J. S. BACH: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1 thru 6 – Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807461.62 (2 discs), 1 hour 36 min. [Release date: Mar. 10, 09]:

The Brandenburgs are at the very top of the favorite baroque works today, sharing with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Their bright diversity is part of their appeal; they are a most varied sextet of concertos, stylistically  and structurally.  The great variety of instrumental groupings in the concertos also increase their popularity.  No. 1 experiments with a concertino group of oboes and horns working against a ripieno of the strings and continuo. No. 2 – Egarr calls it the “treble concerto” – pits a violin, flute, oboe and trumpet against the rest of the ensemble, No. 3 divides up the various string sections,  No. 4 features a violin plus two flutes against the other instruments, No. 5 is a fledgling harpsichord concerto with the keyboard instrument joined by violin and flute, while No. 6 explores the lower registers – highlighting a pair of viola da gambas.

One of my longtime standards for the Brandenburgs has been the one recorded by Benjamin Britten and the English Chamber Orchestra back in 1968 (London/Decca).  I’ve also found the Tacet DVD-A of the Brandenburgs with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra a kick to audition due to the outrageous but immersive spatial experimentation – for example having the harpsichord on the front soundstage and the orchestra behind you. (They also all fit on a single disc.)

Noted early music specialist Egarr has approached this new recording with a couple departures from the norm – one of which may be a first. He is using the lower “French Baroque” pitch of A = 392 Hz instead of the standard Baroque pitch of A = 415 Hz.  In order to do so, some of the Academy oboe players had to have new instruments built for them to reach the lower registers. The performer on natural trumpet was overjoyed to find that he could play in a gentler and more flexible way, without worrying about “blasting.”  The lower pitch seems to create a richer and more relaxed overall sound as well, even though the tempi are not slowed down.

The other departure has been done on some previous recordings of the Concerti – assigned just a single instrument to a part rather than having the ripieno be most of the chamber orchestra. Surprisingly, I found this produced not that much of a different sound as, say, the Britten chamber orchestra version.  It did, however, increase the clarity of the lines of interweaving counterpoint and made the dialogs between the individual instruments more prominent.  With the great clarity and spread of the hi-res surround recording, the effect is extremely rich and full – not in the least ascetically thinned as one might fear.  Egarr’s return to the original chamber conception of the Concertos is an unqualified success!

 – John Sunier