Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750)
CD 1
Orchestral Suite No.2 in B minor, BWV 1067 (1738-39) [19:37]
Concerto in A major for Oboe d’Amore (reconstructed from BWV 1055) (1730-38?) [13:45]
Concerto in C minor for Oboe and Violin (reconstructed from BWV 1060) (1719?) [14:16]
Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043 (1718-20?) [15:33]
CD 2
Brandenburg Concerto No.2 in F major, BWV 1047 (1718) [11:39]
Brandenburg Concerto No.4 in G major, BWV 1049 (1719-20) [16:33]
Brandenburg Concerto No.5 in D major, BWV 1050 (1720-21) [21:32]
Sheep May Safely Graze from Cantata BWV 208 (arr. Daniel Pailthorpe) (1713) [4:48]
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring from Cantata BWV 147 (arr. Daniel Pailthorpe) (1716) [2:49]
London Conchord Ensemble
Florian Uhlig (piano)
rec. The Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex November 2004 (BWV 1067; 1060R); October 2005 (1049; 1055R); January 2006 (1043; 1047); April 2006 (147; 208; 1050)

This is a reissue of an album that previously appeared on the Quartz label in 2006. Some of best-known Bach concertos - and the Suite No.2, which has flute in a quasi-concertante role - are performed on modern instruments. The musicians are however well informed of period practice. This is reflected, for example, in the accurate phrasing, as well as in minimal vibrato.

The London Conchord Ensemble is a relatively large group of young musicians. Apparently, here they had to fit the music to the instruments that they command, and so we have a horn instead of a trumpet, and flutes instead of recorders. Another decision was to assign one instrument to a part. As the flautist Daniel Pailthorpe remarks in the liner note, “there is nothing in the autographs of these works to suggest that Bach intended anything other than one player to a part”. You may or may not believe the claims to authenticity for the one-to-a-part layout, but even if you don’t, let it not prevent you from enjoying the disc. This decision solves some balance problems associated with period instruments. It makes the counterpoint very distinct and the textures light. The playing is full-voiced and the recording is resonant, so at times you might be surprised to realize that all this almost orchestral sound comes from so few instruments.

Similarly, you may believe that Bach’s enigmatic tromba in Brandenburg Concerto No.2 was really meant to be a horn, and not a trumpet – or you may consider it a successful arrangement reflective of the composer’s own practice in many of his concertos. In either case, this is an interesting solution, and the softer horn arguably merges with the rest of instruments better than the rude trumpet.

And – oh yes – there is no harpsichord! Some people eat gluten-free, some are lactose-free, and I know quite a lot of listeners that would be happy to stay harpsichord-free. You may miss the soft golden cottonwool that the harpsichord wraps around the music. Or you may be happy to hear it for a change without this universal equalizer. Consider it an arrangement. Authentic? No. Expressive? Yes.

The Orchestral Suite No.2 on Disc One is probably served the best. The slow episodes are beautifully plaintive. The fast ones burst with energy and yet are never heavy. Bach’s endless melodies are butterflying over the bouncy coil of the rhythm. From the impressive Ouverture through the row of elegant dances to the sparkling Badinerie, you get all the beauty of Bach’s music without the archaic patina. Daniel Pailthorpe’s flute is very sensitive.

Daniel’s wife Emily Pailthorpe is an excellent soloist in the Concerto for Oboe d’Amore. Her instrument is agitated and athletic in the outer parts, compassionate and heartfelt in the slow movement. The tempi are generally fast, yet the music is allowed to breathe. Bach’s mastery of mood-setting is on full display here, and the musicians are well up to the task.

A disadvantage of the one-to-a-part decision is heard in the first movement of the Concerto for Oboe and Violin. The voice of the solo violin just does not diverge enough from the “orchestral” strings, and so it “drowns” in the midst of them, which practically turns the music into an oboe concerto. In the tight beat of troubled emotion, the pressure is really high. The two soloists then sing a beautiful duet in the serene slow movement. This has Bach’s trademark alloy of sunshine and tenderness, which we know from Air on the G String. Turmoil returns in the finale, and I really like it in the one-per-part layout: the counterpoint is crystal clear, and there is none of that usual feeling of overloading.

The Two-Violin Concerto is again energetic and sharp-focused. The first movement throbs with youthful power. The Adagio is viscous and bittersweet. Its soft and rocking motion is mesmerizing, and the two soloists are mellifluous. The finale is a perfect storm. It seems a bit too hard-driven, though.

I have some minor reservations about the performances on Disc Two. For example, the opening movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No.2 is too much in a hurry to be really appreciated. It’s just one bug rush-hour. On the contrary, the slow movement is well paced, the lower strings creating an interesting effect. The brief finale is very effective. Indeed, the horn here has a better balance with flute and oboe than the trumpet usually does.

The first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No.4 is one of Bach’s happiest movements, and would benefit from a more unbuttoned performance. The accents seem to be flattened – maybe this only appears by comparison with other works we heard before. The slow movement also does not seem to have enough air. The playing is accurate, but we don’t hear the expressiveness that the Conchord exhibited in the Suite and concertos from Disc One. The finale is excellent, light and crisp.

In the spirit of the album, the Conchord use a modern grand piano in the Brandenburg Concerto No.5. Nevertheless, the pianist Florian Uhlig adopts a glittering harpsichord-like style. His playing is bright and articulated. All three soloists know how to generate drive and tension. The pianist “runs” into Bach’s grandiose cadenza without a change in style. This may be more organic, but in my opinion reduces the awe as compared to those performances that show more diverse sides of the cadenza, such as in Angela Hewitt’s recording on Hyperion. In the slow movement the piano plays both roles –soloist and continuo. The result, compared to the harpsichord versions, lacks some mystery. The voices of the flute and the violin are now separately flying in the air, instead of lying on the golden clouds of the harpsichord aura. This creates a feeling of loneliness and loss. Over the slow, steady pace of the piano, the flute and the violin pour their souls out. All sorrows are forgotten amid the merry pranks of the finale. The strokes are bold, the images protuberant, and the celebration sincere. The gentle flute softens the generally hard attack and adds a lyrical thread.

As a bonus, we get two of Bach’s most famous tunes in fine arrangements by Daniel Pailthorpe. Sheep May Safely Graze is arranged for two flutes, cello and piano. The flutes (both played by Pailthorpe) take care of the pastoral ornaments, under which the cello sings the chorale. Its voice is deep and wide. This arrangement is very natural and expressive. In Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, the chorale is given to a larger group of strings, while the ornamentation is produced in turns by the oboe and the piano. Something doesn’t work here: either the piano is too alien to this world, or the tempo is too fast to let the music grab you. The result is, to my ears, artificial. Still, as a sweet dessert, it works OK.

The acoustics are warm and spacious. The liner-note is adequate. This album will probably have the strongest appeal to people that prefer a Romantic view of Bach – or to those who, like me, were scared away from his orchestral music by the golden behemoths of the grand old recordings. This Bach is personal, emotional, and very beautiful. A musical purist will probably see some lapses here and there, but for many music-lovers this can be as refreshing as Glenn Gould’s famous 1955 Goldberg Variations. It can also serve as an excellent introduction for newcomers.

Oleg Ledeniov

This Bach is personal, emotional, and very beautiful.