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CD Review: The Bach Brandenburg Concertos – The Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr

If there was ever an iconic classical piece that deserved a fresh interpretation, this is it. The operative question, of course, is how to do it in a way that hasn’t been done before. Answer: the oldest trick in a musician’s book. Transpose it! In this case, Richard Egarr – who took over the Academy of Ancient Music from Christopher Hogwood in 2006 – justified the move as a return to the deeper tuning of the French-made instruments that would likely have been utilized had the suite been performed during Bach’s lifetime. Along with lowering the pitch a full note, he decided on a new arrangement with period or period-style instruments, one instrument per voice in the original score. Egarr likens the overall sound to giving the score a big, relaxing glass of wine, a wonderfully apt comparison. The darkest passages, notably the adagio in Concerto #3 and the andante in #4 gain considerable gravitas from this treatment, the ensemble clearly inspired to deliver a joyously energetic performance.

 

In contrast to other Brandenburgs, this is far more lively: the tonal quality is more sparse, vastly brighter than usual. A side-by-side comparison with a favorite recording will confirm this. By contrast, a long out-of-print 1957 version conducted by Charles Munch with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is beautiful but distant, like an old flame, lush and richly memorable but ultimately less interesting than the exciting newer version. The production here is also strikingly well thought out, particularly in the case of Egarr’s harpshichord. It doesn’t sound like the instrument was close-miked, making it part of the ensemble rather than allowing it to compete with the strings during more expansive passages. Instead, its spiky textures remain in the background, even during solo parts, drawing the listener in with fresh ears. It’s a remarkable opportunity to hear the Concertos in a way closer to how Bach intended, removing or at least distancing them from their three contemporary associations of bedtime, the month of December and pledge drive.

 

The two-cd set on the esteemed Harmonia Mundi label is sturdily packaged along with a booklet including liner notes in English, French and German with a facsimile of Bach’s title page from the manuscript presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg on its cover. This is a treat for fans, a fine way to get reacquainted with the piece or to discover the Concertos for the first time. For those who don’t know them, the answer is that that you probably do, especially if you listen to NPR. This is court music: lively, bright, warm and reassuring, and in the case of this recording both richly soothing and robustly played. We don’t really know what happened with Bach’s manuscript, other than that he dedicated it to a relatively minor figure in the German nobility, whose library it was discovered in after both had died. Did Bach sell it or give it away, hoping for a commission? We know that the composer cannibalized parts of it for several other works. Did the Margrave not like the piece? That’s a question that can never be answered. There’s no accounting for taste, anyway.   

April 13, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment