The Brandenburg Concertos are breathtaking in their instrumentation, counterpoint and orchestral texture. Here are recordings that bring out the best in these wonderful works
The Brandenburg Concertos are one of the greatest musical CVs ever assembled. In 1721 Bach dedicated his score – in flowery French – to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, not in fulfilment of a commission but more as a thinly disguised application for employment at the Margrave’s court.
The title ‘Brandenburg Concertos’ was dreamed up in the 19th century by Bach’s first biographer but, in fact, they were never conceived as a set nor intended specifically for the Margrave – Bach selected them from his back catalogue of works written while Kapellmeister at the court of Cöthen (1717-23).
Their wide-ranging instrumentation and virtuoso demands were designed to showcase Cöthen’s outstanding instrumentalists, whose talents seem to have spurred Bach on to explore the potential of the concerto form itself which he reinvented with each new work.
The best recording
Rinaldo Alessandrini (director)
Concerto Italiano (2005)
There are recordings of the Brandenburgs to suit every mood and taste, but while many conductors strive for a certain consistency of approach within their sets, Rinaldo Alessandrini sees each concerto as a new challenge requiring individually tailored solutions.
The essence of his set is not just variety between concertos but also within them, with a wide expressive range which nevertheless avoids attention-seeking novelty.
No. 1 comes off particularly well by contrasting a galloping first movement with an unexpectedly luxuriant and beautifully inflected slow movement, while in the final dash of dance movements the Polonaise is singled out for unusually mellow treatment.
Alessandrini never drives the music too hard, bending to the lilt of the dance and prizing supple elasticity and meaningful rhetorical gestures over mechanical rhythms and mindless speeding.
Every concerto balances the instruments differently. In Nos 1 and 2 the brass grab the limelight and deliver their parts with spittle-rattling glee, while in No. 5 Alessandrini, as soloist, is careful to balance his harpsichord with the gentler solo flute and violin.
This set offers an irresistibly expansive and effusive approach, right down to the immediacy of the recording and the vast breadth of the sound.
Three more great recordings
Trevor Pinnock (director)
European Brandeburg Ensemble (2007)
Pinnock’s set offers elegant simplicity, directness of expression and consistency of approach. Here, Bach’s world is a neat and well-ordered place, with unhurried speeds and crisp articulation which carefully elucidate the musical argument and guard against exaggeration and mannerism.
This lightness of touch doesn’t imply a lack of emotional weight: the poignant violin and oboe solos in the slow movement of No. 1 are lovingly caressed, though the improvised cadenza in the middle of No. 3 feels more like an interruption than a connection between movements.
Resolutely clear and un-sensational, these performances un-complicate the Brandenburgs, and their transparent textures make Bach’s engaging part-writing a joy to follow. The high polish of the playing is matched by a similarly precise recording.
Café Zimmermann (2001-11)
Of the many Brandenburgs embedded in box sets of Bach’s orchestral works, Café Zimmermann’s are the most revealing and rewarding.
Recorded gently over ten years, what this set offers above all is a level of chamber-like intimacy which eludes even Alessandrini and Pinnock. Directed from the first violin, and playing one to a part, these performers draw us in with their warm-heartedness and strong personal involvement in the music.
The solo playing is wonderfully relaxed – more a conversation than a contest between players – while the end of No. 1 shows just how exciting the entire orchestra can be at full throttle.
Exceptionally rich and atmospheric recorded sound, too.
Christopher Hogwood (director)
Academy of Ancient Music (1984)
Decca 455 7002
If you already own a recording of the Brandenburgs, but are on the look-out for a different perspective, Christopher Hogwood’s 1984 recording still has much to offer.
It remains the only set to present the concertos in their early versions, before Bach revised them for the Margrave in 1721.
We can hear No. 1 in its three-movement ‘Sinfonia’ form, and No. 5 comes with Bach’s original pithy harpsichord cadenza in the final movement.
In such familiar works even the smallest changes to melodic figuration, rhythm and articulation stand out, but best of all is the unbelievably jaunty countermelody which originally accompanied the horns in the second Trio of No. 1.
This recording helped pioneer one-to-a-part performance in these pieces and, despite a few moments of emotional coolness, it has stood the test of time remarkably well.
And one to avoid
Jordi Savall (director)
Le Concert des Nations (1991)
Jordi Savall usually ensures thrilling rhythmic vitality and elegantly-inflected ensemble playing, but these Brandenburgs from 1991 never quite catch fire.
Despite first-rate soloists among his Le Concert des Nations, there’s an ordinariness to the phrasing and articulation which sometimes borders on the dull.
In the opening of No. 2 the four soloists sound disconnected, and in the bigger concertos the recording lacks the focus and immediacy which the complexity of the music demands.