JS BACH Brandenburg Concertos
The Brandenburgs are billed here as music ‘open as ever to new historically informed interpretations, as this set demonstrates’, so the prospect is veritably tantalising – especially when combined with the kind of state-of-the-art executancy that the Freiburgers have made their own. Indeed, an uncanny sense of corporate cohesion (as close to the world of the finest symphony orchestras as you’ll find in large-scale Baroque playing) yields luxuriant textures, polished ensemble and meticulously plotted conceptions, born of single-mindedness and an embedded familiarity with their colleagues and the material.
A delight in shifting attention over the complete canvases, whether passing the baton rapidly from violins to horns and then to continuo in the First Concerto, or a wondrous fleetness and pithy warmth in the chuckling and brilliant violas in the Sixth Concerto, consumes the music’s rhetorical energy. This is serious music-making but, far from challenging the heartland of generic Brandenburg interpretation as claimed, the Freiburgers in fact consolidate the sounds, values and habits which have remained fairly constant with them for over 20 years.
We hear the kind of sweet-toned, resonant ensemble and collective raison d’être in the Third Concerto that defined the group’s Orchestral Suites (1/12), and the last movements of the Fifth and Sixth are delights predicated on sublime solo interaction rather than questing dialogues. Likewise the slow movements, such as in the Second, are effective in projecting a conceit of studied world-weariness: nothing new from several other leading versions (such as Pinnock, Gardiner and Butt) but often performed with just a little more tonal panache and identifiable precision.
As one progresses through the more virtuoso movements, in the Second, Fourth and Fifth Concertos, admiration for these peerlessly ambitious works remains undiminished and one suspects that this will satisfy many, given the level of playing here. On the debit side, there is a dogged joylessness in the study-like last movement of the Third, something of the same in the outer movements of the Second and a driven pedantry in the first movement of the Fifth. One gets a flavour of this early on with an unsmiling courtliness in the dances of the First and it gathers a degree of momentum as the set continues.
Only a true curmudgeon, though, would deny that there is joy to be had in the technical and prime musical accomplishment here but there is more spontaneous colour, character, vulnerability and emotional risk in the three aforementioned versions; and that – and variety within – counts for more, especially on repeated listening. A curate’s egg of a Brandenburg.