JS Bach: Brandenburg concertos

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Brandenburg Concertos Nos 1-6 BMV 1046-1051
PERFORMER: Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
CATALOGUE NO: 478 2191

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The Brandenburgs present a unique challenge of balance – horns and oboes threatening piccolo violin (No. 1), solo harpsichord easily suppressed by flute and violin (No. 5) and, most testing of all, recorder vying with trumpet, oboe and violin (No. 2).

Since Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s ground-breaking 1964 recording with Concentus Musicus Wien, we’ve appreciated the special tonal compatibility of period instruments, so it’s particularly interesting to find Riccardo Chailly applying period techniques – lively tempos, light, off-string bowing, a handful of players – to the modern-instrument Gewandhausorchester.

The results are captivating: each of the strings, in solos or groups, stands out in turn in the opening movement of No. 3; the chamber scale of No. 4 works well; No. 6 is the most arresting of all, not least for the effortless ease of its high violas.

But where instruments are less generically related, the old problems reappear. Despite commendable restraint, trumpet and penetrating oboe swamp recorder and quiet solo violin in No. 2, and at modern high pitch, the trumpet’s top register is searing.

By contrast, the Andante, without trumpet or orchestral strings, is pure chamber music. In No. 5, the harpsichord is hard-pressed to match flute and violin, but here the fault is with recording balance – as the keyboard bursts forth in the cadenza, it becomes clear that it’s placed behind the rest.

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Much to enjoy, but no match for Trevor Pinnock’s inspired recording, his 60th birthday celebration with the hand-picked European Brandenburg Ensemble. George Pratt