INKPOT#69 CLASSICAL MUSIC FEATURE: BACH The Orchestral Suites – Recommended Recordings

The Four Orchestral Suites.
Akademie fr Alte Musik Berlin (Academy for Ancient Music, Berlin)

2 discs [48:49+48:54] full-price. Recorded Sep 1995 (released 1996; reissued 1999).
Also separately on HMC 901578S (Suites 1 & 3) and HMC 901579S (Suites 2 & 4).

Let the Germans play German musick! These are very detailed performances, with much personality injected into them. The Third Suite opens with some coarse tone, though that is thankfully taken over by a fine rendition of the Overture’s main body. The Air is given a tender reading, contrasting with the vivid momentum of the fast movements. Like in the Fourth Suite, the timpani thunder while punching trumpets penetrate the Baroque architecture with brilliant precision. The heavier movements have strength and weight, and yet the daintier Menuets maintain their grace.

After the military splendour of the Fourth Suite, the Akademie completely change tone in their reading of the Second by reducing their numbers to eight (one part each). The Overture is thus marked with much chamber delicacy. Flutist Ernst-Burghard Hilse maintains his place within the octet nicely, preserving much intimacy throughout. The flute-cello duet of the Polonaise sounds really appropriate, and even the deliberately moderate tempo taken for the Badinerie is totally convincing.

The recording reveals quite a few details (and probably embellishments) I don’t recall hearing in other versions. The First Suite for example, demonstrates its weaving lines readily, an added bonus to the thoroughly Lullyian atmosphere the Akademie achieve. A very fine and nuanced reading of this Suite.

Quite expensive for 98 minutes of music, but an educational experience nonetheless. Most suitable for collectors looking for a refreshing interpretation.

The Four Orchestral Suites. Sinfonias from Cantatas BWVs 42, 52, 174 and 249. “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” – opening chorus from Cantata BWV 110.
The English Concert directed by Trevor Pinnock

2 discs [64:15+56:24] full-price.
Recorded Jul 1993 and Nov 1994 (released 1995).

I must confess I have never heard in full the supposedly classic recordings of the Suites the English Concert did prior to this one, and for the same label. What I do happily know is this new set is an extremely satisfying one. Not only are the four Suites presented in sparkling, clear sound and interpretations, but we are given a handful of bonuses: the joyous opening chorus of Cantata 110, a choral setting of the Overture of Suite No.4! – and four cantata sinfonias, of which that of BWV 174 is a brilliantly expanded version of the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No.3, with brass and woodwinds! Genius stuff!

The performance of Suite No.1 is lively and pointed, with nice and bright tone from the orchestra. From here to the end, much of that important ingredient – the French galante – is evident, but the Amsterdam Baroque version (below) is even more beautiful. Suite No.2 obviously depends much on the calibre of its solo flutist. Here we have none other than the very best of the English Baroque flutists, Lisa Beznosiuk. Her fluid tone and articulation puts the modern flute to shame, her interpretation sensible and musical. Sample her beautifully embellished solo in the Polonaise for starters.

An interesting thing I encountered in these readings is how at first the EC might sound like they need to inject a little more drive into the music, but as things go on, the momentum really picks up and I find myself bobbing my head along with them. Examples include the (main bodies of the) Overtures of Suites No.4 and No.3. Indeed, Suite No.4 opens and closes with dignity and oomph, with trumpets thrusting nicely. Pinnock injects a satisfying sense of momentum throughout what is a graceful yet pointed reading.

Everywhere the English Concert under their director Trevor Pinnock demonstrate their capacity for flowing grace (especially in the moderate dances) as well as precise and intelligent dramatics. The spirit of the dance is well caught without overindulgence. The DG sound is clean with ample body; the instrumental lines weave clearly around each other, sometimes springing out with that special Baroque flavour. All in all a highly desirable set.

The Four Orchestral Suites. Double-Harpsichord Concerti in C minor, BWVs 1060 & 1062
The Academy of Ancient Music
directed by Christopher Hogwood. (With Christophe Rousset harpsichord)

DECCA Double (L’Oiseau Lyre)
2 discs [63:23+60:03] budget-price.
Recorded from Mar 1985-Feb 1988 (reissued 1998).

Although the performances here are generally fine and sensible in the Hogwoodian tradition, what it loses out is the last ounce of refinement in instrumental tone and recording engineering. Still, these Generation 2 period performances were quite significant in the 80s. Now, reissued at budget-price with two beautiful double-harpsichord concerti (recorded in better sound) thrown in, they are worth considering.

But having said all that, the set starts off a little stiff. The First Suite as performed here lacks fluidity. Although the rhythm is there, it is closer to the German, heavier-footed variety, lacking the French grace of the EC version above. No match for the English Concert or the Amsterdam Baroque. Suite No.2 is also served by Lisa Beznosiuk. The relatively earlier style shows, as the Polonaise solo is performed unembellished. Nevertheless, the sequence of the last three movements is quite well-moulded, ending with an atmospheric and well-crafted Badinerie. Hogwood’s rendition of the Fourth Suite is for me the most successful in this set. The Overture dances and springs forward with energy, while the Bourre and Gavotte proceed with dignity at just the right pace.

The two discs were once available separately at mid-price before Decca assimilated L’Oiseau Lyre into its collective [sob]. Of these, I have always treasured the second which coupled Suites Nos.3 and 4 (L’Oiseau Lyre 443 182-2). Hogwood and the AAM give finely paced and exciting accounts of both Suites’ fast movements. Trumpets and drums come to the fore when they are required, as in the Gavotte of the Third Suite. This version of the Air, recorded in March 1985, has been called one of the first to demonstrate how a period orchestra can make period strings sound good, though it is now no match for more recent versions.

The Four Orchestral Suites
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
directed by Ton Koopman

2 discs [40:48+46:36] full-price. Recorded Feb-Mar 1988.

In our efforts to complicate life’s myriad choices, let us now deal with this extremely enjoyable 1982 Gramophone Award-winning collection of the Suites. They are performed by the ever-reliable Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, directed by a conductor whose sense of phrasing in Bach’s music remains one of the best I’ve ever heard. Koopman’s tempo and dynamic shadings are very musical and satisfying; nudging the lines ever so lightly, his rendition of the Air begins to dance the lightest of dances even as it floats serenely through aural heaven.

Here is pointed playing which nevertheless draws out the music with lilting rhythm and honey-smooth voice. Chords strum with ample body, and the brass ring out majestically in the Fourth Suite – the Bourre and Gavotte blazes with gleaming grandeur. Instrumental lines (eg. the First Suite’s Gavottes and Menuets ) really dance. Koopman’s rendition of the First Suite, a more smoothly lilting version than the English Concert’s, ranks highest on my lists. However, this smoothing manner has the effect of making parts of the Second Suite sound closer in spirit to Gluck (say Dance of the Blessed Spirits), or perhaps French rococo, which is not necessarily inappropriate but I was looking for more . The Badinerie is fast but this time rushes rather than dances. Valid interpretations nonetheless.

As is charactertistic of Ton Koopman’s style, the harpsichord continuo from which he leads is filled with glittering embellishments to provide a fresh perspective to the music, especially when they occasionally modify the harmony. (In fact, in the Second Suite, I find it more interesting to hear his part than the flute’s!). To add to that, the Orchestra responds with unexpected and thus surprising and delightful turns of phrases here and there. The tempi Koopman chooses are without exception just right for the music. The clean recording, with a nice bloom surrounding the basses and drums, captures everything beautifully – the most intricate architecture of interweaving instrumental lines (esp. strings) are remarkably clear. Basically there is such a sense of beauty in these performances, and Koopman’s ability to unify the Suites’ individual movements – like symphonies – is very admirable.

Harmonia Mundi and Deutsche Harmonia Mundi discs can be found or ordered from HMV (The Heeren) or Borders (Wheelock Place). Decca and Archiv records are readily available from the above as well as Sing Discs (Raffles City) and Tower (Pacific Plaza and Suntec City).

Chia Han-Leon did in fact attempt to play the flute parts from the Second Suite.

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