Review by Geohominid March 5, 2007 (17 of 18 found this review helpful)
|There have been several sets of the Brandenburg Concertos performed by period instrument ensembles on RBCD, including those directed by Pinnock, Goebel, Koopman, Harnoncourt and Goodman. My touchstone has hitherto been the Pinnock version. Now Fasolis, after his well-praised set of the Bach Orchestral Suites, has set down his version of the Brandenburgs, for which I have been waiting eagerly. There have been several sets available on SACD or DVD-A featuring modern instruments, including a very good one from Tacet, in which the listener is in the middle of the ensemble - great fun, but I was longing for the period sound.
It helps the appreciation of these wonderful works to know their context. They date back as far as Bach's tenure as Kapellmeister at Anhalt-Cöthen, some possibly to his previous job at Weimar, but in 1721 Bach brought the collection together and inscribed them to the Margrave of Brandenburg, whom he had met some time before. He composed a long and florid preface addressed directly to Margrave Christian Ludwig, which is well worth reading, as it encapsulates the relationship between a (potential) Patron and an artisan of the time. It seems that Bach was ready to move on from Cöthen and was using the pieces as a demonstration of his prowess - a sort of musical curriculum vitae. We have no evidence that the pieces were ever performed at the Elector's Court, and the scores lay gathering dust in its library until they were discovered in the C19th. The point to be made is that the concertos were a sort of sonic atlas of the instruments available to Bach at the time, some archaic and hang-overs from the 17th century, others from the later Baroque. His scoring makes use of them in quite revolutionary and unique ways, and this is why I believe that good historically-aware period instrument performances give us the best experience of the Brandenburgs.
Fasolis and I Barrochisti follow the scoring of the works to the letter, in terms of the solo instruments and the small ripieno orchestra which supports them.
Concerto 1 is a suite of dance movements, 10 of them which follow in quick succession, and feature a pair of natural or hand horns, typically used in hunting and not yet sporting the keys which the later French horns have. These horns are very difficult to play, as they are limited to notes of their harmonic series, but they have remarkably different sounds in different registers, unlike the modern horns which are "smoothed out" (more polite) in their tonal qualities. Bach, as other composers, including Mozart, relished these tonal changes, especially at parts of the register in which the tones were prone to "break" - much to the distress of the poor hornists! As well as the horns, there are 3 baroque oboes, a bassoon and a "violino piccolo" (obviously a small violin). Who else would pit these together? Fasolis and his men charge Bach's motoric rhythms with the spirit of the dance, the horns blaze magnificently from the centre back of the ripieno group, who sound to be arrayed in a semi-circle in front of you - no rear-channel gimmickry here. You can clearly hear that the two horns have different tone qualities, one deeper and richer, the other producing spectacular "blatting" sounds in its upper register. The piccolo violinist also produces some wonderful textures - dry spiccato effects on the gut strings and stunningly articulated running passages. There is wonderful solid support from the cellos and a double bass - indeed the characterful and clearly recorded bass lines in Fasolis' set is a prominent feature of the whole. Baroque music relied on terraced dynamics - the "invention" of crescendos by the orchestra at Mannheim was some years away. Listen how Bach screws up the tension and simulates a crescendo by adding more and more instruments, modulating rapidly and holding the melodic line over or under a pedal, which may itself in the treble or in the deep continuo. I Barrochisti are superb at doing this, with every line clear, and these held-back returns to main themes are thrilling.
Concerto 2 has 3 movements, and a valveless trumpet pitted with a recorder, oboe and violin. The original trumpeter was probably the Cöthen Court Trumpeter. The art of high trumpet playing, something which every Patron wished to show off to his peers, was lost for several centuries, but has now been recovered, as this Concerto demonstrates. The trumpeter is placed back far enough for the strength of his dizzyingly high notes not to drown his fellow soloists, who toss melodic phrases back and forward with superb timing, maintaining a spirited dance rhythm. The violas often come into prominence, reminding one that Bach loved to olay one of these instruments, as he felt right at the middle of the music. The slow movement of this Concerto does not feature the soloist, who traditionally gets a well-earned rest, ready to dazzle again in the last movement.
Concerto 3 is scored for 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos and basso continuo. The repetitions of the modal motive are passed from the cellos, who really dig into their strings, through the rosiny violas up to the violins, like waves washing up on a shore. The playing here is wonderfully comitted, with seamless lines that almost feel organic. One can almost feel Bach sitting amongst the violas, powering the flow from the middle range. A tour de force of co-ordinated string playing with glowing sound to match. After the brief adagio, scurrying violins take over, bursting with nervous energy, a virtuosic wild ride. A revelatory performance.
Concerto 4, one of my favourites since I heard Pinnock's use of recorders as required by Bach "fiauti d'echo" as he called them, are matched with a violin solo, with first and second violins, viola, cello and basso continuo. The violin tends to play below the warbling recorders, who make a fresh, spring-like contribution to the sound world. Fasolis finds a just tempo for the first movement, relaxed but propelled, elegant but dance-like in triple time. Enchanting. The final Presto is also not pushed too hard, so every line of the fugue flows clearly and naturally, but bursting with commitment and concentration, with a view to the whole arch-like structure. There is a wonderful textural passage at the recapitulation of the fugue subject; after a period with only the high instruments, the deep, solid lower string tone declaim the fugue subject and re-launch it on its progress. Modern Rock and Jazz musicians still use this device to great effect!
What about the recording? Arts tell us it was made from a 96k/24bit master and re-mastered in DSD. My Marantz player tells me the MC track is 5.1, and certainly there is plenty of LF energy even from this small ensemble which adds greatly to the richness of sound and the sense of presence. The balance is excellent, so that every contrapuntal line is clear, and the characteristic tonal colours of each period instrument are revealed in full. The continuo, especially the harpsichord, are always audible in the mix, and the spatial positions of the instruments, which may change from concerto to concerto, are stable and precisely located in a large room acoustic which adds bloom to the sound. In other words, the recording engineers have fully complemented the work of I Barrochisti in bringing us a wonderful, often revelatory set of Brandenburgs which in my view sets a new standard for historically aware performances.
It should be clear that I found this pair of discs (see Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5 & 6, Triple Concerto - Fasolis) for my notes on the second disc) to be a near-miraculous experience - con amore from every one involved. I played the Stereo SACD track right through after listening in MC and found it just as entertaining, so closely does the engineering serve the wonderful playing. A joy. Perhaps I should glue this into my player, it will never be far from it.
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