Bach: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Berlin Classics
WORKS: Orchestral Suites, BWV 1066-1069
PERFORMER: Concerto Köln


This democratic group, of equals without a conductor, has earned a fine reputation over 25 years for animated, stylish performance. Here Concerto Köln makes its mark among a host of recordings through the players’ meticulous attention to detail – new subtleties struck me at each repeated listening. 

The group has also assumed that the passion in German courts for all things French could ensure that Bach might have had woodwind and brass instruments at low French pitch. This eases the strain of the high trumpets in Suites Nos 3 and 4, and lends a delicacy and lightness to the dance movements. The players play dotted rhythms with a lot of ‘air’ – bows off the string and lightly tongued wind – creating stately opening slow sections to the Ouvertures and delightfully elegant gavottes. 

Their technical fluency is striking, the Gigue ending No. 3 the fastest of all the recordings on my shelves, bassoon scampering fearlessly through the woodwind concerto-like sections of the first Ouverture, and solo flute effortless in the B minor suite. (Ensemble Sonnerie’s oboe version, released on Avie AV 2171, is a fascinating alternative). It’s invidious to pick a high spot, but I’ve never enjoyed the First Suite more, ideally balanced in both engineering and playing, woodwind trio brightly soloistic in their episodes and warmly integrated with strings elsewhere. 


In Suites Nos 3 and 4, trumpets are a touch dominant, and the first violins in the Third’s Ouverture don’t offer the penetrating solo prominence ideally needed in what’s effectively a concerto at times. But such niggles aside, this is a first-rate set from beginning to end. George Pratt