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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046 – Allegro [4.06], Adagio [4.12], Allegro [4.23], Menuetto – Trio – Polacca [7.29]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047 – Allegro [5.23], Andante [3.54], Allegro assai [2.59]
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048 – Allegro [5.43], Adagio [3.08], Allegro [4.41]
Concerto for Flute in E minor 1059 & 35 – Allegro [5.44], Alla siciliana – Adagio [4.16], Presto [3.17]
Jean-Pierre Rampal (flute)
Orchestre de Chambre Jean-François Paillard, Jean-François Paillard (conductor)
Recorded 1972, 1985 Erato Disques ADD/DDD
WARNER CLASSICS APEX 2564 61363-2 [59.22]

 

As with many of the repertoire ‘standards’ in the present CD market, there is now so great a range of interpretative choices available to the prospective buyer of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos that a review cannot fairly purport to be a genuine comparison of the relative merits of each version. The catalogue currently contains recordings conducted by, inter alia, Sir Adrian Boult, Klemperer, Parrott, Sir Henry Wood, Toscanini, Richter, Furtwängler, Casals, Bernstein, Karajan, Marriner, Hogwood, Goodman, Harnoncourt and Goebel - who use orchestras covering the whole range between a full-strength Berlin Philharmonic and one-to-a-part authentic instruments. The growth of the historically-informed performance movement also means that, in terms of basic approach, there is not so much a world of difference between some of the competing recordings as an intergalactic divide. Better, then, for the reviewer to offer an appraisal of how a recording compares with others of its type and let the buyer decide for themselves whether the approach described appeals.

Of its type, then, this reissue of the first three Brandenburg Concertos is a satisfactorily executed example, though I confess that whether the style employed is what shows Bach to best effect is, for me, a moot point. The fairest way in which to categorise these performances would be to say that, at best, they demonstrate the way in which a chamber-like intimacy and refinement can help to illuminate the many threads of Bach’s polyphonic tapestry; at worst, they sound so light and reticent that the approach feels as though it ought really to be applied to Lully or Charpentier. Again, the soft brushy bowing technique (rather than anything more vigorous) indicates a performance in the style of French baroque rather than German.

If you like your Bach delivered in a careful, fastidious manner this disc may be for you. If you prefer a more overtly joyous and dynamic approach, steer clear, as any element of jubilation gets subsumed in favour of immediate clarity. My major concern is the lack of drive deriving from the bass lines in each work. This robs the music of much of the energy and sense of direction (built, of course, on the tension and release created by the harmonies which the bass lines so crucially underpin) that can be found in a really enlightening performance. To hear just how much difference a strong, characterful projection of these lines can make, listen to the amazing recording made by Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln. Quite apart from being lightning fast (which I realise will not be to all tastes), the strength of Bach’s construction is brought out very clearly by the bass lines’ clear delineation, not unlike the kind of thing Toscanini used to do in Beethoven (and much else besides).

The brass playing in the Goebel version also shows up a trick missed on the present recording, where many of the trumpet flourishes are delivered in a manner one might think of as too polite. True, Paillard’s pursuit of restraint and a genuine chamber performance mean that the brass doesn't dominate but exchanges phrases with the intertwining oboe and violin lines as an equal partner, yet the price of this is to lose much of the sheer glee that punchy trumpet work can express. Some of the more ceremonial aspects of Bach’s brass writing are lost in the attempt at intimacy, and in places the trumpet is simply not heard enough where it needs to be more prominent. One other point concerning the trumpets - the restraint called for in high-lying passages does lead to momentary lapses of control and, accordingly, there are a few snatches of sour tuning to be found as well as some slightly messy playing on occasion (in track 5, for example). This might be more forgivable in a risk-taking performance, but since the emphasis here is so strongly on clarity and balance, such lapses become more jarring. The close recording means that some of the breathing can become a mite intrusive, too (an unpleasantly rough snatching of breath in the flute about a minute into the Concerto for Flute (track 11), for example), and the sporadic lack of precision in timing is a further complaint.

For all its qualities of lightness and no little grace, then, I found this to be a rather heavy-going and routine rendition. The approach here only tells half the story, rather like tootling about at 30mph in a nimble sports car when you are actually keen to see what it can do flat out. If gentility and clarity are what you are after, this reissue provides them at a bargain price. If, however, you are looking for a more energetic manifestation of Bach, stick to Goebel or Harnoncourt.

Em Marshall



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