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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Brandenburg Concerti

  • Brandenburg Concerto #1 in F Major, BWV 1046
  • Brandenburg Concerto #3 in G Major, BWV 1048
  • Brandenburg Concerto #5 in D Major, BWV 1050
  • Brandenburg Concerto #2 in F Major, BWV 1047
  • Brandenburg Concerto #4 in G Major, BWV 1049
  • Brandenburg Concerto #6 in B Flat Major, BWV 1051
European Brandenburg Ensemble/Trevor Pinnock
Avie AV2119
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As Trevor Pinnock says in his introductory essay that comes with these two CDs, there has to be a good reason why yet another recording of the Brandenburg Concertos should be made with literally hundreds available. Pinnock modestly hints – at first – at self-indulgence. But then goes on to examine motives that are a little deeper; and even more modest. These recordings (and excellent they are!) were conceived for three discernible reasons:

  1. out of awe and pure respect for Bach's amazing achievement
  2. for Pinnock's fascination with the way performing ensembles work; how significant revelations can come from planned exploration
  3. in order to revisit (and in fact in some ways overturn) the conception of the Concertos which the conductor had a quarter of a century ago

The Brandenburg Concertos were indeed an immense accomplishment – for Bach and for music itself: we're so very familiar with them that it's easy to overlook the color, innovation and heady blend of joie de vivre with earnestness that only Bach could achieve. This latest recording by Pinnock and the European Brandenburg Ensemble reveals such qualities well.

Although we know that Bach presented his six concerti to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, it's likely that he compiled at least some of them from existing scores, but took the opportunity to revise them specifically in order to examine the many ways in which the concerto form could work. In looking afresh at the "plusieurs instruments" of the Concertos' manuscript, Bach was effectively twisting and extending the perimeter in which the concerto had developed up to that point in time. So the way in which Pinnock and the Ensemble have paid such attention to the how the parts work together (number Three for example, emphasizes solo playing; number Five highlights virtuosity collaboratively, in isolation and in the tension between them) is particularly instructive – and pleasing.

The ensemble hand-picked for this project is indeed special itself. Called the European Brandenburg Ensemble, it consists of two dozen or so players who came together in the summer of 2006 at the University of Sheffield in the UK for a week of rehearsals both public and private. These were followed in December of that year by a concert on Pinnock's 60th birthday. The present recording was made over half a dozen days in December 2006 and January and September 2007. So this seems to start out as an "occasion" CD; but is much more. Although it also commemorates the death overnight during that first gathering of principal viola player Katherine McGillivray, the recording is entirely devoid of egotism or any form of self-aggrandizement. These are recordings set to hold their place at the very top of those available: Pinnock is as unassuming a figure as he is worthy of our full attention for his exceptional musicianship.

Such musicianship is to be heard too on the prized set Pinnock released in 1982 (Archiv/DG 423492) to which Pinnock is referring and which did so much then for the period instrument movement. This earlier one in itself has always been a worthy recording to own. But the present interpretation is in many ways more satisfying – and very different.

The current conceptions are slimmer, tighter, less opulent, more focused, less relaxed. But without being spare or in any way pared down, rushed or perfunctory. Loathe to second guess how and what Bach might have wanted, it's tempting for one to see this recording as just right for the first decade of the 21st century. By concentrating on the music's structure as closely as on its sound, Pinnock and the European Brandenburg Ensemble have in some ways gone back to the ways in which Bach might have performed the works.

This is achieved here thanks to two further attributes of performance with which Pinnock experimented: the size of the ensemble; and the pitch of the violone part. Interestingly, the decisions to perform one or more instruments to a part were taken with the specific acoustics of the hall at Sheffield in mind. Their success is what you hear, of course. And very well it sounds too. Secondly, in contrast with the practice for most of the past few generations, only Concerto one was played in this recording with a 16ft violone grosso; Concertos Two, Four, Five and Six were played with 8ft violoni and number Three the violone grosso. Pitch is a' = 415 (the standard Baroque pitch) throughout.

The qualities, then, which spring out at the listener – even one who struggles to set aside years of overhearing the works' originally extraordinary vigorous novelty (number Five was in effect the first keyboard concerto) – are of the freshness Pinnock brings to works with which he too is very familiar.

The staggeringly high standard of the European Brandenburg Ensemble's technique is also a delight. That harpsichordist Pinnock can at the same time both have paid so much attention to the musicological concerns of the music and yet have done so in order to assert the sense of life in the music is also very striking.

In conclusion, these are recordings by which others will be repeatedly judged. Not least because every listening still presents something new, exciting (but strangely reassuring: there has been no tinkering for the sake of innovation); something to lift the spirit (Pinnock's obbligato passages thrill greatly); and something to make us want to understand ever more deeply how Bach's genius achieved what it did. Even with music so familiar and amply recorded. Unreservedly recommended.

Copyright © 2008, Mark Sealey