. However, it is the final allegro that enjoys the biggest triumph. Played with a definite sense of accomplishment, the bowing is clean and the melodies are clear as a result. The rest of the ensemble gives the viola a respectable and very musically delicate sense of space in order to allow it to display its talents. Not only is this the case from Bach’s lighter accompaniments, but the playing itself is also sensitive to the viola’s presence.
Following the Sixth is the Second Concerto, whose opening allegro I recognized straight away – in my teens, I enjoyed listening to “The Great Courses” lecture series from the Teaching Company, and it so happens that the opening allegro of this concerto is the series’ theme tune! This concerto’s distinctive feature is the unusual makeup of the solo quartet – trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin. Not the usual choice for a quartet (due to the divergent nature of the instruments’ sonority), the playing is expert in its musicality, and the solo concertino is wonderfully balanced. Each of the instruments is sensitive to the other, making for an expressive performance. The Andante is among the more Italianate movements of the concerti, the muted strings of the harpsichord mixed with the lighter instrumentation making for a very delicately musical movement. The following allegro assai was a stark contrast, but not in an overwhelming way.
The Third Concerto came after, and is the only one of the concerti scored exclusively for strings (outside the usual harpsichord in the bass section, of course). The opening Ohne Satzbezeichnung (‘without tempo marking’) was consummately musical – played as an allegro, it retained a stately air about it, and the strings all move towards the cadence points with a definite sense of purpose. There is no adagio movement in this concerto, only a few bars of cadential transition into the final allegro. The final allegro is brilliant. It may be another fast movement, but it is worlds away from the preceding movement. It is far more playful in mood, and the orchestra produces this playful mood expertly. The particular skill of the harpsichordist during the semiquaver flourishes is something I feel must be applauded here – being able to maintain an even pulse through such an intense keyboard line is no mean feat! This movement is playful but intense throughout, and this never lets up, and I could feel the passion in the playing here. It was a fantastic experience.
A contender for the title of being the first keyboard concerto in musical history, the Fifth Concerto follows. The opening allegro is musically dainty, and it is clear that the harpsichord is the focus of attention (hence the potential status as a keyboard concerto). With a virtuosic part that is played masterfully with seemingly perpetual energy in a sustained way, the harpsichord is certainly the focus of attention, and the seconding concertino is beautifully employed with a musical sensitivity that accentuates the harpsichord line and doesn’t overwhelm it. I found the middle affetuoso movement to have quite an English sound to it that was exceptionally charming. The concludes with another delightfully playful allegro, with fantastic performances from the solo violin, flute, and harpsichord.
The final concerto on this recording is the Fourth. The opening allegro brought back many great memories for me, as it was a set piece I was required to study during my Sixth Form education (16-18). The concertino of violin and recorders was simply sublime. The conversations between the recorders and strings are beyond words – expertly crafted and passionately presented with a flare! The andante is among the more solemn movements in the concerti, and the antiphonal (“call and response”) exchanges between concertino and ripieno are woven together beautifully, creating a subtly balanced yet profound musical conversation. The final presto is a fitting ending to the recording. A compositional tour de force, Bach brings together all of the instruments of the concerto and blends them together in a formidable hybrid of fugal and concerto forms – a grand finale.
The musicianship on this recording is of the very highest order, and every second was an absolute delight to experience. Also of a very high order is the recording quality – each instrument had character and was crystal clear to the ear. The acoustic was also very pleasing. With a great deal of presence, space and depth, I could well have been sat in the front row of a concert! I can definitely recommend this recording for anyone’s music library.
TrackList:CD1 = Concerto No. 1 in F Major
- i. [Ohne Satzbezeichnung]
- ii. Adagio
- iii. Allegro
- iv. Menuet – Trio I – Polonaise – Trio II
- i. [Ohne Satzbezeichnung]
- ii. Adagio ma non tanto
- iii. Allegro
- i. [Ohne Satzbezeichnung]
- ii. Andante
- iii. Allegro assai