The Brandenburg Concertos – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin – Harmonia mundi

by | Oct 1, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

J.S. BACH :The Brandenburg Concertos – Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin – Harmonia Mundi 902686.87 9/2021  2 discs (1h 27’35); ***** 

(Isabelle Faust; violin  Antonie Tamestit; viola)

The period Bach spent in Cothen (1717-1723) was especially fruitful in terms of musical research. He had already proven himself an organist without equal and a worthy composer in the North German Lutheran composer. But with his appointment to the position of court composer for Prince Leopold, he suddenly found himself in a musical paradise at a comfortable remove from the duties of a conventional capellmeister. Later at Leipzig he was expected to produce a cantata on a weekly basis, by contrast at Cothen he wrote two a year. The Prince, as a Protestant of the reformed faith, had little use for the Lutheran ceremony. However, he was genuinely devoted to music for its own delights and was highly accomplished on keyboard and stringed instruments. Bach found his duties highly pleasurable: to compose a variety of music for the delight of the dilettanti. Moreover, work conditions were ideal. There was the ensemble of 18 highly skilled musicians, a good collection of instruments and a wealth of musical manuscripts representing the glorious height of Italian baroque. 

So Bach tested himself in all directions. He wrote solo works for both cello and violin in which he stretched the language and technical abilities of these instruments. He worked up suites for harpsichord which would be the basis for educating his sons. He reworked the traditional trio sonata of Corelli in his own language. The sonatas for violin and harpsichord are a product of this time, works that set an absolute standard for melodic beauty in the eyes of his son C.P.E. Bach  “No one in my generation can write melodies like these” he said famously about the slow movements of these works. Indeed, the very greatest works of chamber music owe their genesis to this blessed interval of Bach’s long and productive career.

His patron was especially engaged by Italian music, especially that of Vivaldi, and this too would be fecund source of inspiration. We know that Bach was deeply taken up with this music because he made several transcriptions of Vivaldi’s concertos. But when it came to writing his own concertos, he relied entirely on his own rhetorical powers. In fact none of the Bach concertos could be mistaken as those by Vivaldi, (or Albinoni or Torelli). They are all a little eccentric compared toItalian predecessors. Each presents an experiment in form and rhetorical content. The most famous set of concertos were collected in the 19th century under one title “The Brandenburgs”. Fittingly, of course because they were sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg (accompanied by a most obsequious note by the composer) as part of a job application. However the term disguises how disparate they are; none is like any of the others and a couple are just plain strange by the standards of what came before or after in 18th century music. 

The Brandenburg Concertos are among the most easily recognized works in the canon of Western Music. Thus, it takes some effort to listen to them afresh. But for the listener willing to pay full attention to a recital of all six, it is possible even after many listenings to discover new features, new puzzles and a renewed delight. Each one seems to be a test; a test of musical materials that Bach had at hand, an exploration of how to expand a form (the Corellian trio Sonata) and challenge to carry heavy harmonic weight on fleet dance rhythms. In short, one feels like Bach has taken the listener into his workshop where orderly  tries to content with enormous expressive energies that one feels like a volcanic force in these strange pieces. 

There is certainly no shortage of recordings of these iconic works and yet some ensembles have revisited them at intervals as if to prove themselves against a  masterpiece that eludes any definitive statement.  The Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin recorded these works 25 years ago which poses the question of why they chose to revisit them. In an interview, concertmaster George Kallweit retorts that “If it were only a matter of desire and quality of music one could actually record these concertos every year”.  25 years, though, is a long time especially considering the ongoing excavations by Early Music specialists. There are enough open questions to allow for some new ideas to come into play. On the evidence of my ears I would suggest that this recording achieves a new freshness to the music, less through anything dramatic, than just by finding a surprising transparency so that each instrument fully appears in bright contrast. 

I compared this recording with two others. The RInaldo Alessandrini recording of 2006 which is a personal favorite of mine and the 1991 recording led by Jordi Savall on Alia Vox and remastered on SACD. I Alte Musik Berlin at least equals the former and is vastly superior, especially in terms of sound,  to the Savall recording, even though the latter has a remarkable ensemble of Baroque instrumental specialists. 

Alte Musik Berlin has favored the same quick tempos that were conspicuous in the Alessandrini set. But in the third Concerto, the speed is breathtaking. The “Ohne Satzbezeichnung” gets off the mark at a bright clip and one marvels at the controlled swing of the ensemble but then following the 16 second Adagio–more like an inhale– I was bowled over by the  fastest string playing of Bach I have ever heard. It is a vertiginous race down a hillside. In the first movement Savalls Concert des Nations is beaten to the finish line by 30 seconds but in the last by 70 seconds. I think these tempos were ratcheted up by the famously vivid recordings by Alessandrini. Is that a good thing? I think it is a matter of taste. At least one person I played this for was bewildered by the velocity. 

All of the concertos involve huge challenges in the balancing of sound. These recordings are successful in achieving both separation and balance between the violin and violas of Isabelle Faust and the remarkable instrument of Antoine Tamestit.  It is the French violist who  shines in the 3rd and even more in the the sixth where the violas wend through canonic labyrinths. This one, the strangest of the set with its peculiar three layered string sound, seemed like an entirely new piece of music for me. Indeed, when I heard the Savall version the layers were stirred together in a luxuriant mush. The SACD layer was just so much gauze. Faust too, who has one of the best renditions of Bach’s concertos and solo works for violin is also a perfect interpreter of Bach. Her own instrument seems to have grown warmer in this particular acoustic setting. 

Tamestit with the ‘Gustav Mahler’More than anything else, this recording offers a measure of just how much better the new-old instruments have become. Here is Tamestit with the ‘Gustav Mahler’ a 1672 Stradivarius viola

The WInd and brass instruments are quite fine too. The oboe and trumpet are clear and nicely recessed. The horns pulling off the demanding unisons on the first. However, the standout musician after the viola must certainly be Christoph Huntgeburth. In The second and fifth concertos, his recorder and then flute are  given the most riveting solos.  The tonal clarity and melodiousness of this instrument is of the highest order.

The hardest piece to assess reasonably is the fifth concerto, the harbinger to the piano concerto itself. Frankly I don’t see how a piece as unruly as this could be any sort of model. The long cadenza is an affliction of excruciating twists of the most dissonant machinery in Bach’s harmonic laboratory.  I don’t think anyone will ever top Rinaldo Alessandrini’s bravura performance. Here Raphael Alpermann stays on his horse, but there is not quite the devilish revelry that was the hallmark of so many older recordings. But this might have to do with the sound of his instrument which is uniformly pleasing. 

Brandenburg AllegroA portion of the zany cadenza from the Allegro. Some of the tinny recordings of this can drive a person mad. I submit there is no sane interpretation. 

There will be times when I don’t want to hear the Brandenburgs played this fast. On the other hand, I don’t think I could think of a better place recording for a first experience of these concertos. I strongly endorse this set as a first copy for a person coming to classical music afresh. But it would also not be a set to miss even for those diligent collectors and discriminating connoisseurs. It is truly something special. 

—Fritz Balwit

The Brandenburg Concertos - Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Album Cover

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