The Gramophone Choice
Brandenburg Concertos Nos 1-6. Cantata No 174 – Sinfonia
Concerto Italiano / Rinaldo Alessandrini
Naïve (2 CDs + 1 DVD) OP30412 (100’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Also includes DVD ‘Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano record the Brandenburg Concertos’, a film by Phillippe Béziat
How do you embark on a new addition to the vast pile of Brandenburg Concerto recordings? Do you go for a radical interpretation set to make people jump, laugh or recoil in surprise? Or do you perform them more or less as other good performers have but just try to do it better? Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano have gone for the latter approach and succeeded brilliantly. There is perhaps no Baroque group around today that can do the simple and obvious things to such exciting effect.
This is not to say that their Brandenburgs have no distinguishing features – just that, where they do, they spring from eminent good sense, as, for instance, in No 3 when the two central link chords come attached to a harpsichord flourish which has arisen directly from the first movement’s final chord; or the abrupt ending of No 2; or any number of places where an inner part is brought out with the help of a generously drawn legato so that you are left wondering why you never noticed it before.
Indeed, clarity of texture is one of this recording’s most glorious virtues, offering a view of the contrapuntal wonders of the music that has not always been available. This is particularly striking in the potentially murky, homogeneous textures of Nos 3 and 6; but the other, more colourfully scored concertos are just as lucidly done – a triumph of the balancer’s art, obviously, but surely just as much a result of clear-headed thinking on the part of the performers. Equally enlivening is a tight attention to articulative detail and tasteful ornamentation which keeps the music buoyant and forward-moving at all times.
Technically, things are not always perfect: the horn players struggle sometimes to keep up in No 1 and the solo trumpet part in No 2 is a bit harum-scarum. But the performances are so joyous and fresh that, in their straightforward but deeply musical way, they are the most invigorating newcomers to the Brandenburg fold since Musica Antiqua Köln’s provocative recording of the mid-1980s (DG/Archiv).
Bonuses come in the form of the Sinfonia to Cantata 174 (a version of the first movement of Concerto No 3 to which lusty oboes and horns have been added) and a curious ‘patch take’ of the shorter, swirling first version of the harpsichord cadenza to No 5. There is also a pleasingly unhyperbolic DVD of the sessions including interviews with Alessandrini.
Brandenburg Concertos Nos 1-6
European Brandenburg Ensemble / Trevor Pinnock hpd
Avie AV2119 (94’ · DDD) Buy from Amazon
When Trevor Pinnock first recorded the Brandenburgs with The English Concert for Archiv in 1982, period performances of these works were relatively rare; today they abound, and it has become harder to make a mark in music that does not readily admit a wide range of interpretations. Not that Pinnock need worry about that at this point in his career. This new recording, made with an ensemble hand-picked for the job, is a 60th-birthday present to himself, and is just what such a project should be: talented musicians relishing each other’s company in music of truly inspiring greatness.
Unsurprisingly, it reflects the increased playing standards of 25 years of period-instrument growth. Only Pinnock himself remains from that first line-up, and while the players then were a high-class team, the players of the European Brandenburg Ensemble include some of the finest of today’s Baroque chamber players, and there is a relaxed expertise about their performances which seems to allow them to communicate directly and without technical or ideological hindrance. A hint of over-exuberant thickness in the texture of Concerto No 1 is perhaps a reflection of this, but elsewhere it is good to hear playing from the likes of violinist Kati Debretzeni, flautist Katy Bircher and the excellent David Blackadder on trumpet that is bold and confident without straying into coarseness. The clarity achieved in Nos 4, 5 and 6 also has a more natural air than the ‘studio‑y’ balance of the Archiv set, no doubt helped by the decision to use a violone at pitch rather than the more usual octave below. The pensive violin improvisation which links the two movements of No 3 is surely a miscalculation, feeling like more of a hold-up than it need be; more lastingly refreshing to my ears were the subtle relaxations of tension in the first movement of No 6, these days so often given the hard-drive treatment.
This is not a Brandenburg set that seeks to score points, and all that is needed from us is to sit back and enjoy its relaxed, celebratory spirit.