Bach
The Four Orchestral Suites

Adolf Busch Chamber Players (Recorded 1936)
Concertgebouw Orchestra / Willem Mengelberg (1931)
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra / Felix Weingartner (1939)
Boston Symphony Orchestra / Serge Koussevitzky (1946)


The Six Brandenburg Concertos

Berlin Philharmonic / Alois Melichar (1933)
Philadelphia Orchestra / Leopold Stokowski (1928)
Berlin Philharmonic / Wilhelm Furtwängler (1930)
L’Orchestre de Chambre de l’Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris / Alfred Cortot (1933)
Adolf Busch Chamber Players (1935)
Orchestra / Fritz Reiner (1949)


Bach orch. Mahler
Air (Suite No.3)

New York Philharmonic / Willem Mengelberg (1929)
CD No: ANDANTE 69948 71986 2 (3 CDs)
Duration:
Reviewed: October 2002
The idea is audacious: Bach’s Suites and Brandenburgs in recordings made from the late ’20s to the end of the ’40s by artists as widely different as they come.
For some it can make uncomfortable listening as it breaks the mould that Bach’s music should be treated in purist fashion – original instruments, no deviations from the text – with the greatest respect for the great Baroque tradition of which Bach is the shining example; something that Harnoncourt, Pinnock, Norrington and others reveal ad nausea.
I have always regarded this as rubbish. Why should us old brigade of music-lovers change our attitudes and opinions by endorsing the statements of precious upstarts that authenticism is the only way to perform this music?
Ralph Vaughan Williams deserves everyone’s grateful thanks for stating, in a BBC broadcast, that Bach would have loved to have heard his B minor Mass performed by massed choirs and full-sized symphony orchestra. Bach was a workaday composer and a genius who revelled in new discoveries, revealing fresh ideas and innovations – gathered mostly from travels, meetings and associations with important people just as aware as himself of an ever-changing world. Just as for the wise Dr. Samuel Johnson there was no proscribed road to success, but the quest of endeavour was soon to be channelled into performances which would reflect succeeding century’s tastes.
Orchestral Suites 1-4; Air (Suite No.3)

Perhaps the recorded performances by the Adolf Busch Chamber Players give the finest example of merging Baroque principles with modern instruments. Dance sequences in Suite 1 have that feeling of rightness in tempi and dynamics, stylish grace and continuity. In 1955, EMI France chose these 1936 recordings to grace their new “Great Recordings of the Century” LP label. The transfers were awful, but this example has been transformed.
I experienced some shock listening to Willem Mengelberg and his Concertgebouw Orchestra in Suite 2. The conductor – a great favourite of mine – pulls the music around mercilessly, halving the pulse in reply-motives, and not really establishing any basic pulse for the whole. This is, perhaps, his spontaneous reaction to Bach’s fusion of instrumental colours, solo flute to the fore. The second ’Bourrée’ has no shape at all, sounding like a tarantula struggling to free itself from a captive glass enclosure. Mengelberg’s Saint Matthew Passion (I note booklet-writer Tim Page’s allegiances to Klemperer) is a performance of incandescent beauty and bears no relation to the Suite.
A Mengelberg curiosity – this time the opulent strings of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1929 – offers a tantalising example of Mahler’s orchestration of the famous ’Air’ from Suite 3. Again the same provisos apply, but this is stunningly performed and heartfelt playing of a high order.
Felix Weingartner recorded Suite 3 in 1939. Noted for his Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and a range of romantic composers, this is a workmanlike reading, any imparted brightness of response in an average-size Paris Conservatoire Orchestra handicapped by the dead acoustic of Studio Albert. It makes for tedium as the work progresses. A habit of slowing codas – the final ’Gigue’ especially – and increasing the volume at the same time lends vulgarity to the proceedings.
Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra feature in Suite 4. The Tanglewood Music Shed recording from 1946 was made four years before the Russian conductor’s death and reveals – like the Rockport Classics issue of Matthew Passion – a studied control of top-line strings merging with other instruments, with great respect for clarity but a certain lack of humour. There is no doubt who is in charge – the conductor’s martinet discipline shining through, the response spot-on.
Brandenburg Concertos

With the obvious strictures involving overtures and dance numbers requiring style and sensitivity – albeit with a choice of contrasting personalities throughout – it was with some relief to switch to the Brandenburgs and their freer, more open sequences of scoring and lighter textures. See them as the chosen Light Music of their day – and a galaxy of imaginative treatments suggests themselves.
The need for correct-sounding forces, however, can impose certain impositions on choosing a modest band with knowledge of unanimous phrasing and a sense of togetherness. The Berlin Philharmonic under Alois Melichar does not possess this in No.1. This is a lumpy, heavy and incorrectly judged performance, despite Szymon Goldberg’s singing violin tone.
Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in No.2 are inspired and devotional by comparison. The 1928 recording finds conductor and performers at the height of their powers; any pre-conceptions of ’Stokie’ laying it on with a trowel, Bach waffling, is thankfully absent. The proportion of pulse allied to tonal shaping of melodic content is perfectly achieved throughout the three movements.
Amazingly, there is a remarkable similarity in Wilhelm Furtwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic performance of No.3 from two years later. The springiness of the rhythms has that marvellous Berliner bass line, with its rich tone providing a balanced intensity that cannot be ignored.
The pianist Alfred Cortot, also represented on the HMV label as a conductor, had that intuitive knack of presenting Bach’s oeuvres in gallant style. One has the impression that this was a conscious attempt to popularise the music with a generation of students who were under his authority. It hardly affects the basic pulse when he introduces rubati into the phrasing. Acute listeners will note that he performs the ritornello for the opening ’Allegro’ of Brandenburg 4 slightly faster: possibly he wanted to impart greater feeling of jollity when the theme returns; he reverts to ’tempo primo’ at the close. The central ’Andante’ has such passion and the concluding ’Allegro’ such joie de vivre.
Busch and his players had the services of son-in-law Rudolf Serkin in No.5 – a justly famous version as the young pianist stays closely in touch with his fellow instrumentalists in the long first movement, sliding cannily out on his own for the long (originally harpsichord) cadenza. This is strongly tinged with Romanticism, but nothing like the live version directed by Furtwängler at the piano who turns it into Brahms, then Busoni! Adolf Busch had done his homework. He directs a performance that cleverly conforms to said Baroque procedures, both in dance metres and balanced instrumentation, which sound refreshingly relaxed and refined.
For some time I have cherished a fondness for Fritz Reiner’s conducting of the Brandenburgs when they appeared on Columbia Masterworks LPs, then in a transfer by the ill-fated Dante-Lys label, the booklet showing the great conductor in smiling, affable mood which, except for family photographs, was a very rare thing! Reiner’s wonderful feeling for style and exact rhythms pays dividends. In concerto No.6 he never allows middle and lower strings – in the absence of violins – to sound turgid and heavy-footed. With William Lincer and Nicholas Bird leading the viola section, the hand-picked chamber orchestra has that open, glowing sound that gives complete enjoyment.

 

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