My previous experience of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra had led me to believe that they were something of a collection of renegades. Their way was to smash down the door of received opinion and transform our perceived notions of the classics. I'm starting to think now, however, that that’s much more to do with who is conducting them rather than to do with the band itself. They won me over with a fresh and exciting but by no means deliberately wayward performance of Bach’s Violin Concertos. This recording of the Brandenburg Concertos had a similar effect on me. It’s beautifully played and contains plenty of fresh realisations, but there is little to frighten the horses, and that’s something that many people will find very appealing. No. 3, in fact, is decidedly conventional by contemporary standards, with plenty of transparent but not abrasive playing. Add to this, lively but not shocking tempi and a nicely harmonised sequence of cadences to serve for a middle movement. That sense of being fresh but not controversial characterises the playing of the whole set. Some may find that disappointing, but for many (including myself) it is reassuringly beautiful and a good example of what these conductorless players can do with Bach.
It helps that the playing is so good, and it is frequently highlighted throughout the set. Sometimes it is as you would expect, such as the delicious cello in No. 6 or the horns for No. 1. These are distinctive and exciting but not nearly as unruly as those of Cafe Zimmermann. Sometimes it comes from unexpected places, though, such as the flute which adds such distinctive colour to this rendition of No. 5, even more so than the harpsichord, I found. When the flutes take centre-stage in No. 4 the results are spicy and playful. No. 2 has a wonderful bounce to its tempi, and even the more stately moments like the Polonaise of No. 1 move with an element of the dance to them. The set that this most put me in mind of was the recent one from the English Baroque Soloists. They too play the concertos (mostly) without a conductor and they have a similar freshness and zest to the playing, which is every bit as virtuosic. However, like the Freiburgers they set out to present the music in an unvarnished, clean format that will reveal what was always there rather than force a new interpretation onto it.
So if you want a set that will challenge preconceptions then look elsewhere (I suggest Cafe Zimmermann). If you want something that shows communication, elegance and freshness without startling you too much out of your comfort zone then you can turn to this one. Whether or not you think that’s a good thing will depend on your taste, but how wonderful that we have the choice.
Previous review: Brian Wilson
Masterwork Index: Brandenburg