by Andy Fawcett
Completed in March 1721, during Bach’s residency at Cöthen, and dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg (probably as a discrete job application, which proved unsuccessful), I wonder whether this unique set of six Concertos hasn’t caused almost as much perplexity as pleasure over the centuries since! Works published as a set might be expected to have a binding theme or common motif; yet in their widely varying length, form and instrumentation appears to lie an almost perverse determination to ensure that they display the widest possible divergence. And this from the staid mathematician and arch-rationalist who sought perfection of harmony and form in the Well Tempered Clavier and Art of Fugue – something just doesn’t seem to add up. Two recent releases have provided me with some answers to these mysteries, and fresh insights into both this wonderful music and Bach himself.
For almost 25 years, my reference has been the ground-breaking 1982 period instrument version by Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert (Archiv 2742 003), my vinyl copy of which still offers very fine sound. During 2006 and 2007, Pinnock assembled the European Brandenburg Ensemble from a hand-picked group of musicians and returned to these works. Acknowledging the potential charge of self-indulgence, he cites a change in his attitude to Bach over the intervening quarter-century; “whereas in 1982 I stood in awe of Bach’s discipline and order, today I relish his sense of daring and musical subversion”. This supports a general trend I have observed in period instrument recordings over recent years. There has been a clear movement away from the dry, austere (and, if I may make so bold, occasionally rather joyless) authenticism pioneered by Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the Seventies; a time when substantial scholarly research was dedicated to replicating the precise size and constitution of the original performing group, and the tempos they would have observed. While current practice places similar reliance upon the special sonorities of antique instruments and the performing practices they entail, the emphasis seems to have shifted towards making music that’s unapologetically appealing to the modern ear.
That said, however, I simply don’t hear any great difference between Pinnock’s two performances. Granted, tempos are a little quicker throughout in the newer recording, and the playing somewhat improved, with odd moments of rhythmic waywardness and poor articulation in the original performance banished. For this listener, though, the experience engendered by the music is much the same. Disappointingly, the quality of the recording has taken a step backwards compared to my original vinyl (though obviously I’m not comparing apples to apples); the LP’s spacious, natural acoustic replaced by a more forward, slightly brash presentation … something of a surprise, given that several other releases I’ve heard on the Avie label have all sounded excellent. Recommendable, certainly … but revelatory? No.
Another founding father of the English period instrument movement, John Eliot Gardiner, has waited until now to record the Brandenburgs – partly because, as he admits in his liner notes, beyond Concertos 1 and 2 they are performed by the ensemble without direction, rendering his contribution largely redundant. However, Gardiner’s much-awarded Bach Cantata Pilgrimage during the course of the year 2000 (in which his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists performed all of the sacred Cantatas on their appointed days in the Church calendar, in venues across Europe and the US) has propelled him to the forefront of current Bach performance and interpretation. He does, indeed, bring a new angle to this music – and that is the primacy of the dance rhythms that underpin it. So inured is any lover of early music to seeing movements labelled minuet, gavotte, passepied etc. that we easily forget the very specific dances from which they originated; yet Gardiner, even beyond that, sees in these Concertos “the Baroque equivalent of jazz, or even rock ‘n roll”, and asserts that “when it comes to hitting a propulsive rhythmic groove, no-one is a match for J S Bach”!
Give yourself as much time as you need to recover from the idea of Gardiner as a rocker (I particularly like to envisage him clad in a leather jacket, sneering “What am I rebelling against? What have you got?”), because when the music starts you’ve got another shock coming. Sure enough, the very rapid tempos and the irresistible rhythmic impetus surging through this performance are a revelation – as is the extraordinary quality of the playing. Despite a degree of commonality in personnel across both recordings (including the amazing Kati Debretzeni on solo violin), Gardiner draws more from his forces; with greater care given to the precise deployment of players on the stage, and a more open texture to the recording, it is also possible to hear further into the music’s structure. For me, that was the key to a much fuller comprehension of what Bach had attempted here … and how magnificently he achieved it. In realising six entirely individual definitions of what was then the relatively new and still formative Concerto genre; in combining the latest Italian influences with the older French and German traditions; in writing prominently both for the then-novel transverse flute and for the viola da gamba, as it passed into obscurity; one begins to see the germ of the same passion for systematisation and calculation, for order, for enumerating all of the possibilities inherent in a musical format that he explored in the monumental works of his later life.
I don’t intend to dissect the individual concertos here but, for those who may not be familiar with them, provide a couple of examples to illustrate the points raised above. A bizarre solo group is featured in the Second Concerto – trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin – and it is a testimony to Bach’s skill that he is able to mesh the diverse tonalities of these instruments so sublimely. He extends a brutal technical challenge to the players by requiring each to repeat in turn the melody played by the last, while maintaining an overall balance that defies the very different volume capabilities of their instruments. This requires a special technique from the trumpeter, particularly, to play with a sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the others, and Neil Brough is conspicuously successful in this – despite the tempo being so fast that one would think it beyond human capacity to cleanly articulate the flurry of notes on a valveless instrument!
Almost as improbable is the ensemble chosen for the Sixth concerto, with two violas backed by a cello, harpsichord, bass and a pair of viola da gambas – interestingly, at Cöthen these would likely have been played by Bach’s employer, the Prince, and by Carl Friedrich Abel, generally considered the last gamba virtuoso, who later teamed up in London with Bach’s son, Johann Christian. Lacking any of the traditional Concerto solo instruments, the resulting sound is sumptuously bass-rich and chocolatey! Even here, though, an infectious, throbbing rhythm is heard to be driving the music. It is known that Bach was much affected by his earlier encounter with Vivaldi’s Opus 3 Concertos (L’estro armonico); yet typical performing practices would lead many today to see the two composers as representing opposite extremes of the Baroque. The Gardiner discs help us to reconcile this position, to hear clearly the influence of the Venetian upon the German.
Gardiner’s set is packaged in a natty hardbacked booklet format with very good liner notes (including interesting performing perspectives from the musicians themselves), though in practical terms the open cardboard pockets for the discs are unkind to their surfaces, and provide no protection from dust. That’s really the only negative I can find in a marvellous release that carries my highest recommendation!
Trevor Pinnock / European Brandenburg Ensemble Avie AV2119
Play times: Disc1 – 51:49 Disc2 - 42:34
John Eliot Gardiner / English Baroque Soloists SDG707
Play times: Disc1 – 41:32 Disc2 - 50:32