Six Best Brandenburg Concertos for Different Tastes

With “Six Best Brandenburg Concertos” for Different Tastes” contributor Thomas Dawkins further expands on some recordings of the composer’s Brandenburg repertoire.

Cycles of J.S. Bach’s Six concertos à plusieurs instruments, usually called the Brandenburg Concertos today, were first recorded sometime around 1930.  A recent search at a classical music specialty site revealed that there are over 125 versions of the six complete concertos currently available.  Even assuming that between a third and a half of this number are duplicates in different packaging or boxed sets, that’s still a large number through which to sift through, and with trends in early music performance shifting quite dramatically over the years, there are a lot of different ways of approaching these works of art.

Do you prefer modern instruments, period instruments, large groups, small groups, fast, slow, or somewhere in between?  Without any attempt at being scientific, here are six different complete cycles that may suit you depending on your tastes.

For the Traditionalist ~ Karl Richter, Munich Bach Orchestra, 1967, Archiv.

Karl Richter recorded multiple traversals of the Brandenburg cycle, leading from the harpsichord but with a second keyboardist playing as well so that when he needed to stand and direct there was still a harpsichord playing. The advent of the period instrument movement was still a few years away, but in this recording, Richter attempts to use instruments that are closer to what Bach likely intended: the recorder parts in the second and fourth concertos are played on recorders, not modern flutes, the horns in the first concerto are natural (unvalved) horns, and the sixth concerto boasts a pair of violas da gamba playing the inner parts rather than two more ‘cellos. The harpsichords are still of the earlier 20th-century style, there are still multiple players on each part, but compared to most earlier recordings, these move along and don’t sound like a Hummer trying to negotiate a track meant for a Mini Cooper. Pierre Thibaud is the excellent trumpeter, and the great Aurèle Nicolet plays flute in the fifth concerto.

For the Driver of Fast Cars ~ Giovanni Antonini, Il Giardino Armonico, 1997, Teldec.

This was the new cycle of Brandenburgs that was included in Bach 2000, the great big box set of the complete works of Bach released for the 250th anniversary of his death.  Unlike many versions, the conductor, Giovanni Antonini, is not the harpsichordist or the violin soloist, he is the recorder and flute player, and I shudder to think how many doppio espressos he had during these recording sessions because they are “blink and you missed it” FAST, sometimes to the point of feeling like they could go out of control at any moment.  They never actually do, but if you require speed (which personally makes me quite uneasy) then this is one for you to try in your Maserati.

For the Person who Hates Period Instruments ~ Claudio Abbado, Orchestra Mozart, 2007, DG.

Some people have bad memories of period instrument recordings from when they first began to appear on the market.  In the 1970s, nobody had played a baroque violin or oboe for very long, and engineers didn’t know how to record them yet either, (as with most orchestral performances in the new CD medium) so some early recordings have scratchy strings and strident winds.  If you can’t get over that (though fifty years have passed since the first recording of Handel’s Messiah on period instruments!) but you still want brisk tempos, a small, tight ensemble, and the latest scholarship, this is the version for you.  Michala Petri and Nicolai Tarasov even play on specially designed “modern” alto recorders that project better than replicas of baroque instruments, and Giuliano Carmignola’s violin playing is a joy throughout.

For the HIP-ster ~ Richard Egarr, Academy of Ancient Music, 2009, Harmonia Mundi.

HIP, in this case, means “Historically Informed Performance” but more garden-variety hipsters may be interested as well.  If the modern “baroque pitch” of A=415 is just plain too high for you and oh-so-last-year, try Richard Egarr’s approach on Harmonia Mundi.  He contends that the cycle was meant to be played at A=392 which is a whole step lower than modern pitch, half a step lower than baroque pitch, and a relief for the poor trumpeter who normally must fret over whether or not he can hit all of those top Fs and Gs.  The darker color of the strings tuned down the extra half step takes a little getting used to, but the performances are solid if not the most dynamic.

For the Name-Dropper ~ Jean-François Paillard, Orchestre de Chambre Paillard, 1973, Erato.

Paillard had no interest in period instruments or Urtext editions; his main focus was getting the best people to play for him and one look at the cast for this cycle and you will see that he succeeded brilliantly. 

The first flute is Jean-Pierre Rampal, the first trumpet (and first horn!) is Maurice André, and while some of the other names are less well-known, the oboist Pierre Pierlot was a member of the most important orchestras in France for decades and violinist Gérard Jarry has over fifty solo recordings to his name. Indeed, Maurice André’s trumpet playing is hair-raising as always AND feels effortless, while Rampal’s glorious sound floats over the entire ensemble.

For the Well-Rounded ~ Trevor Pinnock, The English Concert, 1982, Archiv.

This is the earliest period instrument recording in my collection, was one of the first Brandenburg cycles that I owned, and despite being forty years old, it feels very fresh and vibrant. Trevor Pinnock leads from the harpsichord and is at his considerable best, especially in the keyboard showcase of the fifth concerto (also with flutist Lisa Beznosiuk, still active with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and violinist Simon Standage. The solo violas in the sixth concerto are a little on the scratchy side and there are recordings where the horns are a bit surer of themselves, but this has been highly regarded since its release and deservedly so.

I could never recommend it as a first choice because the sound quality is quite poor being from 1935, but one of the first cycles recorded is led by Adolf Busch from the first violin desk with a young Rudolf Serkin at the keyboard (piano) and such luminaries as Marcel and Louis Moyse on flutes and Aubrey Brain (the legendary Dennis Brain’s father) playing the first horn. This is hot-blooded Bach from an era when people weren’t afraid to be Romantic while playing baroque music, and there is nothing like it out there.

Thomas Dawkins writes on All periods of Classical Music
Pianist – Organist – Harpsichordist – Conductor
Baritone – Vocal Coach – (Contra)bassoonist

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