BACH Brandenburg Concertos. La Stravaganza/Rampe (Veritas) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concertos BWV 1046-51

Concerto in D major, BWV 1050a (Early version of Concerto No.5, BWV 1050)

Triple Concerto, BWV 1044

LA STRAVAGANZA (Hamburg)
directed by SIEGBERT RAMPE
performing on period instruments

VIRGIN VERITAS VCD5 45255-2
2 discs [52:08+ 73:33] full-price

by Chia Han-Leon
If you’ve always hesitated buying a full-price recording of the Brandenburg Concertos either because you weren’t sure of the playing quality or that two CDs filled with only 90+ minutes of music aren’t worth $45+, then your problems are over!

This is simply the liveliest, most spontaneous, most surprisingly enjoyable performance of the Brandenburgs I have ever heard. Beginning with Brandenburg Concerto No.1, BWV 1046, the orchestra of La Stravaganza from Hamburg demonstrates its infectious sense of fun, one of those key X factors of great musical performance. Their playing exudes an impeccable sense of pulse, every phrase joining the next with total fluidity of thought and musical line. Every instrument is captured by the sound engineers in sparkling detail. The hunting horns of the third movement whoop with confident purpose while the solo violin dances with the joy of the chase, and yet in all this commitment of playing, La Stravaganza’s atmosphere of thrill and ease is never missing.

The final movement, the menuet and trio sequence, contains a series of displays for the various instrumental groupings (including horns, oboes, violino piccolo, more strings, bassoon and harpsichords). As the movement proceeds, the decoration and momentum of the performers build up seamlessly in ever increasing brilliance of utterance. By the time you reach the third Menuet, the solo violin is glittering like it just came out of the Four Seasons!

Brandenburg Concerto No.3, BWV 1048, surely one of the pinacles of Baroque string ensemble writing, is my favourite of the six. From the start, the ten strings and harpsichord give a non-stop rendition that springs at you with their sureness and glowing energy. Again, there is always that infectious, feet-tapping sense of pulse (not rhythm) that distinguishes these players. The central section, with its slightly ominous, quietly anticipatory mood, contrasts with the outer parts, but the whole is impressively unified. When the home key returns, everything springs back, as it should, like a victorious trip home. Without any improvised middle movement, the players launch into a very fast final Allegro. Yet at no point did it feel rushed. In fact, listening to these performances treats you to the incredible skill of these musicians as they pull off the most daunting whirlwind passages with a combination of risk-taking bravery and steadfast ease.

No sooner does No.3 end does the strains of Brandenburg Concerto No.6, BWV1051 begin. With its scoring for two violas, two violas da gamba, cello, violone and harpsichord, the result is a unique work virtually booming with the sonorous choir of these lower-end instruments. Chugging confidently, but without any sense of routineness, the players succeed in creating that sonority special to this work. After a tender Adagio, in which I dare you to tell me period strings have no body, La Stravaganza skips into the dance of the final Allegro. Their consummate skill brought tears to my eyes.

The first disc ends with Brandenburg Concerto No.2, BWV1047. I keep having to remind myself that trumpeteer Hans-Martin Kothe is playing a valveless, keyless instrument. His brilliant and sunny tone, his faultless (really, it is) and pin-pointed technique must be heard to be believed. Not to be defeated, the other soloists (recorder, oboe and violin) drive the music as valiantly, and before you know it, 4’27” is over! Without the trumpet at the fore, the three sing the middle movement with much grace and sweetness, undulating dynamics, always maintaining (again) that beautiful pulse, which picks up the pace in the final movement. Like each disc, each concerto, each movement, this movement is like this huge structure that pans out into greater ones. To my surprise and delight, led by the trumpet, the movement ends on a short chord, neither abrupt nor lingering – the effect being confident and bright, like the composer (right) suddenly arising to greet the ending. Fabulous.

Three Musicians. Painting by the 'Master of the Female Half-Lengths', 16th century It is a delight to include the earlier 1718(?) version of Brandenburg Concerto No.5, BWV 1050a, which starts disc 2. The performance is truly grand, but also cheery. Flutist Michael Schmidt-Casdorff produces a beautifully luscious woody tone associated with the Baroque flute. The personality of his instrument is a delightful range of ghostly eerieness to professor-like philosphical to almost liltingly sexy! His companion soloists, Gesine Hildegrandt on violin and Helene Lerch on harpsichord share the presence without any sense of dominion, best demonstrated in the wistful and intimate Adagio. The final Allegro of this version has a number of surprising moments, as in the pensive phrase at 1’19”, a variation on the first theme. Flute, violin solo and harpsichord take turns to play this delicious idea, which is a little more clipped in the final version (or perhaps it is an interpretive decision, but who cares!)

For the later c.1719 version of the Fifth Concerto, Bach also extended the harpsichord solo in the first movement to this huge spectacular thing. Siegbert Rampe, Director of La Stravaganza, takes on the challenge and produces a performance that is unegotistical, with a cool ease that preserves the overall feel of all the performances on these discs. The Triple Concerto for Flute, Violin, Harpsichord and Strings, BWV 1044, also contains significant harpsichord solos. It is programmed before the final Fifth Concerto, and like the rest of the performances, contains too many delights to start detailing.

One interesting feature of this recording is shown in Brandenburg Concerto No.4, BWV 1049. Although, as the notes say, the solo violin has the more demanding part, while the two recorders’ are much simpler, the balance maintained throughout the CDs never emphasize one over another – everything fits nicely into the sound picture. Every note in the yearning song of the melting Andante heartfelt. It’s like being able to see every intricate detail of a Baroque fascade at once – the best way to appreciate Baroque music. Listen to the final movement to see this. Even when I close my eyes, the music of these performers pour deliciously into my ears with infinite fluidity, a combination of their jaw-dropping virtuosity and heart-gladdening musicality: Bach’s best qualities. Nectar for the ears.

An odd thing about this pair of CDs is the programme. Rather than tracking the concertos in numerical order, the first CD has Concerto No.1, No.3, No.6, then No.2. Disc 2 is tracked No.5 (early version), No.4, the Triple Concerto, ending with the final version of Concerto no.5. Strange? I don’t think it has to do with the 80-minute CD limit, since producers usually place “other” versions and “couplings” (eg. the Triple Concerto) at the end. I’m pretty sure someone thought about musical programming, often seen in the discs of the intelligent independent recording companies. It’s this way of making each work flow to the next without tiring or shocking the ear with either monotony or drastic contrast, respectively. Indeed, the sequence of concertos here is very pleasing and I’ve been feeding it to my ears every day since I bought the set – it’s the shortest 126 minutes of Bach I have ever experienced!

J.S. Bach - 1746 portrait by E.G.Haussmann The 8 pages of notes by Rampe succinctly and clearly details the stories behind the Brandenburgs, although he admits little is actually known about these masterpieces. Interestingly, Rampe takes a little dig at Philip Pickett’s controversial interpretation of the Concertos as having references to figures of Classical myth, but admits that three of the concertos do bear evidence.

This recording is a complete success, as far as my tastes are concerned. Can we have the Orchestral Suites, please? If you’re still wary over the sound of period instruments, you may have yet to hear the vast improvements of the recent years. Anyway, just listen to the incredible musicality and skill of these people! I sincerely believe that no one investing in this set will seriously regret it – this is really a total delight! There is no Germanic heaviness, no British scholastic monotony, no over-perfumed chocolate-coated thickness of many modern-instrument readings – just the sheer intellectual architecture and human inspiration of one of humanity’s greatest composers.

Those of you wondering about the mistake with Rampe’s photo at the back of the sleeve – it’s been corrected. The lobster is still on the front though. This set is available at or can be ordered from Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City), Sing Discs (Raffles City), HMV (The Heeren) or Borders (Wheelock Place).

On his desk, CHIA HAN-LEON‘s mouse glides on a Prego mousepad, competing with the keyboard, CDs, post-its, pencils and other stuff for the elusive cheese of ergonomic comfortability.

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004: 23.1.1998 Chia Han-Leon

READERS’ COMMENTS:


From: John G.Hendron / Saturday, July 28, 2001 1:24 pm:

I read with much delight Chia Han-Leon’s review of the recording of Bach’s
Brandenburg Concertos, performed by Rampe’s Stravaganza Hamburg. However, I
felt the desire to combat several points with my own views after listening.

Having bought this set on a whim, I was overtaken by Brandenburg Concerto
#1. Wow! I agree with the reviewer, this is one incredible, spontaneous
performance, certainly the most personally-authentic of all recorded.
However, my delight in the rest of the concerti was far from enthusiastic
based on two main issues: sound quality and tempi.

I am one who believes the first movement of BWV 1051 is always too slow.
This group tries to go a bit faster, but falls short of the excellence shown
by Musica Antiqua Köln in their 1986 release on DG/Archiv. The harpsichord
solo in BWV 1050 is just too fast. It’s stylistically unbalanced, and gives
the listener the impression Mr. Rampe is on some variant of narcotic. BWV
1047 comes across well, but BWV 1048 is a train wreck. The string playing is
far from good in the basses. The cello playing is so sloppy in the second
fast movement; it’s masked somewhat, however, by the poor recording. With
careful listen with headphones, you can hear in several track very obvious
editing splices. Balance also plagues the triple concerto, although I like
the tempi chosen there.

While this edition does offer some interesting points, I disagree with the
overly positive review posted. I’d appreciate if my notes could be shared in
combination with Chia Han-Leon’s otherwise excellent review.

Thanks,

John G. Hendron
United States of America


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