Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concertos: N° 1 in F major, BWV 1046  – N° 3 in G major, BWV 1048  – N° 4 in G major, BWV 1049  – N° 5 in D major, BWV 1050  – N° 6 in B-Flat major, BWV 1051  – N° 2 in F major, BWV 1047 
William Lane/Ralph Pyle (Horn) , Thomas Stevens (Trumpet) , Barbara Winters/Donald Muggeridge/Robert Cowart (Oboe) , David Weiss (Oboe) , Alan Goodman (Bassoon) , Pinchas Zukerman (Violin) [1, 3, 4, 6], Anne Diener Giles (Flute) [4, 5, 6], Roland Moritz (Flute) , Zita Carno (Harpsichord) , Roland Leonhard (Violincello) , Pinchas Zukerman/Alan de Veritch (Viola) , Glenn Dicterow (Concertmaster and First Violin) [1-6], Dennis Trembly (Double-bass), Pinchas Zukerman (Conductor), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Recording: Los Angeles, California (March 1977) – 100’52
PentaTone Remastered Classics #PTC 5186 205 [Remastered from Deutsche Grammophon #DGG 2702 098 Double LP 1977 Release] – Booklet in English and German (Distributed by Naxos of America)
Violin virtuoso Pinchas Zukerman was 28 and just beginning work as a conductor when he made this remarkable recording for Deutsche Grammophon (DG) almost 40 years ago. The sessions were recorded in four-channel surround for release in quadraphonic audio, a problematic format espoused by several record companies during the 1970s. While quad discs for this release seem to have disappeared (quad flopped due to unending technical glitches for both hardware and software, plus ever-changing format incompatibilities), it’s worth noting that the two-LP DG stereo set continues to sell on eBay.
PentaTone is remastering a number of vintage quadraphonic discs for Super Audio CD (SACD), today’s niche format for high resolution multichannel audio, and has punctiliously remastered the original four-channel tapes and released this Bach disc on a hybrid SACD which also plays on regular CD machines. It’s a welcome, salutary disc for a number of reasons.
The new disc can be played in two-channel or four-channel audio on SACD compatible players as well as stereo on a standard CD unit (a category which includes DVD and Blu-ray video players.) My review disc did not seem to want to play in four-channel surround with analog output from my vintage Sony SCD-CE595 carousel SACD player (a unit dating from 2004); however, it delivered four-channel surround audio from my Oppo DV-983H DVD player (acquired 2008) with HDMI output to my Denon receiver. [NOTE: While SACD remains a niche format, most Oppo DVD and Blu-ray players include SACD (also DVD-audio) capability, as well as certain Denon, Pioneer and Marantz players among others; Sony, however, is not at this time producing dedicated SACD units.]
The PentaTone reissue is of particular interest given that in 1977 Zukerman pared down the Los Angeles Philharmonic to a chamber size ensemble parallel in scope to that of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO), initially planned as a chamber orchestra and for which Zukerman would become music director twenty-two years later in 1999. He remained for 16 years, completing his tenure with a series of three superb concerts and a final performance on June 20, 2015 (Read here.)
Today, Zukerman’s 1977 Bach recording is a prescient, intriguing and rewarding time capsule, as well as a fine set of performances which any music lover should relish. For some reason PentaTone presents the Brandenburg Concertos in not-quite chronological sequence, ending with Concerto N° 2. (The original DG LPs had works in sequence of 1, 2, 4, 3, 6 and 5, presumably to accommodate time limits for LP sides.)
The bottom line is the new release is one for which most people will simply sit back and relax. Concerto N° 1 in F major, BVW 1046 starts in a deceptively workmanlike manner which coyly makes people wait for more exotic things to come, which doesn’t take long. The second movement, “Adagio”, has a lovely oboe solo, and then violin, soon over near dissonant harmonics which (briefly) could be mistaken for something composed much more recently. The third movement, “Allegro”, features unassuming brass which suddenly slow to a near crawl before leading into the final movement which juxtaposes a minuet, a trio and a polonaise in a sophisticated dialog with exchanges among winds, strings and brass. On a comparatively small scale, Bach here is foreshadowing some of the more elaborate structural concepts which Haydn, Beethoven and others would explore further down the road.
In Concerto N° 3 in G major, BVW 1048, the highlight is the second movement’s delicately balanced harpsichord continuo, leading to brisk tempi and disarmingly clear textures in the final “Allegro.” Concerto N° 4 in G major, BVW 1049 is almost a Concertino for flute and chamber orchestra, with the flute as lyrical soloist in the first two movements, then a brilliant fugue for strings opening the final “Presto.” However, the flute returns for its rightful place, as it were, though with an exquisitely delicate violin solo also contributing...it seems Bach was having fun with his players, handing out goodies to his favorites along the way.
Concerto N° 5, BVW 1050 may be the most familiar of the six Brandenburgs and is notable for the numerous harpsichord solos and cadenzas played on an exquisite J.C. Neupert instrument with stunning, effortless understatement by soloist Zita Carno, a promising rookie with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1977. Concerto N° 6 in B-Flat major, BVW 1051, after yet another workmanlike opening movement, continues with a virtual string quartet for the second, “Adagio ma non tanto”. This leads directly to the finale, “Allegro”, one of the composer’s most famous compositions, building on triple time elements over a sustained quarter time foundation.
Perhaps it’s the flashy trumpet solos which prompted PentaTone to save Concerto N° 2 in F major, BVW 1047 for the grand finale. The opening “Allegro” features the trumpet in quite high register (and once or twice, with rather iffy intonation.) We can only speculate on whether or not Bach was summoning some kind of imaginary cavalry, but this music should grab anyone’s attention, not just classical music lovers. The second movement, “Andante”, is an exquisite blend of strings, winds and solo violin (Glenn Dicterow, who is superb). For the closing “Allegro Assai”, the trumpet returns to centre stage (metaphorically at least) and the Concerto and this SACD set reaches a brilliant conclusion.
In all six Concertos, Pinchas Zukerman conducted his Los Angeles players with finesse and illumination, as well as solid overall balance and impressive (though never exaggerated or otherwise inappropriate) dynamic and tonal range. Decades later, he would often include such performances with NACO in Ottawa, in tandem with the more richly textured symphonic repertoire he was exploring by the start of the new century.
To say the least, it’s extraordinary to have this glimpse back in time which, on its own, has genuine merit, as well as demonstrating the emergence of one of today’s most celebrated conductors.
Charles Pope Jr.