JS Bach Orchestral Suites

Orchestral Bach from Freiburg and Ravenna

Author: 
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
JS Bach Orchestral Suites, Freiburg Baroque OrchestraJS Bach Orchestral Suites, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

BACH Orchestral Suites – Müllejans

  • (4) Orchestral Suites

It’s hard to imagine an eminent Baroque ensemble more temperamentally suited to the esprit of Bach’s four orchestral essays than the Freiburgers. Taking chronology as opposed to traditional numbering as the rationale for starting with the Fourth Suite, elegance immediately defines the rhythmic identity of the playing; the unforced gestural landscape is governed equally by instinct and experience – remaining undimmed towards the last exultant strains of the Gigue of the other, more famous, D major Suite (No 3).

Quibble, as one might, with the inconsistent internal tuning of the winds, there is something enchantingly episodic and genial about the alternativements dances in all four works. In the best sense, some of the movements are almost businesslike with the essence of the music truly ingrained, as for example the way the string fanfares of the middle section of the Gavotte of the C major Suite simply flourish. In the less diverting moments, such as the Passepieds of the same work, one wishes for an embrace, not just steady handshakes.

It is, however, the objective dignity afforded to the more extrovert dances, alongside the studied intimacy of the B minor Suite (No 2) which produces the variety and range of characterisation evident in the best recorded sets (of which Koopman’s DHM reading from 1989 still takes some beating). Not without fantasy and playfulness – indeed the opening Allegro rushes – one rarely hears the B minor performed with such a keen ear for the timbral possibilities between
flute and strings, although some will find the intonation between flute and cello a little too gamy for comfort.

As for the ubiquitous Air of the Third Suite, it is presented here as a distant shadow in a gleaming starlit night, a touch disarming at first and then quite mesmerising. That, perhaps, sums up much of this fresh but reassuringly familiar landscape, one which joins Koopman and the early Pinnock performances at the top.

Rather less enticing, though no less brilliantly executed, is the recital of cantata sinfonias from Ottavio Dantone. Only occasionally does such a diverse anthology serve the music well (I recall Helmut Winschermann doing so effectively in the early 1970s), since these often conceit-ridden pieces – concerto movements aside – are designed to prepare the way for sung revelation, not as stand-alone pieces cheek-by-jowl with contrasting instrumental works.

A survey of such preambles is further undone by the superficiality of the performances, notably with incessant ornamentation rather than tear-away speeds (as can be the case with Italian Baroque groups). BWV29 ends with an inexplicably curious figure in the organ after the final chord (or is it an editing mistake?), and BWV156 comprises excess embellishment which renders Bach’s original contour almost undecipherable. The fast concerto movements, mainly with organ obbligato,
are confidently delivered by Dantone, if unyieldingly pointillist in articulation. Overall, this is a collection of brilliant thrills but ultimately less than gratifying Bach‑playing.

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