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Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr (conductor)
Recorded at St. Jude’s-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden, London (May 2008) – 96’20
harmonia mundi HMU 807461.62 – Booklet in English, French, and German

The first question that pops into mind upon confronting a new recording of the Brandenburgs – in this case that of the Academy of Ancient Music under Richard Egarr – is of course: do we really need another recording of these pieces? After all, there is a wealth of choice already available, ranging from original instrument renderings, through those with more modern forces filtered through a heightened period awareness, to grandiose interpretations from the bad old days of pre-modern Baroque scholarship that we are not supposed to like anymore, but secretly do. Egarr himself alludes to the pressure for such justification of additional outings in his excellent essay included in the CD booklet. At the end of the day however this is, as Egarr contends, a matter of wasted ink; the music is its own recommendation, and these exquisite works easily bear a myriad of readings. With this present recording there is more compelling motivation still. The Academy has here elected to present the works in their rarely-heard, original chamber conception with only one player per part. Egarr has also elected to utilize the “French” Baroque tuning of A = 392, as opposed to the more standard A = 415 utilized in Baroque performance. The sound is rather spare and also a bit more “hail-and-well-met” as it were - and thereby, is quite often more viscerally affecting than is frequently the case in period instrument readings.

Some may feel that Concerto no.1 introduces the first disc shakily, and find Egarr’s concept questionably served by what appears to be an overly reverberant acoustic and aggressive miking of the brass; orchestral textures become lost in an undifferentiated cacophony of sound that is initially a trifle jarring to the ear. Once past the opening concerto, matters settle in for a most enjoyable (and more pristinely captured) traversal of these delightful works, and as always with a fine Brandenburg performance, one finds a plethora of detail, as though discovering the music anew. Concerto no.2 is an absolute delight, particularly in the Allegro assai, which finds David Blackadder’s trumpet solo virtually bursting through the speakers with enchanting verve and personality. The remaining cadre of soloists is very strong indeed. Robert Ehrlich offers persuasive aural evidence for the use of recorder in this thrice-familiar movement, and Frank de Bruine and Pavlo Beznosiuk field the oboe and violin parts respectively with vigor and grace.

The recording moves from pleasure to pleasure with Concerto no.3’s rollicking Allegro, which is teasingly initiated by William Carter’s playful continuo on Italian theorbo.

Ehrlich is joined by Antje Hensel for a most pleasing blend in the recorder writing of Concerto no. 4, which opens the second disc. There is some particularly beautiful work from the strings in the Affetuoso of Concerto no. 5, and the Adagio of Concerto no. 6 is meltingly beautiful; the Allegro then bringing what is an invigoratingly thought-provoking performance to a close.

In the spirit of honesty it remains to be seen if, after repeated listening, this set emerges as my top-choice period instrument rendering – to these particular ears, that currently falls to a couple of other candidates, chief among them the now-classic Archiv set with the English Concert under Trevor Pinnock. But to continue in that truthful vein, where the Pinnock can occasionally seem a mite squeaky-clean and clinical, Egarr’s Academy of Ancient Music’s grittier, more primal handling of the works provides a very compelling alternative that should prove keenly satisfying to many listeners. I would not want to be without either of them.

The discs are most attractively presented in a sensible, tri-fold cardboard case, and the accompanying booklet is visually appealing, with some very pleasing photography – including welcome portrait shots of the principle players. Egarr’s informative essay is interesting and affectionately considered, and is given in three languages.

Mark Thomas Ketterson




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