The joy of Bach

Nick Shave relishes the English Baroque Soloists' performance of all the Brandenburg Concertos 

'Why Vivaldi is hugely popular always slightly baffles me because I think he’s a rather boring composer compared with Bach,' mused John Eliot Gardiner before a live Radio 3 audience, explaining his reasons for staging all six Brandenburg Concertos at London’s Cadogan Hall.

A recital of such well-rehearsed repertoire could so easily descend into routine, but the vibrancy and virtuosity of his English Baroque Soloists – combined with a few well-chosen words from Gardiner himself – made for two edifying daytime concerts (Nos 1, 6 and 4, followed an hour later by Nos 3, 5 and 2).

In the regal hunting party of Concerto No. 1, the two – as Gardiner saw it – ‘hooligan’ horns, ‘still sweaty from the hunt’, gatecrashed the ensemble’s conversation from the gallery above, before joining the main stage to mingle politely. The last movement was extended to include a reprise of part of the first, ‘Because, it’s just such a downer to end on the Menuet,’ Gardiner later explained, ‘and I just love the first movement so much.’

Rhythmic alertness throughout underlined his contention that the propulsions of Vivaldi can be as vibrant, if not more so, in Bach. Beautifully breathed slow movements, too, evinced how Bach takes Venetian lyricism to new heights, as Gardiner sees it, ‘beating Vivaldi at his own game’.

Violinist Kati Debretzeni, the lead soloist behind this project, made impressively light work of the virtuosic solos in Concerto No. 4, also providing a solo cadenza movement – where Bach only indicates a few chords – at the Centre of No. 3, neatly linking the two outer movements.

Among other outstanding soloists, harpsichordist Malcolm Proud moved stealthlike into the foreground of No. 5 and trumpeter Neil Brough somehow hit the high-altitude cues of No. 2 (without the aid of modern-day valves).

But this was a performance in which the players, all of them strong solo voices, formed something much greater than the sum of their parts. Because they are playable without a conductor, Gardiner has resisted taking on these chamber works in the past. He described himself as a 'primus iter parus' [first among peers], there to keep the rhythm in check and to balance the solo voices, conducting only in Concertos Nos 4, 1, and 2. But with Debretzeni quietly in charge, there was also a strong sense that Gardiner was, like each of the Soloists, quite simply indulging in the sheer joy of bringing Bach’s music vibrantly to life.

Proms Saturday Matinees 1 & 2: Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos 1-6
English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner

Nick Shave is a freelance music writer, critic, and contributing editor to BBC Music Magazine. He has spent many happy summers reviewing the Proms, but is still prone to a loss of bearings when choosing the quickest way round the Royal Albert Hall.

 

Related links:
Review: John Eliot Gardiner conducts Bach's Advent Cantatas
Review: Bach's Brandenburg Concertos from the Camerata of the 18th century
Review: Bach's Brandenburg Concertos from the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra