BACH Orchestral Suites
Ton Koopman and his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra celebrated their tenth anniversary last year and marked the event with birthday concerts and the release of several recordings. For this album of Bach's four Orchestral Suites they have moved from Erato to Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (now distributed by BMG), and they have surfaced once more with recordings which indicate not only that they are alive but also in very good health.
Bach's Orchestral Suites are deservedly well represented in the catalogue, with versions in plenty by orchestras of period and modern instruments alike. Koopman enters the field late in the day with performances by The English Concert (Archiv Produktion), The English Baroque Soloists (Erato/WEA), La Petite Bande, The Academy of Ancient Music (L'Oiseau-Lyre) and Cologne Musica Antiqua (also Archiv Produktion) already currently established. Up till now my own favourite has been La Petite Bande, also issued by Deutsche Harmonia Mundi but as yet waiting reissue. Now, I am inclined to change my allegiance to this newcomer with its abundance of joie de vivre and courtly refinement.
Koopman captures the contrasting colours and textures of these works with a sure feeling for orchestral sonority, but over and above that he is most persuasive in his gestures, graceful at times ceremoniously pompous at others. Thus the Sarabande of the B minor Suite, for me one of the high-water marks of the entire set, is exquisitely poised and lovingly articulated by the flautist, Wilbert Hazelzet, an artist of rare sensibility. Other dances in this suite fare equally well, with a Menuet redolent of courtly gesture and a Polonaise with an easy, carefree gait. Only the Badinerie seemed slightly hurried and I felt this again in the Gavotte I of the Suite in C major. As a general rule, however, Koopman favours rather slower tempos than many of his competing colleagues and I applaud him for doing so. The Rondeau of the B minor Suite is, comparatively speaking, slow yet avoiding monotony, the Forlane of the C major Suite is delightfully airy, as are the two Bourrees and the pleasingly leisurely Passepieds. Loveliest of all, perhaps, in this performance of the C major Suite are the relaxed and affectingly articulated Courantes and the refined Menuets, whose kinetic energy is subtly realized under Koopman's direction.
Koopman draws the strongest contrast between lighter textured dances and galanteries such as these, and the grandiose music contained in the two D major Suites. The Overtures in both instances are magnificent with commendably vibrant timpani and snarling trumpets which set the blood coursing through my veins. This is robust Bach playing but without a hint of vulgarity and in no sense lacking in appropriate restraint. The string playing in these movements, as for the most part elsewhere, is spirited and refined in ensemble; only the celebrated Air from Suite No. 3—played by the ripieno rather than treated as a solo—sounded uneasy through uncomfortable appoggiaturas. Trumpets and oboes almost unfailingly rise to the occasion though the former are a little lame in the Bourree of Suite No. 3.
There is need to say little more. This is a considerable achievement and if some listeners are mildly irked by overstated messa di voce effects in the Overture of Suite No. 4, or by Koopman's own brilliant but perhaps over-busy keyboard continuo realizations, they are unlikely to be able to resist the subtle inflexions and ravishing innerpart understanding of Suite No. 2. And, I would add, the sheer exuberant spirit of occasion which shines through the performances of the other three suites. The recorded sound is splendid. Bravo!'