Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Also, Triple Concertos, BWV 1044 and 1064. Peter Schreier, CPE Bach Chamber Orchestra.  Newton Classics 8802075 (2-disc set).

Newton Classics is the record company that reissues older material and releases it on fresh new discs.  Usually, they choose recordings of critical or popular distinction that for whatever reason have gone out of print. In the case of conductor Peter Schreier's performances of Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos with the CPE Bach Chamber Orchestra, originally a Philips set from 1993, the case seems a little different. It's a recording that initially went by without much notice from the critics or the public. My own recollection of it had been one of indifference. Listening to it again in this 2011 Newton re-release, I can understand my lack of interest back then.

You will recall that the six Brandenburgs sound different from one another because J.S. Bach never intended they be played as a group, as a unified cycle. In fact, Bach himself called them "concerts," and it wasn't until the mid nineteenth century that people began referring to them as "concertos." Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg commissioned Bach to write several pieces for him, and what he got a few years later was the collection of six works we know today as the Brandenburg Concertos, the pieces written for various-sized groups and various solo instruments that Bach had probably composed at various times for various other occasions.

Concerto No. 1 is among the lengthiest of the Brandenburgs, four movements (in the French style) rather than three, and Bach arranged it for the biggest ensemble. It's also my least favorite. Under Schreier we hear fine playing but fairly monotonous, singsong rhythms. Schreier restrains it to the point of its being more-or-less humdrum. The concluding Allegro and Minuet come off well, the dances displaying a sweet lilt, but even here the lack of imaginative variety gets a bit wearisome.

Concerto No. 2 is one of the most popular in the set, highlighting the oboe, recorder, violin, and trumpet, the latter getting the bulk of the playing time. It is also among the most vivacious of the six concertos, but Schreier takes it at such a quick pace, with the trumpet so brightly lit, it's kind of abrasive, actually. Although the slow center section works well enough, Schreier continues his brisk tempos in the final movement, almost ruining what went before.

Listeners may enjoy Concerto No. 3 as well as they like No. 2, maybe more so. Here, Schreier and his players show a good deal of spirit, and the conductor sounds as though he's having a little more fun, at least in the first movement. By the time he gets to the concluding Allegro, however, it's off to the races again, with speeds that seem out of character with those of the other two movements. The piece loses subtlety and nuance as it goes along.

Concerto No. 4 is probably the most playful, with the soloists darting in and out of the structure, and Schreier and his ensemble make the most of it. This delightful little concerto sounds splendid under Schreier's direction, with every note and phrase oozing charm. I'm not sure why Schreier was so inconsistent about how he wanted these things done, but here he seems spot on.

In Concerto No. 5 the harpsichord and flute are the stars, with the violin adding a felicitous touch. Again, the tempos seem more routine than necessary, although they don't detract too much from Bach's intentions.

Even though Concerto No. 6 is for me the least-distinctive work of the set and uses the smallest group of players, it doesn't usually feel small. Despite a shaky opening movement, it is one of Schreier's more successful performances, with only the slightly weighty sonics tending slightly to distract from the intimacy of the music.

The set places Concertos 1, 3, and 6 on the first disc, these being the pieces that establish dialogues between instrumental choirs answering one another. On disc two we get Concertos 2, 4, and 5, which highlight more solo playing. Fair enough.

In addition to the six Brandenburg Concertos we get the two triple concertos (BWV 1064 for three violins, strings, and continuo and BWV 1044 for harpsichord, violin, and flute). They appear a touch more open and extended than the Brandenburgs, giving the interpretations more life. As before, the players perform well, with 1044 coming off best.

The sound, which Philips recorded in April and September of 1992, is distinctly warm and just a tad heavy. The instruments are well spread out across the stage but with only moderate depth among them. While the recording doesn't offer the very best definition, it is smooth and easily listenable. I would have liked a little more sparkle, although I have no serious complaints.

Given the wide variety of fine Brandenburg recordings available, it seems to me a person can find one or more to fit almost every taste. My own favorites include those by Trevor Pinnock and the European Brandenburg Ensemble (Avie) and the English Concert (DG Archiv), Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Philips), Gustav Leonhardt and his Ensemble (Sony), Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (L'Oiseau-Lyre), Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra (Philips), Jordi Savall and Les Concert des Nations (Astree), and others. There are more than enough to choose from unless one is an avid collector and simply has to own every recording possible.


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