BACH Brandenburg Concertos. Philharmonia Virtuosi/Kapp (ESS.A.Y) – INKPOT

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

Philharmonia Virtuosi
conducted by Richard Kapp

ESS.A.Y Recordings CD1037/38
2 discs [41:49+ 54:12] full-price

by Adrian Tan
This set of the Brandenburg Concertos arrive just as it was packaged for the Margrave of Brandenburg at Carlsbad in 1718. Surely, we all receive it with much more joy than the Margrave, who did not seem to recognize the beauty of these wonderful concertos.

One cannot help but be struck by the warm sounds of the Philharmonia Virtuosi, especially in the opening movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No.1, BWV 1046. The atmosphere created is one of courtly airs and manners which must have exemplified the circumstances in which these Concertos were first performed. It starts with a gentle crescendo, leading into the thick layer of motivic structure as Kapp notes in his introduction to the “Brandenburgs”. Much thoughtful phrasing gives the music a gentle forward momentum, yet it is contained by a certain elegance that gives the music its regal demeanour.

This being the first performance on modern instruments I’m acquainted with, I think the the more refined sounds and intonation give rise to a loss in the raw quality of the musical hunt suggested by the use of the corni di caccia (or “horns of the chase”). In this movement, Bach at times gave a triplet rhythm to the horns to counteract the metrical quavers in the oboes and strings. This has an interesting effect but is regrettably not accentuated in this rendition. Also, the rustic sound of the solo bassoon is drowned by the rest, not allowing this unique timbre to contribute to the texture.

Unverified portrait of Bach, by Johann Ernst Rentsch, 1712Left: Unverified portrait of Bach (1712), by Johann Ernst Rentsch.

The second movement has commendable performances by the solo oboe and violin, backed by a transparent string and continuo accompaniment. At times coming across with lingering sadness, there is never a moment of soppiness. The horn solos on the high register are taken with great care, sometimes appearing less confident than desired. This movement is relatively easy-going, almost like an intermezzo.

The Menuetto in the final movement is taken slowly. The first trio by two oboes and bassoon exhibit the beautiful sonorous quality of this combination that the Philharmonia Virtuosi players beautifully and so skillfully demonstrate. The Polonaise features the violino piccolo, which is associated with Polish traditional music. The second trio performed by two horns and oboe is a triumph, especially highlighting the exceptional technical ability of the horn players. As a whole however, the final movement of the First Concerto is lacking in dance character, what with the slow tempos and a much too restrained feel that leads to something of an anti-climax.

Brandenburg Concerto No.2, BWV1047 adds an F-trumpet and a flute to the ensemble, and what a refreshing sound they provide! Some beautiful phrases from the competent trumpet player adds some soaring musical lines on top of impeccably precise ensemble below. Being an incredibly difficult part, I must say it is well taken indeed, if not perfect. One thing that perturbed me was one place where the flautist decided to add an obvious vibrato to make a less important counter-line stick out – unfortunately like a sore thumb.

The Andante section leaves out the trumpet, clearing the stage for the flute. Here again, the amount of vibrato used is very uncomfortable. Otherwise, there is a strong sense of musicality exuding from the soloists. The continuo part sounds strangely detached from the melodic lines, with indifferent quavers. The Allegro assai opens with a trumpet fanfare of sorts, later joined in by a solo oboe and instruments. The Philharmonia Virtuosi achieves a nice build to a bravura conclusion to the concerto.

The Philharmonia Virtuosi The first movement of Brandenburg Concerto No.3, BWV 1048 features the entire string section with harpsichord and affirms the quality of the musicians. This Concerto, after all, demands soloist qualities in every single performer in the ensemble. As a whole, Kapp leads his group (right) in a show of musicianship that surpasses most of what has already been heard. An energetic and dramatic movement, I find the tension in the build towards the end – so important an element in this quintessentially Bach music – deserving of mention.

The two-chord Adagio is filled out with an improvised harpsichord solo. The concluding Allegro is taken at a relatively quick pace as compared to previous allegros, perhaps a final show of virtuosity for the musicians. It finds so many avenues of expression in his Concerto and the musicians here meet up to the expectations of the music with great gusto. The first violin emphasises the return to the tonic in the last bar in a light-hearted manner that is to me, a gesture of triumph and one that warrants a tremendous ovation.

The addition of two flauti di echo, conventionally taken as recorders, once again dramatically changes the colour of the sound in the Brandenburg Concerto No.4, BWV 1049. Though these concertos were certainly not intended to be performed one after the other in concert-style, I certainly admire the different audio experiences that Bach has achieved, more so when listening to the movements in succession.

Richard Kapp Traditionally, it is believed that the idea of the “echo” is that the added recorders echo the principal violin part, which explains the high level of virtousic demands on the solo violin versus the relatively easier recorder parts. Yet, the recorder duo here stand their own in the opening and final movements, adding to the music’s intensity and matching the violin’s role. Kapp (left) chooses to bring up the recorder parts to equal the violin’s and this works marvellously. This gives us an all new sound and perspective on the concerto which is a breath of fresh air.

The excitement generated by this traditionally soft-spoken instrument certainly should not be underestimated. In the Andante, a recurring two-quaver rhythm gives a pondering feel to the music while the ensemble contemplates. The final run by the solo recorder reaffirms its place in the music. More and more I’m convinced that the recorders are the true stars in this work.

In the final presto fugue, the virtuosity of the violin part is astounding and our violinist carries it off wonderfully, comfortably sharing the limelight with the recorders. The “tremolo” (actually a semi-qualver rhythm) in the middle section of the solo is taken rather harshly, which produces a rather astonishing effect in the generally refined music. In all, an extremely satisfying performance of the Brandenburg Concerto No.4.

I’ve always thought that the “transverse flute” was a recorder. It is defined in the Grove as simply an older name for the flute, played horizontally. Usually considered a trio sonata for flute, violin and keyboard, the balance in this rendition of the Brandenburg Concerto No.5 favours the flute. This I find dubious because of the player’s choice to vibrato so much so consistently. In fact it seems to me that the harpsichord is disappointingly under-emphasized and is relegated to accompaniment, the big solo in the first movement notwithstanding. Modern instruments already drown it out as it is.

The Allegro tempo is once again taken at an extremely comfortable pace but does not allow the harpsichord lines to exert its horizontal push on the music. The first movement lacks motion, and lost my attention pretty soon. The final movement starts off lively too, but does not maintain its initial spurt of energy. The draggy second movement does not get better. There were also some moments of uncomfortable intonation between flute and violin that spoilt the serenity that the trio seem to want to create.

J.S. Bach - 1746 portrait by E.G.Haussmann

Right: J.S. Bach – 1746 portrait by E.G.Haussmann.

Brandenburg Concerto No.6, BWV 1051 is a “day off” for the violins as Kapp humorously states in his introduction. The feature of the viola section is yet another dimension of sound which Bach explores. The timbre of the viola de gamba adds a dry sound against the modern viola, less resonant but so much clearer. The opening has a distinct driving pulse which underlies the entire movement. The loss of the high pitch instruments takes a little getting used to, but soon, the ensemble lulls us with this full, rich timbre which subtly expresses with a gentle restraint. This is especially felt in the second movement. The last is another dance-like number which gives some prominence to the cello. The quality of the musicianship is beyond doubt and this movement achieves the dance quality intrinsic to Baroque music that is so sorely lacking in the performance of the First Concerto. Perhaps not coincidentally, this last movement recalls the regal quality and the “hunt” in the First that aptly brings the Barandenburg Concertos to a close.

Not a perfect set, but the excellent renditions of Concertos Nos. 3, 4 and 6 makes this a worthwhile addition. The Philharmonia Virtuosi is a promising ensemble though too inconsistent to make the cut as an excellent one. The output from ESS.A.Y’s Bach department is certainly worthy of note. Taking the Bach’s literature as seriously as they do, it is hard to go wrong.

On his desk, ADRIAN TANthinks we should take bach all the tasteless jokes on the great composer’s name!

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381: 4.1.1999 Adrian Tan

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