I was listening to a recording of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041, on WQXR, a public radio station in Manhattan. I was impressed by the beauty of tone of the Baroque violin, played by Petra Mullejans, a concert master of the Freiburger Barockorchester. Her command of the violin was captivating. I requested the CD from Harmonia Mundi. While on the Harmonia Mundi website, I noticed the aforementioned ensemble had issued many recordings, one of which is Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, released in March of 2014. I requested this set of CDs, too.
Prior to writing this review I researched Baroque performance characteristics. I discovered there are differences between English, French, Italian and German Baroque styles.
The score of the Brandenburgs has no indications as to dynamics. I am quite familiar with this composition and, therefore, did not expect to experience any significant dynamic contrasts. I was wrong. As I began my audition of this 2 CD set, I first listened to the first concerto. Somewhere during the first movement, I discerned an increase in loudness. I grabbed my Radio Shack SPL meter, set it at 70 DB, and measured a swing of over 20 DB, i.e., from 60 DB to more than 80 DB. I also noted changes in micro dynamics, as I heard variations in loudness from a violin and a trumpet.
Soundstage was always very wide, spanning the entire wall behind my speakers, with precise instrument location. I could hear all instruments distinctly, even as some were playing louder than others, as well as noting foreground and background relationships, between the concertino and the ripieno. In addition, as a consequence of the high level of resolution and instrumental separation, I heard the articulation of the double bass, as well as greater bass presence.The effect was to add warmth and fullness to the sound of the ensemble.
The concertino is a group of instruments, which have solo parts within each concerto. One hears them in the foreground, while the rest of the ensemble (the ripieno) acts as accompanying instruments in the background.
Considering the size of the ensemble—no more than about 20 musicians playing per concerto, I did not expect to observe much depth. Where depth was noticeable was during the second movement of the fourth concerto.
Perhaps the most notable character of the sound, which in my opinion qualifies it as an “audiophile” recording, was the combination of extremely high levels of resolution, in conjunction with accurate timbre and a full-bodied instrument perspective. In this respect, this recording is one of a handful in my experience which can present the fullness of a baroque trumpet and the natural, but somewhat thin sound of a Baroque violin. The Baroque violins emphasized string tone relative to the sound of the vibrating wood body. Light pressure on the bow did not cause much vibration of the wood body.
The effect of the naturalness of instrumental timbre with the revelation of detail of articulation and intonation of all instruments, created the illusion that one was listening to the ensemble fairly close to the musicians at the recording venue. I will add, that on this occasion, my favorite instrument, the harpsichord was not masked or buried by the sound of other instruments—kudos to the recording engineer.
Frequency response was always balanced, and I could not detect any flaws of a sonic nature.
The Freiburger Barockorchester’s performance followed most of the protocols of standard German Baroque style. The ensemble was precise and cohesive avoiding the slurring of notes.
The Baroque violinists applied light pressure to the strings, creating a staccato effect, throughout most of the concertos. While there were some instances of legato, I observed them mainly during the playing of the fourth concerto.
The melodic line of each concerto was very clear and transparent, a result of tight ensemble playing and superior sound quality of the recording, and there were no abrupt changes in tempo.
The solos in each concerto were executed with a high degree of skill and virtuosity, especially at faster tempos. It is a credit to the professionalism of the ensemble to play difficult passages, while preserving the melodic line, maintaining constancy of rhythm and compsure, and avoiding errors, especially at a fast pace.
Compared to other versions of the Brandenburg Concertos, ornamentation was less frequent, shorter in duration more subtle, and less ostentatious. Violins, recorders and the harpsichord were the instruments which usually exhibited ornamentation.
Tempos within each movement rarely varied, except during the third movement of the fourth concerto, resulting in a continuous rhythmic pulse.
Tempos were slightly faster than usual. I compared timings of each concerto between The Freiburger’s version and those of other versions. I discovered that on average, The Freiburger Barockorchester was one minute faster on each concerto. The increased speed created a bracing and spirited feeling and was most stimulating, but might require careful attention from a listener, unfamiliar with these concertos, to observe subtle details and ornamentation effects. I had no difficulty following all aspects of the performance, in spite of the faster tempos.
After listening to all six concertos, I had the impression that the performers were restraining themselves, avoiding dazzling virtuosity, pyrotechnics, or dramatic displays of technique (unless scored), to avoid distracting the listener and keeping the attention on the melodic content of the music. It is also possible that their stylistic approach was based upon their artistic vision of how the music should be performed.
There was one occasion where an instrumentalist displayed excellent technique and virtuousity, especially playing at a fast tempo. I am of course referring to the cadenza during the first movement of the fifth concerto. Playing so fast, the harpsichordist demonstrated his fleet and accurate fingers during a brilliantly played solo, which was first improvised by Bach and then scored.