On CD: Gardiner leads the Brandenburgs
Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6. English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG (2 CDs).
by Mark J. Estren
What more can a conductor do with Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos these days? John Eliot Gardiner’s answer is to do less: He actually conducts only Nos. 1 and 2, the most “orchestral” in fabric. The rest are led by English Baroque Soloists leader Kati Debretzeni – except for No. 6, since she is a violinist and that concerto contains no violins.
These Brandenburgs sound first and foremost like dance music – delivered with impeccable phrasing and a sure sense of style. They abound in joie de vivre and are filled with instrumental touches inspired by the musicians’ creativity and understanding. In No. 1, for example, the horns are intrusive among the more “refined” instruments of their day – to the point of raucousness, especially in the first movement. This produces an unusually bright and bubbly performance of this most suite-like of the Brandenburgs.
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What stands out in No. 2 is the outstanding balance within the odd instrumental combination that Bach created – violin, recorder, oboe and high trumpet. No. 3 is a tour de force for strings, with a finale that positively gallops without ever seeming rushed. In No. 4, the lilt of the two recorders has remarkable lightness and delicacy. No. 5 is handled with rare intelligence, not as a soloist-focused harpsichord concerto but as a chamber piece in which the harpsichord is first among equals for a time. And No. 6 is a marvel, its dark hues never eclipsing the dancelike rhythms of the music and the fascinating interplay among viola, cello, viola da gamba and violone.
There are many well-played Brandenburg sets available, but very few that show the music in a new light. This one does – it is an exceptional recording.
--Mark J. Estren
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