COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Soli Deo Gloria
WORKS: The Brandenburg Concertos
PERFORMER: English Baroque Soloists/Kati Debretzeni (violin/leader), John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: SDG 707
Here, at last, is a set of Brandenburg Concertos whose constituent elements are pretty well uniformly satisfying and which is proving to be a constant delight. It is not only that the playing is almost consistently excellent, but also that the performers, individually and corporately, enter Bach’s dialogue with such eloquently measured declamation.
Bach composed at a time when expressive fervour, ornament and colour were common to all aspects of art. Yet all too often in performances today, even by ‘authentic’ groups, late Baroque music has suffered from a style of delivery in which inflection and punctuation are subsumed by a remorseless rhythmic pulse so that the music’s argument and conversational charm is lost.
(Some readers may recall by way of analogy the catastrophic radio broadcast by Norman Hunter’s fictional Professor Branestawm!)
John Eliot Gardiner has sensibly and appropriately restricted his role of conductor to the first two concertos of the set. The remaining four he has entrusted to his excellent instrumental group under its leader, the solo violinist Kati Debretzeni. Whether conducted or not, all the concertos benefit from apt choice of tempos – for instance, the Menuet of Concerto No. 1 is perfectly judged, serving as a reminder of how absurdly fast this courtly dance par excellence has become in most performances.
And Kati Debretzeni deserves the highest praise: her phrasing, punctuation and inflective charm contain all the communicative apparatus of the finest oratory, bringing, to my ears at least, something entirely fresh to this sublime music. Try her solo role in the Fourth Concerto for an illuminating example of what I mean. She also deserves a pat on the back for not usurping, as so many violinists do, a true viola player’s place in the Sixth Concerto, which is here led by Jane Rogers.
In the Fifth Concerto harpsichordist Malcolm Proud offers a rhythmically taut and tastefully virtuosic account of Bach’s extended first movement solo and, with Debretzeni and flautist Rachel Beckett, sustains a tenderly expressive dialogue in the second movement Affettuoso.
Trumpeter Neil Brough’s athletic and discreetly voiced playing in the Second Concerto is comfortably on a par with that of Gabriele Cassone in a fine rival set by Il Giardino Armonico (Teldec-Warner 2564 69812-3), and the concertante balance – potentially tricky with trumpet combining with recorder – could hardly be bettered.
Only a roughish horn passage in the first movement of Concerto No. 1 lacks the refinement present elsewhere, but then Bach’s itinerant horn players probably took a moment or two to settle down, even when sober.
In summary, this lively new look at the Brandenburgs from Gardiner and his excellent English Baroque Soloists is refreshing and likely to provide enduring pleasure. Nicholas Anderson