Brandenburg Concertos

0 of 5 stars

The Six Brandenburg Concertos, BWV1046-1051

Concerto Italiano
Rinaldo Alessandrini (harpsichord)

Recorded in March 2005 in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: November 2005
CD No: NAIVE OP 30412
(2 CDs + Bonus DVD)
Duration: 1 hour 40 minutes [excluding DVD]

Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (so-called after the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, for whom Bach compiled these works in 1721 as an elaborate job application) present the listener with a bewildering array of instrumental combinations and compositional procedures. Equally bewildering is the range of recordings currently on the market. Do we need another? In this case, an unequivocal ‘yes’.

These six concertos offer the sensitive musician ample opportunities to balance the extremes of Bach’s art (variety of orchestration and strictness of counterpoint). Current thinking tends towards leanness, performing these works as chamber music by avoiding an enlargement of the ripieno strings. So we end up with what is essentially a string quartet amplifying the function of the continuo and forming a solid base for the concertino, whether that comprises recorder, trumpet, violin and oboe (Concerto No.2) or solo violin, transverse flute and the harpsichord itself (Concerto No.5). And when the ripieno is omitted, as in the Third (three each of violin, viola and cello, with continuo) or the Sixth (two viols da braccio and two viols da gamba, with continuo), the harmonic context isn’t so easy to grasp. The loss of timbral distinction in these last two works doesn’t help matters either. So thank goodness for Rinaldo Alessandrini’s clear-headedness and studious avoidance of interpretative mannerisms.

Interpreters of the past, including Rosalyn Tureck and Ralph Kirkpatrick, have written extensively on the need to focus simultaneously on the minutiae of Bach’s phrase-structure in the context of the overall texture at every level. In the DVD interview that accompanies the present recording, Alessandrini makes the very same point while providing illustrations on the harpsichord. And you can hear the results – in the beautifully balanced phrasing of the violin in the First and Fourth Concertos and in Alessandrini’s own playing in the cadenza of the Fifth (the original 17-bar cadenza, before Bach extended it to 65 to impress the Margrave, is included as a separate track), but also in the sheer clarity with regard to sonority and tone colour in the fabulous First Concerto featuring two horns, three oboes, bassoon.

Alessandrini has done us all a favour by clarifying the essentials of Bach’s art in the most elegant and tasteful manner. Yes, there’s still plenty of room for individual expression – but on Bach’s terms, not the performers. Concerto Italiano manage to steer a middle way through the approaches taken by their compatriots Il Giardino Armonico and Germans Musica Antiqua Köln. In the booklet a commentary on each concerto is provided by Alessandrini himself; the aforementioned DVD features not only an interview with Alessandrini but superb performance footage.

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