Notes and Editorial Reviews
This new set of Bach's most famous concertos does not have to compete with any of the others presently on the market for it is based on sources which predate the fair copy which Bach dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. It is not the first time that such an enterprise has found its way on to gramophone records and many readers will doubtless remember Thurston Dart's pioneering work, along similar lines of thought, which resulted in recordings issued by Philips during the early 1970s. The differences, both large and small, between Bach's fair copy of the six Brandenburg Concertos and the earlier forms are too numerous to discuss fully in these pages, but they are dealt with in Christopher Hogwood's interesting introductory essay
which accompanies the set. In it he draws attention not only to the considerable number of variant readings which exist—there are, for instance, no less than 13 sources for Concerto No. 5 in D major—but also to the scale of performances which Bach envisaged and the size and nature of the instruments themselves. Hogwood does not pretend to solve all the problems but his investigative mind and lively musicianship often point our thoughts in new directions; in this he is greatly assisted by a small group of players who have achieved performances possessing a greater degree of finesse than I have sometimes found in past releases.
The greatest discrepancies between earlier sources and the present version of the Brandenburgs occur in Concerto No. I in F major. In its pre-Brandenburg state, copied by Christian Friedrich Penzel, the work consisted of an opening Allegro followed by an Adagio and a Menuet with two Trios. These movements are common to both versions; in the fair copy Bach added a second Allegro, a Polacca or Polonaise, and redesignated the first violin line for a violino piccolo tuned a third higher than a standard violin. Thus, in the earlier form, which we have here, the musical loss is considerable; but what I found particularly interesting in this recording of the work was the entirely different line accompanying the two horns in Trio II, since it is violins not oboes which complete the texture in this case.
The variants in Concertos Nos. 2, 3 and 4 are much smaller by comparison; Hogwood, unlike Dart, understands the flauti d'echo of the Fourth Concerto as treble recorders rather than sopranino members of the family. In Concerto No. She uses the manuscript parts of Bach's pupil, Altnickol, which differ considerably from Bach's fair copy. Altnickol's version scores the work for harpsichord, flute and violin concertato, with the accompaniment of violin, viola and violone but without the cello of the Brandenburg version. The harpsichord solo of the first movement is much shorter, ending with some striking chromaticisms; the slow movement is marked Adagio rather than Affettuoso and, as in the fair copy, the soloists play alone. One of the most interesting features of this set concerns the size and nature of the bass stringed instruments. Hogwood, basing his ideas on those of Laurence Dreyfus in an unpublished thesis, uses three different instruments. In Concertos Nos. I and 3 a 16' instrument is used whilst for Concertos Nos. 2 and 6 an 8' sound has been chosen; a contrabass instrument is used for Concerto No. 4, and a smaller violone for Concerto No. 5.
I think it unlikely that any Bach lover will want to miss an opportunity of becoming acquainted with these earlier thoughts on six works which rest on the pinnacle of baroque instrumental music. At their best the performances are polished and stylish; the recorded sound is very clear, too, capturing the character of almost each instrument in what seems to me to be an almost ideally resonant acoustic. Since, in each concerto, there is virtually one instrument to a part it is impossible to single out all the performers deserving of mention. In general they comprise a body of players which has worked together over a number of years and this has paid off handsomely in interpretative rapport as we can hear, for example, in the viola partnership of Jan Schlapp and Trevor Jones in the Sixth Concerto. I also applaud the prominence given to the important horn parts in the opening movement of Concerto No. I. I found this a worthwhile and fascinating issue. Strongly recommended as a compendium to any recording of Bach's offering to the Margrave. -- N.A., Gramophone [4/1985]
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