Bach: Brandenburg Concertos

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Brandenburg Concertos
PERFORMER: Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
CATALOGUE NO: 1151-52
The Brandenburgs are always a joy to hear. And they offer an additional pleasure – the chance to speculate. Are they elaborate allegories, studded with intimations of mortality, as Philip Pickett suggested? Can Bach’s frequent disruptions of established musical hierarchies be seen as a commentary on the Baroque social order, as Michael Marissen pondered in his book on the concertos?

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I was slightly disappointed that Marissen’s notes to Masaaki Suzuki’s Brandenburgs focus solely on questions of form, specifically Bach’s various adaptations of the Vivaldian tutti-ritornello/concertino-episode concerto model. I was initially disappointed, too, with Suzuki’s performances, which at first hearing seemed unduly diffident – perhaps because he’s chosen a relatively low pitch standard – A=392Hz – which takes a little brightness from the sound (though it’s probably the pitch Bach used at Cöthen).

Subsequent hearings have unveiled the set’s positive aspects, including fine soloists (notably Ryo Terakado), tidy ensembles and well-sprung rhythms. There are even a few flamboyant touches – the second concerto’s notoriously high tromba part (Toshio Shimada, on a coiled trumpet he built himself); the exhilarating speed of the third concerto’s final movement – but mostly the set retains a thoughtful, orderly air. Some listeners will be won over, as I was; others may prefer a more extrovert approach.

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There are dozens of Brandenburg recordings currently available. Sets by Anthony Halstead, Sigiswald Kuijken and Philip Pickett offer much to enjoy. But my top choice is Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, whose wonderfully fluent, vivid and intelligent performances I continue to find utterly beguiling. Graham Lock