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
English Baroque Soloists
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
“Recorded during and after a live performance at the Cité de la Musique, Paris, 10-12 January 2009 (Concertos 1-4, 6) and at Cadogan Hall, London, 13 April 2009 (Concerto 5)”
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: October 2009
CD No: SOLI DEO GLORIA
SDG 707 (2 CDs)
Duration: 92 minutes
concertante instruments in Concerto No.2 (recorder; high trumpet; oboe; violin) is balanced magnificently. The unforced, silvery tone of Neil Brough’s trumpet never lets his spectacular part overpower the gentler instruments. True the harpsichord continuo is really only evident in the lightly -cored slow movement (this happens in most of these recordings) but that seems to typify current recording techniques – perhaps engineers have come to fear those critics who nowadays seem easily shocked if the keyboard continuo is given realistic balance, especially if the player should dare to add an ornament or two.
Concerto No.3 is given in the precise original instrumentation (three each of violin, viola and cello with violone and harpsichord continuo). The reading is full of bouncing rhythms, yet despite this and quite rapid speeds, nothing is ever abrupt. The space between the two movements poses an eternal question: two chords and perhaps a flourish from violin or harpsichord can suffice but in this performance there is an extended violin extemporisation. It commences with a hint of the main theme of the first movement and takes some two minutes: a solution that differs a little from others and we can never be sure if Bach expected more than a brief link, but because she is so stylish, Kati Debretzeni’s moments of modest virtuosity are perfectly acceptable. The finale is swift, and how refreshing it is to hear it race to the final bars without the slightest hint of winding down by way of the traditional, enervating rallentando.
Concerto No.4 is notable for transparency of sound. Again Gardiner directs with a light touch and in the same way Kati Debretzeni elegantly portrays her elaborate part with effortless deftness. Indeed throughout the set she takes an ideal approach to decoration – certainly Bach is specific about it in No.4, writing it in as part of the fabric but Debretzeni is equally musical on a few other occasions when brief improvised flourishes are thought suitable.
In both No.4 and No.5 the harpsichord seems a touch more in evidence, but regardless of balance, the continuo line is attended-to with grace and subtlety. The harpsichord is played by Mathew Halls in all works other than Concerto No.5 – here Malcolm Proud is given the part – the instrument is still slightly reticent in balance but the amazing and demanding cadenza at the end of the first movement is triumphantly successful. There have been memorable examples of virtuosity at this point – my favourite example was performed spectacularly by Franz Rupp, an artist perhaps best known for being Fritz Kreisler’s pianist. The light, dancing nature of the finale typifies the high-spiritedness of Gardiner’s performances.
Ever-conscious of the importance of applying suitable timbre when giving ‘period’ readings, two of the cellists take up the viola da gamba in Concerto No.6. In his written note, Gardiner reveals that he is interested in the sonority of this music but again there is notable buoyancy in performance. The use of the violone for the bass line is an advantage – by comparison a double bass might have sounded unwieldy. It is amazing how sonorous so few instruments can sound – two each of violas and violas da gamba, a cello, a violone and harpsichord – the latter being a touch more in evidence than in the other works. It is possible that the viola-loving Bach might have used that instrument to lead performances of this work and I like to think that those occasions are reflected in the élan of the exceptionally high-spirited performance that Gardiner’s instrumentalists afford the finale.
It may seem a minor point but, throughout, I found the close of every movement refreshing – especially those in fast tempo because Gardiner has the music moving in a lively fashion directly to the end with never more than the slightest hint of final emphasis (and usually not even that).Free of traditional conceptions; free of notions added to the music by past performers; using small but entirely appropriate numbers of instruments and with virtuosity shared with untroubled ease between the players, this is a stylish set. Period performances have come a long way since the famous first recording of such an approach (by Jascha Horenstein, whose viola da gamba player was Nikolaus Harnoncourt!) and the clarity, elegance and liveliness of the English Baroque Soloists gives ‘authentic performance’ a most respectable name.