JS Bach - Brandenburg Concertos

The Europadisc Review

JS Bach - Brandenburg Concertos

Isabelle Faust (violin), Antoine Tamestit (viola), Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin

£17.96

Although only unearthed in Berlin almost a century after Bach’s death, the set of six concertos he dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, in March 1721 have since become among the most popular and well-known of all his works. They have been performed – in part or as a set – by everyone from Toscanini and Furtwängler, Karajan and Abbado, to such renowned chamber orchestras as the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, I Musici and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Benjamin Britten conducted a famous Decca recording with the English Ch... read more

Although only unearthed in Berlin almost a century after Bach’s death, the set of six concertos he dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, in March 1721 have since become among the mos... read more

JS Bach - Brandenburg Concertos

JS Bach - Brandenburg Concertos

Isabelle Faust (violin), Antoine Tamestit (viola), Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin

Although only unearthed in Berlin almost a century after Bach’s death, the set of six concertos he dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, in March 1721 have since become among the most popular and well-known of all his works. They have been performed – in part or as a set – by everyone from Toscanini and Furtwängler, Karajan and Abbado, to such renowned chamber orchestras as the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, I Musici and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Benjamin Britten conducted a famous Decca recording with the English Chamber Orchestra. And, naturally, no self-respecting period instrument ensemble would neglect to set them down at some point. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin did so for Harmonia Mundi in 1997. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, they revisit the works for the same label, justified both by the improved standard of period instruments available to today’s professionals, and by the 300th anniversary of the collection itself.

Bach compiled this set as a kind of composition portfolio for the Margrave (whose elder brother reigned as Frederick I, King in Prussia, from 1701–1713, and whose nephew was Frederick William I, the ‘Soldier King’). In doing so, he went far beyond the bounds set by the Italianate solo concerto familiar from countless examples by Vivaldi and others, indulging that peculiar Germanic taste for the ‘ensemble concerto’ with multiple soloists and, moreover, with a different scoring for each of the six works in the collection. As such, the ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos offer a unique opportunity to showcase different sections of an ensemble, in larger and smaller set-ups, representing a precious gift for groups who prize themselves on collegial music-making.

For their second recording of the set, AAM Berlin have brought onboard two outstanding soloists in their own right, violinist Isabelle Faust (in the Third and Fourth Concertos) and viola player Antoine Tamestit (in the Third and Sixth), adding further lustre to the already considerable attractions in these splendidly vivid performances. The stage is set with an impressively robust and lively account of the First Concerto, which features solo piccolo violin (played by co-leader Georg Kallweit) alongside a pair of hunting horns, three oboes and bassoon plus strings and continuo. There’s a rustic edginess to opening movement, and a good flowing tempo to the Adagio (the written-out ornamentation beautifully traced by first oboist Xenia Löffler), which makes more sense of the three-way antiphonal chords (continuo–oboes–strings) before the final cadence. In the Allegro third movement there is plenty of bounce and solo violin virtuosity; and although the Menuet is taken swiftly, it nevertheless has a courtly gait. The first Trio (for oboes and bassoon) has a wistful demeanour, the Poloinesse for strings is nicely contrasted between the main legato piano and the staccato forte outburst in the second half, while the second Trio features some astonishing horn playing from Erwin Wieringa and Miroslav Rovenský, dynamically varied from conversational to full-throated and even featuring some attractive ornamentation!

In the remaining concertos, the AAM Berlin has opted for a violone in G rather than the more conventional 16’ double bass-style instrument. This lightens the sound appreciably, bringing out the works’ chamber music qualities to far greater effect than on many rival accounts. In the Second Concerto, with its stratospheric trumpet solos, Rupprecht Drees plays his natural trumpet fearlessly but with all the nuance of a chamber musician, balancing well Christoph Huntgeburth’s mellifluous recorder, Löffler's appealingly penetrating oboe and Bernhard Forck’s sweet-toned violin; the Andante strikes the perfect balance between forward movement and expressivity, and the closing Allegro assai manages to combine excitement with a chamber-like intimacy.

For the Third Concerto, the three violin parts are taken by Faust, Forck and Kallweit, and the playing is every bit as accomplished as you’d expect from such a distinguished line-up. The shifting perspectives and possibilities of the unique 3x3 scoring (three violins, three violas and three cellos, plus continuo) are brilliantly caught, with the resonance of Berlin’s Christuskirche adding warmth to the tone. The first movement is brisk but not aggressive, the sound transparent but still satisfyingly ample, with sensitive use of agogics: those minute tweaks to rhythmic emphasis that allow the music to breathe and live. The two Adagio chords that separate the fast movements are here decorated by Faust with a brief solo cadenza, in line with current thinking. At 4’16” the concluding Allegro is one of the liveliest on disc, though thankfully not as borderline hectic as Musica Antiqua Köln’s famous 1987 account on DG Archiv.

Faust, Huntgeburth and Löffler make a dulcet trio of soloists for the joyous Fourth Concerto, with Faust superb in the spectacular virtuoso passages while never hogging the limelight: very much prima inter pares, she works  well with her co-soloists and the continuo section. There are passages in the first movement of elfin lightness (again emphasised by the 8’ continuo line); that lightness is also an important factor in the transformed sound of the central Andante, even more ethereal than usual and every bit as lovely, with melting sighs from the recorders. There’s dazzling playing from Faust again in the concluding Presto with its compelling fugal main subject (less rushed than it was in AAM Berlin's 1997 recording), balanced by some expansive rubato at key cadence points (e.g. at 2’05”), building to an especially satisfying conclusion.

The Fifth is another concerto that benefits particularly from the lighter sound-world, with harpsichordist Raphael Alpermann getting his chance to shine alongside Huntergeburth’s transverse flute and Kallweit’s violin. Once again, the balance is ideal, so that each strand is clearly perceptible, with buoyant rhythms and plenty of ‘air’ around the sound, emphasising the music’s galant flavours. Alpermann takes more time than most in building up the tension in the first movement solo cadenza before allowing the (unspecified) instrument to take flight, which means that by its final bars you really sense the ritornello bursting to return in the best possible way! The soloists-only central Affettuoso is a wonderfully dreamy affair, yet with sufficient purpose to sustain the musical trajectory; the closing gigue-like Allegro is delightfully carefree, skittish even, and without the usual ‘bump’ when the tutti strings enter.

The Sixth Concerto, with its unique scoring for pairs of violas, gambas and obbligato cello plus continuo, feels far more opulent than usual thanks to the chamber-like qualities of the preceding four works. Antoine Tamestit joins AAM Berlin's Sabine Fehlandt on the virtuoso viola lines, tossing their closely canonic lines to and fro in the first movement, supported by the evocative, ringing tones of the gambas; describing splendidly long-arched lines in the central Adagio ma non tanto, with some tasteful ornamentation along the way; and combining an infectiously dance-like gigue with more canonic episodes in the brilliant closing Allegro. It caps a performance of these famous works that ranks among the very best in the catalogue, superseding the group’s earlier account and setting new standards for sheer joy in music-making as well as for its individual and ensemble virtuosity.

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