Academy of Ancient Music

Suite in B minor, BWV1067
Concerto in D minor for harpsichord, BWV1052
Concerto in G minor for harpsichord, BWV1058
Brandenburg Concerto No.5 in D, BWV1050

The Academy of Ancient Music:

Richard Egarr (harpsichord/director)
Rachel Brown (flute)
Pavlo Beznosiuk & Pauline Nobes (violins)
Rachel Byrt (viola)
Alison McGillivray (cello)
Malachy Robinson (double bass)
William Carter (theorbo, lute)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 1 June, 2004
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

In 1730s’ Leipzig, Zimmerman’s coffee-house was the venue for weekly concerts. The need for new music inspired Bach to rework earlier material into concertos for harpsichord, two of which formed to the core of this concert. Whilst it may have been possible to perform concertos successfully with one string player to each part in the presumably limited confines of Zimmerman’s, in the larger spaces of St John’s – and with period instruments – a more pragmatic approach would have dictated more personnel, not least because Richard Egarr’s harpsichord tended to blunt the ensemble’s impact.

Interestingly, both the Suite and the Brandenburg seemed to respond better to this minimalist treatment. The Suite received an attractively gentle and intimate performance, no excessive double-dotting, moderate tempos throughout, much light and shade, and individual movements well characterised, the dance very much to the fore in the stately Sarabande and Polonaise (presumably the leader, Pavlo Beznosiuk, is of Polish extraction). Flautist Rachel Brown produced unfailingly beautiful sounds, the central section of the Polonaise being especially memorable, and the final Badinerie was taken at a moderate tempo, which allowed decoration to register.

In the Fifth Brandenburg, the three soloists – violin, flute and harpsichord – were ranged to the left with the other five players to the right. Egarr can push the tempo on occasion, producing a slight roller-coaster effect, but this was a thoroughly enjoyable performance if without quite the finesse of his recent, slightly larger-scale rendition with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The Academy’s more intimate approach brought compensations aplenty in the form of Brown’s amiable flute, with its beautiful lower register, in the trio-sonata slow movement, replete with tasteful embellishment, and in the well-managed transition to the closing gigue.

Of the harpsichord concertos, the D minor is one of the very greatest concertos of any period whilst the G minor is a reworking of the A minor violin concerto. The performance of the first one was at its best in the stark stabbing Adagio. In the outer movements the lack of heft in the strings and the comparatively relaxed tempo in the finale militated against the music attaining its full propulsive energy, although there were fine individual details such as Rachel Byrt’s first movement viola solo. The G minor concerto is altogether less forceful but still demanding for the soloist with its brilliant passage work; Egarr gave it the “Full Monty” but was occasionally over-emphatic, for instance in the Andante where the line was frequently disrupted.

Some reservations aside this was an enjoyable concert topped off by a delightful performance of the catchy opening movement of a Telemann concerto featuring the same combination of soloists as Brandenburg 5, one strongly reminiscent melodically of the Boccherini Quintet recently used in the soundtrack for the movie “Master and Commander”.

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