Friday, June 18, 2021

Bach and the orchestra

"Bach and the orchestra" - that is probably the wrong title for a weblog with reviews of instrumental music for more than a few instruments. In the baroque era, the orchestra did not exist. Instrumental music was played by a court chapel, like the one in Dresden, or a Collegium Musicum, like the one Bach directed in Leipzig. Such ensembles covered any kind of instrumental music, from sonatas for a few instruments to concertos for one or more solo instruments and suites. Moreover, what today is called 'orchestral music' may well mostly have been played with one instrument per part, which basically nullifies the difference between 'chamber music' and 'orchestral music'. Three of the recordings reviewed here follow this principle; on the remaining two we hear ensembles of a considerably larger size.

The four Overtures or orchestral suites fit into a tradition which had established itself in the last decades of the 17th century, when aristocrats were so impressed by the splendour of Louis XIV's court that they wished to copy what was going on there, and that included aspects of musical life. The instrumental music which was part of the operas by Jean-Baptiste Lully made a great impression and composers went to France to listen and to study. They started to compose in the French style. Telemann, Fasch and Bach were among the composers who adopted the form of the orchestral suite, and turned it into a tool of the 'mixed taste', in which elements of the French, the Italian and the German style were mingled. Rinaldo Alessandrini, in the liner-notes to his recording of the four Overtures by Bach [1], extensively explains what we know or what can be assumed about the history of these works. Much remains in the dark, and there are also aspects of performance practice which leave much open for debate and for different solutions. That concerns, for instance, the number of players to be involved, an aspect I already mentioned above. Alessandrini is one of those who believe that a performance with one instrument per part was the standard. This results in a more prominent role of the winds in the Overtures 1, 3 and 4. Another issue is that of repeats: in many performances the opening section of the ouverture is repeated, but not the second (ABA). Alessandrini does repeat it, and it is followed by a second repeat of the A section (ABABA). He also repeats most dacapos of the dances. He does not say anything conclusive about the question whether this was music for dancing, which may have consequences for the tempi. Notable is that he takes the courante in the Overture No. 1 slower than other performers. The last notes of every phrase of the forlane is emphasized. Curious is the speeding up at the end of the polonaise in the Overture No. 2. Here the ornamentation of the flute part is modest; there is no ornamentation in the tutti. The playing time of the overtures together, when the opening movements are as long as here, is rather uncomfortable: too long for one disc, too short for two. Alessandrini had the nice idea to add one of the four overtures by Johann Bernhard Bach and the only overture by Johann Ludwig Bach. This is a well-deserved tribute to two members of the Bach dynasty, and shows that Bach's overtures fit in a tradition embraced by other members of his family as well. Overall, Alessandrini has managed to come up with an original contribution to a corpus of music that is frequently performed and recorded. The playing is, as one may expect, excellent.

The Brandenburg Concertos are even more popular and are more frequently performed and recorded than the Overtures. It seems that almost any baroque orchestra feels the need to prove its skills by performing and recording them. There can be hardly any doubt about the qualities of the Concerto Copenhagen [2]. Some of its admirers may have longed for its view on these Bach evergreens. I could do without it, as there are already more recordings in the catalogue than one can listen to. Only now and then one has the chance to hear a performance that has something uncommon to offer. That was the case, for instance, with the recording by La Petite Bande (Accent, 2010). The trumpet part in the Concerto No. 2 was played at a natural trumpet without unhistorical holes. For the cello parts, the ensemble's director, Sigiswald Kuijken, turned to the violoncello da spalla. The 16' violone was omitted from the ensemble; instead a 8' violone, also known as basse de violon, was used. Lastly, all six concertos were performed with one instrument per part. The latter is the least uncommon feature of that recording: Concerto Copenhagen does the same. The 16' violone is played in four of the concertos; the 8' instrument is used in the Concertos Nos. 2 and 6. The other two features of Kuijken's recording are absent here. Unfortunately, the instruments are not specified in the booklet (which in itself is a serious omission), but I am sure that Robert Farley does play a trumpet with holes. Overall, I am a little disappointed about these performances. The Concerto No. 1 lacks profile; especially at the start, the parts of the horns are underexposed. The Concertos Nos. 3 and 6 go by without making much impression. I too often missed dynamic accents. One reviewer called these performances 'relaxed'. That is one way to put it. The Concerto No. 4 is one of the better, thanks to the playing of violinist Fredrik From and the two recorder players Kate Hearne and Katy Bircher. The latter plays the transverse flute in the Concerto No. 5; Mortensen plays the harpsichord cadenza very well, but I would have liked more rubato. As one may understand, these are not my Brandenburg Concertos, even though there is certainly much to enjoy. Fortunately, there are many alternatives to choose from.

My previous blog opened with these sentences: "Every year sees the release of new recordings of keyboard music by Johann Sebastian Bach. The question is justified, whether any of them have something to offer that is different from what is already on the market." The same can be said about Bach's 'orchestral works'. They are the core repertoire of many baroque orchestras, and they are frequently played in concerts. There are also numerous recordings of these works on the market. Even so, the Bremer Barockorchester [3] decided to devote its first ever recording to three of Bach's most popular works, although the Concerto BWV 1052 is performed here in a 'reconstruction' for violin, which is less common than the version for harpsichord. The liner-notes claim that this recording documents "an avant-garde spirit of renewal, (...) exploring new paths which are gradually opening in the world of historically informed performance". The 'renewal' mainly concerns the issue of ornamentation. As most readers may know, this is a matter of debate among scholars and performers. There is no difference of opinion about the common practice of adding embellishments in baroque music, but it is questioned whether Bach expected performers to do so in his music. Some argue that Bach has mostly written out the ornamentation himself and that adding more would just distort his works. This issue is not mentioned in the liner-notes. Where this recording is different from what is on the market - unless I have missed something - is that in the Overture in b minor, the players add a lot of embellishments in the tutti. This is not exactly in favour of transparency. What is more, the players add so much ornamentation that the melodic lines are indeed largely distorted, on the verge of being not recognizable. This practice is defended with a reference to the habits of Johann Georg Pisendel. I had not heard about that, but even if that is indeed correct, that in itself is no reason to apply it in Bach's music. In the solo parts of the transverse flute, the melodic line is sometimes almost rewritten, comparable with the bad habit of opera singers to rewrite their part in the dacapos of arias. It is quite odd, then, that there is hardly any ornamentation in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. I miss any consistency here. The tempi in the Overture also tend to be pretty extreme, in the sense that some are much slower than in most recordings. To give an example: the rondeaux takes 2'05" here, vs just 1'17" in Rinaldo Alessandrini's recording. There is nothing wrong with the playing as such; this is a fine ensemble. However, I find the performance of the Overture very unconvincing, even annoying, also because two movements are introduced by several instruments, such as the lute. The Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 is much better and the violin concerto also receives a good performance. I don't discuss here the question whether the latter can be called a 'reconstruction', as some scholars believe it has never been conceived as a violin concerto in the first place. Since the ensemble comprises six violins and two violas, one will understand that this ensemble does not follow the one-instrument-per-part principle.

Il Gardellino [4] recorded the three main 'orchestral' works in which the transverse flute plays a key role, under the title "Concertos with Flute", which is a bit odd, given that the disc opens with the Overture in b minor. The tutti are performed with one instrument per part. Whereas the Overture and the 5th Brandenburg Concerto belong among the most frequently-performed works by Bach, the so-called Triple Concerto seems to be a little less popular, for whatever reason. It makes much sense to bring the two concertos together in one recording, because of the similarity in scoring but also for the differences in the way the three solo instruments are treated. Whereas the harpsichord is the star in the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, the three instruments are more treated on equal footing in the Triple Concerto. Il Gardellino is a fine ensemble that seldom disappoints. This is another fine recording, although I tend to think that the performances are a bit too neat and too harmless. There is no lack of dynamic accents, but I would have liked a stronger differentiation between 'good' and 'bad' notes. Zvi Meniker does play the solo in the first movement of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto very well, and I noted with satisfaction that he uses some rubato to prevent this part being reduced to a shower of notes. The fact that the flute is specifically mentioned in the title does not justify its dominance in the performances: it tends to overshadow the violin, whose parts are a bit underexposed. Those who have a special liking of the transverse flute will certainly like this disc.

The sinfonias which open a number of cantatas constitute a particular genre within the corpus of 'orchestral music'. We don't know for sure why Bach, whose cantatas usually start with an elaborate choral movement, decided to open some with a sinfonia. For most of them he turned to pre-existing material, in particular instrumental works he had written in Cöthen, including the Brandenburg Concertos. Peter Wollny, in his liner-notes to the recording by the Ensemble Cordia [5], suggests that "[by] choosing these models with their implied reminiscence of his time as kapellmeister Bach was able to draw attention to his position as 'Director Musices Lipsiensis', i.e. the municipal kapellmeister of the city of Leipzig". Of course, he also may have considered that the music was too good not to be used again. A number of sinfonias include an obbligato part for organ. These pose considerable problems for modern performers. Obviously, Bach used the large organ in the Thomaskirche for such parts, as he did for the performance of the basso continuo. Today, only a few churches have organs which are not only suitable for Bach's music, but are also placed on a balcony which is large enough for the placement of an instrumental ensemble of the size needed for these sinfonias. Because of that, performers often turn to a small organ of the type also used in the basso continuo; that is also the case here. The results are musically unsatisfying. Such organs lack the palette of colours which large instruments have to offer, and the balance with the orchestra is also rather unsatisfying. Takashi Watanabe does play the obbligato parts well, but he can't really save this recording. The Ensemble Cordia is a fine ensemble, and I certainly have enjoyed their performances, but the interpretation is a bit too straightforward. I would have preferred a more breathing style of playing, and a more differentiated treatment of tempo. This recording has nothing to offer that we haven't heard before.

[1] "Ouvertures for Orchestra" (BWV 1066-1069)
Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini
Naïve OP 30578 (2 CDs) (© 2019) details

[2] Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046-1051)
Concerto Copenhagen/Lars Ulrik Mortensen
CPO 555 158-2 (2 SACDs) (© 2018) details

[3] "Bach to the Roots!"
Bremer Barockorchester/Néstor Fabián Cortés Garzón
arcantus arc 20021 (© 2020) details

[4] "Concertos with Flute"
Il Gardellino/Jan De Winne, transverse flute
Accent ACC 24341 (© 2018) details

[5] "Sinfonias from Cantatas"
Takashi Watanabe, organ; Ensemble Cordia/Stefano Veggetti
Brilliant Classics 96218 (© 2021) details

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