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
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Recorded 22 & 23 November 2007 in Gewandhaus zu Leipzig
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: March 2010
CD No: DECCA 478 2191 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 34 minutes
How times have changed: it is now unusual to have recordings of Bach’s music played by orchestras using modern instruments but here the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra gives a convincing presentation of Bach’s intentions. I see no objection to today’s instruments being used provided that the performing conventions of the 18th-century are adhered to as far as possible. My review of these works in John Eliot Gardiner’s stylish version uses period instruments. I mentioned that he uses tempos that tended to be slightly on the swifter side of average but that once a speed was set it was always adhered to. Riccardo Chailly’s view is surprisingly similar to Gardiner’s.
Chailly has no problems in balancing the orchestral strands and the rich quality of the strings, greater in number in this music than we have come to expect in recent years, is not allowed to overpower the winds. The bright reading of the First Concerto is rather fetching – in particular I like the subtleties applied to the finale with its many-times returning Minuet. I was surprised to hear its second playing being given in a hushed manner but this is very effective. I note too that Chailly makes both repeats on this section’s every reappearance, yet given his brisk speed and lively rhythm this approach made good structural sense. One or two of the intervening trio sections are allowed to become even more lively but this seemed to enhance what can sometimes appear to be an over-extended movement.
Admirable lightness informs Concerto 2. Chailly authentically uses recorder rather than flute but attains superb balance – no overpowering trumpet despite the modern instrument. Oboe trills beneath delicate trumpet melodies make equal impact; solo violin and recorder are given equal presence. True the ear is really only aware of the harpsichord in the slow movement (this is so in most of these performances although the instrument sounds more ‘present’ than in the Gardiner version) but, in general, successful balance is of the essence – the Leipzig players seem to delight in presenting the rapidly varying timbres – especially in this work’s finale.
An, elegant unhurried opening movement in No.3 has the first example of post-Bach thinking when Chailly unexpectedly pulls back in order to gather together and emphasise the final statement of the theme. The problem of the lack of slow movement is solved by violinist Sebastian Breuninger who plays a cadenza lasting a minute and a half; he is accompanied by continuo in only the last few bars before Chailly interprets the finale coolly while still achieving good detail within his multiple strings.
Violin and two recorders are the protagonists in No.4 – and they are provided with notably secure lateral placement and are separated in a realistic stereo spread. Solo violin does not over-impose and the continuo group adds admirable weight yet plays with clear articulation. No lingering, just clear-cut projection of the concertante group. The rapidly changing colouration in this concerto is achieved with subtlety, especially in the Andante, and again this applies equally to the imaginative continuo group.
The highpoint of Concerto 5 is the exciting playing of Michael Schönheit in Bach’s spectacular harpsichord cadenza near the close of the first movement. Schönheit uses a smooth-toned instrument which does not always make full impact and I should have preferred it if the recording had given the instrument more presence, but once again Chailly ensures that his fine orchestra supports his concertante group with diligent attention to where the melodic line lies – be it solo or orchestral. Solo transverse flute and violin appear to emanate from the desks where they might be expected to be placed in with the harpsichord. The slow movement is full of delightful and delicate responses between the soloists – it seems that the large-scale of these readings does not preclude suitably restrained musicianship being employed.
Concerto 6 has much respect for period practice with lower strings represented by two violas da gamba, cello and bass. The violas take the leading parts using flexible phrasing. Perhaps modern instruments cannot be expected entirely to lighten the innate darkness of Bach’s scoring but once again Chailly ensures clarity of inner parts.
There are memorable early recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos on modern instruments – the earliest in my memory was the admirably sturdy version by Harry Newstone for Saga – and authenticity was also represented well in another fine early stereo version under Max Goberman. Since then a number of distinguished conductors have successfully paid homage to 18th-century style using modern instruments – I recall that Neville Marriner was particularly stylish – but contemporary taste is sometimes surprisingly demanding: I even saw recently that a contributor to a discussion on Menuhin’s version complained that original instruments were not used in that recording. Of course I understand those who prefer old instruments and am happy to reiterate my enthusiasm for John Eliot Gardiner’s presentation, but I am also much impressed by Riccardo Chailly’s interpretations and the sensitive manner in which he uses a distinguished modern symphony orchestra to put them over.