Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos/Jeanette Sorrell

0 of 5 stars

Brandenburg Concertos:
No.1 in F, BWV1046
No.2 in F, BWV1047
No.3 in G, BWV1048
No.4 in G, BWV1049
No.5 in D, BWV1050
No.6 in B flat, BWV1051
Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV1052
Harpsichord Concerto in F minor, BWV1056
Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV1052 [reconstruction]

Elizabeth Wallfisch (violin)

Apollo’s Fire (The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra)
Jeannette Sorrell (harpsichord)

Recorded between 1999 and 2005 in St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: August 2010
AV2207 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 32 minutes



Jeannette Sorrell is a noted harpsichordist and she plays the instrument both as soloist (Brandenburg 5 and the two concertos for harpsichord) and as provider of continuo support while directing from the keyboard in ‘period’ style. In fact ‘period’ style is the essence of her approach. She never draws attention to herself but is not afraid to draw on personal ideas; for example there is a certain amount of freedom with ornamentation but I never find it intrusive and it is confined to repetitions of already-heard music. My favourite set of decorations is at the third Trio of the Minuet finale of Brandenburg 1 – daring syncopations for horns but they enhance the music. A feature here is the hint of glissando to the upper notes – an element found also in the main theme of the Minuet proper. I am very puzzled as to why the opening few minutes of this finale are on track 4 but at the start of the second Trio section track 5 begins. There is no break in the continuity of the music so this seems a strange decision.

The string band used for three works is quite small and its leader, Cynthia Roberts, is used for all the concertante parts (violino piccolo in No.1). This means that often there are only four violins in the main body of the orchestra yet nothing seems underpowered. The fully scored First Concerto sounds suitably grand in the warm church acoustic with a colourful blending of instruments from the outset. At the coda of the opening movement it is clear that there is to be no playing down of Bach’s many daring effects for here the horns are allowed to play boldly across the rhythm of the rest of the band, giving an extraordinary syncopated feel – so often these instruments are subdued.

The sound is excellent in Brandenburg 2 – the perennial problem of balancing the trumpet gives no problem. This is an elegantly moulded reading and Sorrell’s continuo contribution is both subtle and effective. As so often nowadays, the harpsichord is not recorded with any great deal of presence, although its balance is still superior to that of many a rival recording. Full marks for the weight and clarity of the double bass; this means that in No.3, played with the authentic three each of violins, violas and cellos plus continuo, the harmonic support is ideal. Sorrell provides a keyboard improvisation of approximately a minute, supported by the occasional answering phrase from other instruments – an admirable solution to the question of creating the slow movement that Bach never wrote and the subsequent finale is very fiery.

The concertante element in No.4 is once again ideally blended: two ‘flauti dolce’ provide the very timbre that their name suggests (a more elegant name than the English ‘recorder’ or the German ‘Blockflöte’) and the charmingly insane rushing violin scales in the first movement that Bach has hurrying about behind the wind melodies are thrown off effortlessly. In this work the continuo group is again exemplary, pointing the lower harmonies with clarity but not intrusively.

In her booklet note Jeannette Sorrell illuminates the problems of playing continuo and also blending as joint soloist with concertante flute and violin and then coping with the terrifying, extensive first movement cadenza of No.5. She performs all three tasks magnificently, the engineers balance her nearly forwardly enough and her harpsichord has a pleasing quality without sounding underpowered. It is good to hear the detail with such clarity that it becomes obvious that the lengthy cadenza has started while the other instruments are still playing.

There is no multiplying of string parts in No.6 which here uses two violas, one cello; two violas da gamba; double bass and harpsichord. Absolute clarity ensures that the risk of the traditional full-bodied greyness of sound is entirely avoided. The moving slow movement is enhanced by the expressiveness of the continuo double bass and the dancing finale is delightful, rarely have I heard such an appropriate lightness of touch in this music.

The selection of solo concertos is interesting: both editions of BWV 1052 are given – this well-known harpsichord concerto is derived from a lost original for violin. A number of musicians have restored the original from the keyboard score – the most notable version of which was published in 1959 – a reconstruction by Ingolf Dahl and Josef Szigeti. Ruggiero Ricci who is enthusiastic about this work as a violin concerto, has recorded this edition and has often played it during concerts.

Sorrell follows Brandenburg 6 with the keyboard version of the D minor concerto. Naturally the solo instrument is evident for the individual passages but interestingly the director’s continuo chords are also more in evidence than usual. Not surprisingly the tempos and phrasing are not at all similar in the two versions. In the first movement, the harpsichord version is taken a touch slower than the violin version and the differences in phrasing are very much to do with Sorrell’s care in seeing that soloist and orchestra agree with each other in shaping melodies. Naturally she and Elizabeth Wallfisch would not see these movements in the same way and it is the violinist who is relatively unhurried in the slow movement – a speed at which the keyboard would probably not have been able to sustain the melodic line. In the finale, Wallfisch is again faster than Sorrell although part of the two-minute difference is accounted for by the longer keyboard cadenza. Even so, the combination of different instrument and different tempo makes for a big difference in feeling. Wallfisch’s confident, natural approach here confirms her innate sympathy for Bach.

Bach’s brief, dark, tuneful F minor Harpsichord Concerto brings out the expressive element in Sorrell’s playing. She proves it possible to be flexible in phrasing without stepping outside the confines of Baroque style.

The combination of original ideas in interpretation, while still staying close to period style makes this a most attractive set. The Brandenburg Concertos (Sorrell’s were previously available on another label, and now Avie competes with its Pinnock set) alone usually take two CDs so here is excellent value.

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