Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4, BWV1066-1069
Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6 BWV1046-1051 (complete)
Concerto for Three Keyboards in D minor, BWV1063
Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV1056
Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV1043
Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor, BWV1060
Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV1052
Oboe d'amore Concerto in A major, BWV1055
Violin Concerto No. 2 in E major, BWV1042
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV1041
Concerto for Two Keyboards in C major, BMV1061
Concerto for Flute, Violin and Harpsichord in A minor, BWV1044
Oboe Concerto in F major, BWV1053
Concerto for Three Keyboards in C major, BWV1064
Keyboard Concerto No. 2 in E major, BWV1053
Concerto for Four Keyboards in A minor (after Vivaldi), BWV1065
Cafť Zimmermann (David Plantier, Andoni Mercero, Gudalupe Del Moral, Mauro Lopes Ferreira, Maria Gomis (violins); Antoine Torunczyk (oboe díamore); Patricia Gagnon, Diane Chmela (violas); Petr Skalka, Robin Michael (cellos); Emmanuel Laporte, Jasu Moisio (oboes); Carles Valles (bassoon); Ludek Brany, Devid Sinclair, Kate Aldridge (double basses); Hennes Rux, Helen Barsby, Ute Rothkirch (trumpets); Daniele Schaebe (timbales);
Celine Frisch (clavecin))/Pablo Valetti (violin; konzertmeister)
rec. Paris, Metz, 2000-2010
ALPHA 811 [6 CDs: 68:14 + 66:26 + 71:37 + 61:05 + 62:35 + 59:27]

The ensemble Cafe Zimmermann is named after the institution on St Catherine Street in Leipzig where Bach would have conducted an ensemble of willing musicians after 1729. Conducting the Collegium Musicum, as they were known, gave Bach an outlet for his secular cantatas and his instrumental music. This would have come as a welcome break from his more sacred duties in the main Leipzig churches. The modern-day ensemble, in conjunction with the enterprising French label Alpha, have been following in their footsteps and recording some of the ďconcertosĒ that Bach wrote for more than one instrument. Volume 1 began recording in 2000 and Volume 6 was completed in 2010, and they now come packaged together as a set.
Thereís a tremendous amount to enjoy here. For a start, the music on offer is fantastic, and itís helped that Cafe Zimmermannís definition of a ďconcertoĒ stretches to include the four Ouvertures BWV 1066-1069. The ensembleís approach to the music is informed by scholarship and tends towards the small-scale in approach, often featuring just one instrument to a line. The close recorded sound means that this seldom translates as a loss, however. In fact, the acoustic is so brilliantly captured that the listener often gets the impression that he is sitting in the midst of the musicians as they create music around him. This is often thrilling and is reason enough to endorse the set.
The Six Brandenburg Concertos are a good way in, though your reaction to the first movement of No. 1 might put you off going further. The horn playing is prominent to the point of being raucous: from the third bar onwards the horns seem to bray and show off in a way that those who have a taste for more refined recordings would shudder to hear. Even Gardinerís recent recording, with its rather mischievous horns, doesnít take it to this extreme and I found it a little off-putting, as well as unnecessary. Happily, this isnít an indication of how the rest of their performance goes. Indeed, the size of the ensemble and the sense of collective musicianship makes this to a great degree an unusually cooperative set of Brandenburgs. Tempi are on the fast side, though not uniformly so; the slow movement of No. 6, for example, is expansive and relaxed and is all the more beautiful for it. On the other hand, No. 3 is breathtaking, especially in the zippy final fugue. The size of the band means that No. 2 comes across as delicate rather than triumphalist, pert instead of showy. The element of cooperation, of sharing in the enterprise, is at its most delectable in No. 6 where the different string groups sound absolutely as though they are responding to one another in the atmosphere of the moment.
After all this exuberance the Ouvertures sound rather restrained at first hearing. No. 1, in particular, puts the emphasis on the courtly so that the busy-ness of the Forlane and the Bourrťe comes across as rather surprising in the overall context. The Second is a little more energetic, though I would still have liked a bit more, particularly in the later movements. The flute in this suite is very much a first-among-equals, by the way, with no spotlighting to make it stand out from the overall texture; individual taste will dictate whether thatís something youíll enjoy. With the ceremonious arrival of trumpets and drums the mood of the Suites improves, and the Third and Fourth are overall much more successful. The more festive mood seems to lift every aspect of the music-making and the smaller ensemble makes the transparency of the celebration all the more enjoyable. In particular, the Gavottes and Gigue of the Third Suite sound absolutely fantastic.
Elsewhere there is plenty to enjoy too. The double violin concerto benefits enormously from the sense of give-and-take that Cafe Zimmermann have made their own. The outer movements are especially successful, combining zesty energy - especially in the finale - with vigorous argument. The slow movement takes a few bars to find its lyrical flow, but when it does itís well worth the wait. Even the solo concertos, which one might think out of place in a set like this, are brought alive with playing that is unfailingly stylish. The E major violin concerto maintains its forward momentum with just the right amount of bounce. The same is true of the outer movements of the A minor concerto, but the players make a virtue of the stillness of the slow movement, creating something surprisingly lovely at the heart of the work. The oboe/violin concerto, BWV 1060, has a rather mundane start, but it comes alive for its very attractive slow movement. The reconstructed oboe díamore concerto BWV 1053 has seen the light of day many times, not least as the Sinfonia that opens Cantata 169. The first movement works particularly well, the pungent solo sound offsetting the string backdrop very effectively. The playing of the oboe díamore in BWV 1055 oozes character with just the right amount of luxury.
The only place where the set is less than convincing is with the harpsichord concertos. The collective nature of the music-making, so refreshing in the rest of the set, doesnít serve these pieces well as the harpsichords tend to get drowned in the general acoustic soundscape, even when there are three of them! Delightful as is much of this music, especially BWV 1055, the solo instrument isnít sufficiently delineated from the rest of the ensemble. In fact, I noticed my ear tuning into the orchestra rather than the harpsichord and feeling even a little annoyed when the ensemble drops out and the solo harpsichord takes centre-stage.
Thatís a pity, but itís a consequence of the otherwise very successful philosophy that permeates Cafe Zimmermannís approach. It works so well elsewhere that it seems churlish to complain about it here. I may have reservations, but theyíre so heavily outweighed by the positives that they lose significance in my eyes. Iíll be coming back to this warmly admirable set time and time again.
Simon Thompson

Iíll be coming back to this warmly admirable set time and time again.