BACH Brandenburg Concertos Nos.1, 2, 3 and 6. Cologne CO/Müller-Brühl – INKPOT
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmit Müller-Brühl
This album is part of a complete set of orchestral works of Johann Sebastian Bach in the year of his sesquibicentennial, freshly recorded and released by Naxos. The other albums in this eight-disc set include the complete concertos for oboe, violins and harpsichord, orchestral suites and of course, the remaining Brandenburgs Four and Five.
This is a brilliant disc, in more ways than one. The most striking quality immediately apparent upon listening is the first-class distinction of the sound. The music was recorded at the Deutschland Radio studios in Cologne, and each of the instrumental parts comes through with speckless quality, in very clearly distinguishable layers of varying timbres – rather than huge plasticine of sound sometimes encountered in ensemble playing.
The first two movements of Brandenburg No.1 are fairly nondescript; they are taken briskly with nicely lifted rhythms, but otherwise unremarkable. The third movement, however, is very lively, with sparkling harpsichord and frisky ripieno-concertino interplay. The same goes for the last movement, where the second Trio section finds the woodwind soli full of merriment.
Brandenburg No.2 is exuberant, with the thrust-and-parry of the four solo instruments (trumpet, recorder, oboe, violin) coming very much to the fore. With all the solo parts equally shared and balanced, there is no undue emphasis on any instrument, excepting perhaps the forwardly-placed harpsichord, which is unusual.
The tempo is admittedly fast, bordering on the hectic, yet in Müller-Brühl’s hands it is stylishly attractive. Eschewing the heavy Germanic tradition, which sometimes makes Bach sound like a lumbering Jumbo, this reading nigh resembles a squadron of precision aerobatic jets zooming to and fro in perfect formation.
There is a slight rubato at the end of the first movement, which comes as an interesting twist to an otherwise familiar thread. The Andante is also faster than normal, the sinuous music unwinding with much presentiment. The last movement brings the inspired performance to a delightful conclusion.
Brandenburg No.3, like number two, is also taken at speed – albeit sounding very much rushed, much in the current vogue of period performance. On modern instruments here, there is the impalpable homogeneity of their tempered timbres blending into each others: I found myself yearning for the abrasive tang and bite associated with authentic instruments.
Nonetheless, here is an instance where the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. Robert Hill, who has joined this recording project on the harpsichord concertos and is also featured prominently on another German label’s Bachakademie, makes a guest appearance in Number Three. The good professor is very much in top form on his favoured instrument – a critical component in any baroque chamber performance – and indulges us with a ear-teasing cadenza, usually omitted in most other recordings, between the two fast movements.
An altogether different sound quality, a huskier timbre, is presented by Brandenburg No.6, because it contains no violin parts, but rather restricts itself to the mid-range instruments – here characterized by a pair of violas da gamba, a pair of violas, cello and basso continuo. The rhythm is provided by an absolutely relentless and pulsating drive on the ground bass from the pair of low instruments.
The musical argument throughout is con spirito and there is something to be said for the vissicitudes of period performance, even when applied to modern instruments. The last movement has a delightful little dance-like character.
I’ll tell you what: the Second or Sixth Brandenburg alone would be worth the price of admission to this disc; the Robert Hill cadenza in the Third is also not to be missed while you’re at it. If there is one issue, and this is really clutching at straws to find criticism, it is that the orchestral write-up in the sleeve notes could have been divided down into more paragraphs than kept as one big solid chunk – but even this is an editorial-production issue and not performance-related.
A final caveat: it is conceivable that greater exposure to these hectic speeds – after a longer period of listening, that is – could make the music wearisome. In the same vein, it could be argued also that repeated listening would accustom one to these tempi. Different strokes, then, for different folks.
Certainly, nothing should be taken away from the smashing brilliance of this performance, and all for under ten dollars (or the equivalent where you live.) Even if you already have these items – and who doesn’t ? – this is worth expanding your collection for. Run, don’t walk, to your classical vendor.
BENJAMIN CHEE reckons that a writer’s best friend is the paragraph.
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840: 11.11.2000 Benjamin Chee
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