Bach Brandenburg Concertos
I suppose it was inevitable that, sooner or later, an ensemble of the calibre of Cologne Musica Antiqua would want to record Bach's six
Having got that of my chest, I must admit that many features of Reinhard Goebel's interpretation of these concertos are impressive and may over a longer period of time prove satisfying. In a customarily clearly presented essay Goebel tells us what thinking lay behind his approach, his terms of reference always being the fair copy of the concertos which Bach prepared for the Markgraf of Brandenburg and dedicated to him in 1721; but he is inclined to write as if Messrs Dart, Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Kuijken and others had contributed nothing to our greater understanding of these works. In his decision to have a 'chorus' of ripieno violins as opposed to single strings in Concertos Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5 I find myself broadly in agreement, and his approach to dynamics is sensible and effective. Some of us will quibble with him over his solution to the two transitional chords between the first and second movements of Concerto No. 3, which is simply to play them as they stand—unadorned and unextended, others including myself will wish to take him to task for the seemingly insensitive brio with which he dashes off the first movement of Concerto No. 6. I would always defend a brisk tempo in this piece but never the endurance test which Goebel sets both players and audience in the present performance.
Strongly critical though I feel about certain things in this issue I can only salute players whose technical skill enables them to perform the musical feats which Goebel expects of them. The second of the two allegros of Concerto No. 3 is breathtakingly fast, yet virtually immaculate in ensemble and intonation; but this is too fast for the good of the music and unquestionably too fast for me. I felt like clapping when it came to a close so brilliant is the performance in respect of executancy, but I have a recurrent feeling that Goebel is indulging in the artistic equivalent of some 'outward bound' activity; indeed, he may well be the sort of person who enjoys sleeping on the slopes of an ice-clad mountain without either tent or sleeping-bag. Having dealt with the two extremes of tempo which occur in the set the remainder of the movements appear innocuous and differ little from those of several other performances on period instruments.
Crisp and well-balanced ensemble, fine intonation and effectively shaped phrasing are features of this release which will give prolonged pleasure. Goebel's own solo violin playing in Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 is admirable, lacking neither in warmth nor in detail and with a pleasingly refined use of vibrato where he feels it is called for. I also liked his violino piccolo playing in Concerto No. I, though in spite of it I found the third movement disappointing. The strong beats are over-emphasized here and the overall effect a little coarse. The trumpeter in Concerto No. 2 is Friedemann Immer, who has featured in at least two previous commercially released recordings of the work. He too, disappointed me, for although the notes, after a fashion, are all there, the sound he produces is often watery and lacking in clarity; furthermore, he omits the trills in the opening statement of the finale. They are needed and Bach put them there for a very good reason, considering them as anything but optional. These trills are, admittedly, an additional hazard but I know of no other performance, off hand, which totally ignores them. The remaining concertino players are excellent and in the slow movement there is some effective imitative ornamentation among the three parts.
The concertos which come off best are Nos. 4 and 5. Goebel's own contribution here, as I have said, is outstanding. In Concerto No. 4 the two treble recorders are lightly articulated and evenly balanced. Tuttis are lucid in their texture and played with vigour and finesse. Concerto No. 5 fields a brilliant team of soloists with Goebel, Wilbert Hazelzet and Andreas Staier. Staier's account of the big first movement cadenza is a tour de force, full of bravura but also thoughtfully and persuasively punctuated with a commendable rhythmic flexibility. Hazelzet's playing is warm in tone and full of sensibility. His gentle approach to the music exerts, I feel, a much needed influence on the group and this work benefits immeasurably from it. I would buy this set, albeit reluctantly, in order to have this fine performance of Concerto No. 5.
In short, here is a stimulating and provocative issue, well recorded—though for much of the time there is too much harpsichord continuo presence for me—and thoughtfully argued. I do not subscribe to all that is on display here but it in no way diminishes my admiration for these gifted if, at times, I believe, misguided artists.'