Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Six Brandenburg Concertos
Coffee Cantata
Concerto for Violin, Oboe and Orchestra
Orchestral Suite No. 4
Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
On the Brandenburg Concertos: Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Conversation with Klaus Lindemann
Director: Klaus Lindemann
rec: July 1982, Kloster Wiblingen, Bibliothekssaal, and Kloster Ochenhausen, Bibliothekssaal
Sound format: PCM stereo and DTS 5.1
Subtitle languages: EN, FR, DE, ES; Interview with English subtitles only
Picture format: 4:3
Picture standard: NTSC
Region code: 0
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00440 073 4450 [2 DVDs: 271:00]

This two-DVD set shows Nikolaus Harnoncourt in his prime, leading his musicians in some of Bach’s best works: the six Brandenburg Concertos, the Coffee Cantata, as well as two other orchestral works. Recorded in 1982, this was a time when historically-informed performances – of which Harnoncourt was an early champion – were starting to become integrated into standard performance practice. At first, Harnoncourt’s approach to Bach and others was firmly in this camp, and his performances were very different from what “mainstream” conductors did. By the 1990s, what had begun as an “experiment” could no longer be called that; this style of approaching early music was accepted by many - though not all and there is still a bit of reticence from some performers.

But what of that style? The Brandenburgs are a good proving ground for using original instruments, appropriate tempi and smaller forces. While the instruments are certainly original, it’s hard now to appreciate the at times ponderous interpretation of these works as led here by Harnoncourt. Recent recordings – such as those by Trevor Pinnock or John Eliot Gardiner – have shown much more rhythm and vigour. Harnoncourt, in tux and tails, looks somewhat staid, and seems hesitant to really let the music go. The opening of the Second Concerto in F major, BWV 1047, for example, lacks the bright energy it should have. Its tempo is slow and reflective, rather than jumpy and exciting. While the instruments are well balanced and have a wide range of colours, there’s an overall lack of that zest that often makes Bach’s music stand out. The second movement sounds much more interesting, but the closing allegro assai seems slow as well, making the overall work a bit heavy.

The Third Concerto in G major, BWV 1048, is more lively, and perhaps this is because most of the performers (other than the cellists) are standing. The same is true of the Fourth Concerto in G major, BWV 1049; with all the performers standing, except the harpsichordist and cellist, the musicians seem freer and their playing is more sprightly. Only in the Sixth Concerto in B flat major, BWV 1051, do the musicians start playing with noticeable energy. Overall, the tempi for these works seem just a shade too slow, giving the music too stolid a sound. Perhaps I’m more used to the slightly faster tempi of today, but these performances just don’t grab me.

The Coffee Cantata, BWV 211, recorded in a different venue, features three excellent soloists: Peter Schreier, Janet Parry and Robert Holl. This somewhat theatrical performance – the soloists move around in front of the musicians, as though in an opera, and give much attention to their facial expressions throughout the work – is fun and perky.

The Concerto for Violin, Oboe and Orchestra, BWV 1060R, is a very nice work that is performed in a more lively manner than the Brandenburgs. And the Orchestral Suite No. 4, performed with larger forces than the other works, comes across quite well, with a good balanced sound, and more energy and verve than the Brandenburgs. In addition, the recordings of these works – taken in a different location from the Brandenburgs – sound better overall.

The filming is acceptable, and, in spite of a limited number of camera angles, there are some creative shots. Performed for the recording, rather than for a live audience, there are no glitches in the playing. Harnoncourt himself plays the cello sometimes, such as in the second movement of the BWV 1047, where the camera pans back and forth among the four soloists playing that section of the work. The Coffee Cantata has some movement, in the beginning, when the soloists come on. The number of accompanying musicians changes for each movement of the work as needed, allowing for some variety in the way each part is filmed.

The “bonuses” on this set are six “introductions” to each of the Brandenburg Concertos, where director Klaus Lindemann discusses each of the works with Harnoncourt. For about twenty minutes each, Harnoncourt gives interesting information about each concerto. These serve as video liner-notes. This is all a bit stuffy, though, as Harnoncourt sits on a high stool in front of the musicians, who wait patiently for him to finish his discourse before getting on with the business at hard.

The sound on this recording is acceptable, given that it was made in 1982, and the stereo mix sounds at times better than the 5.1 version. There’s a certain harshness in the surround-sound version of the Brandenburgs that is disagreeable, which is not present in the stereo version. The surround version has better definition of the instruments, at the expense of exaggerated high-end and low-end sound. In addition, the instruments don’t always sound sufficiently loud; the second movement of the Fifth Concerto in D major, BWV 1050, is an interesting trio with harpsichord, flute and violin, and there is a lovely texture, but the harpsichord is lost in the mix. However, the works other than the Brandenburgs sound acceptable in surround sound.

There’s some fine performances here, and some that are a bit lacking. The Brandenburgs, which are the heart of the set, are just too soft, but the other works are performed well. It’s interesting to see Harnoncourt lead these works, and perform in some of the Brandenburgs, but these are far from being the most interesting performances of Bach’s wonderful concertos.

Kirk McElhearn