The Brandenburg Concertos/Gardiner

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

English Baroque Soloists
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 14 August, 2010
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Phoptograph: Sheila Rock. ©DeccaBach Day at the Proms got underway in the best possible fashion with the Brandenburg Concertos, split between two concerts (the first two Proms Saturday Matinees of this season) rather than being offered as the more-usual one. An hour separated the two events, giving a chance for the harpsichord to be re-tuned. John Eliot Gardiner programmed the six Concertos (1, 6 & 4; 3, 5 & 2) is a way which revealed the huge diversity of musical invention in this set and, between conducting duties, made an excellent guide to the music in conversation with BBC Radio 3’s Catherine Bott.

Concerto No.1 became in this performance the longest, Gardiner adding a reprise of music from the third movement to the end of the fourth. He explained that he found the return to the Minuet to be a bit of a “downer” and his interfering with Bach’s score was a brave decision. It worked well, perhaps better than Gardiner’s other innovation. The two horns were, for the first movement alone, placed above the stage in the small raised gallery to emphasise Gardiner’s belief that these players crash the party-in-progress with their attention-seeking acrobatics and cross-rhythms. At the top of their range, the horns were more clearly audible in this position, but their lower notes trampled across the rest of the ensemble. Gardiner may have argued that this was the interpretative point, but it seemed too coarse. There were fine solos from Kati Debretzeni on piccolo violin and Michael Niesemann on oboe, and broad, sensitive, phrasing made the recurring Minuet a pleasure each time it returned.

Gardiner revealed that the Sixth Concerto is his favourite among the set and it was the first of three that he sat aside for. Bach, himself a violist, here gives the lower strings their moment in the sun. A pair of violas takes the bulk of the solo material, but their contribution here was not always faultless and without Gardiner’s typically forceful direction this performance seemed subdued. Gardiner’s hand was again at the tiller for the final Concerto of the first concert. Gardiner commented beforehand on Bach’s eccentric instrumentation in many of these pieces, proven here, in the Fourth, by the combination of a pair of recorders with solo violin. The recorders are very difficult to balance but Rachel Beckett and Catherine Latham were clear throughout. Kati Debretzeni sounded, oddly enough, slightly less comfortable on the full-size violin and her tone was a little harder. Nonetheless, she dispatched the more obviously virtuosic solo part with superb style. Gardiner rounded of the finale with brilliantly controlled rubato.

To open the second concert, Debretzeni almost launched into the Third Brandenburg prematurely, having to be interrupted hastily by Catherine Bott with the news that the live broadcast had not yet begun! When the performance recommenced, it was one that surpassed the high standard set by the first of these concerts. This most familiar of Brandenburgs became the most thrilling of the lot. The strings produced a remarkable sound which was both transparent and meaty. Debretzeni moved from tutti to soli effortlessly and her extended cadenza between the first and second movements made perfect sense of the two enigmatic chords which connect the movements. As the swirling counterpoint of the second movement drew to a close, Debretzeni placed the final note with a wry smile that summed up all of the charm and élan of this mercurial performance.

The Fifth Concerto is, in some ways, the strangest of the lot. Malcolm Proud’s harpsichord began as the continuo instrument and then muscled through the textures to take centre-stage with the wacky extended solo. Proud chose a breakneck pace which fully demonstrated the depth of the cadenza’s strangeness, but which seemed at the upper end of his ability and became a little rough around the edges.

The shortest and most exuberant of these pieces concluded the second concert. Gardiner spoke about the impossibility of balancing the four soloists on modern instruments, but with baroque counterparts the recorder, oboe, trumpet and violin blended well. Neil Brough performed on a natural trumpet and his high-wire act was astonishing for its ease. The terrifying entry into the finale held no peril for Brough and his virtuosity was astonishing. Brough, Debretzeni and Niesemann were joined by Rachel Beckett on recorder, although it still struggled against the greater ensemble. Brough and Debretzeni emerged as extraordinary soloists, with Debretzeni particularly a delight in the concertos to which she contributed.

It was a joy to hear performances as good as these, but the experience was enhanced by the radio presentation. Catherine Bott introduced each piece, often turning during the extensive stage re-jigs to Gardiner for expert opinion. A lot of nonsense is spoken about attracting new (read “younger”) audiences. Some would have us believe that allowing people to clap whenever they want and to drink during a concert is the solution. It isn’t. Presentation as slick and informative (though not didactic) as accompanied these Brandenburg concerts is surely an answer. I am sure that anyone coming new to this survey of the Brandenburgs would have come away not only having heard some exceptional performances but also understood a great deal about Bach-the-human-being and about the challenges of interpreting his music – something aided by a presenter as knowledgeable and comfortable as Catherine Bott and a musician able to talk easily about his art as John Eliot Gardiner.

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