Thursday 1 April 2021

Scholarship and enjoyment combine in Il Gusto Barocco's lovely fresh account of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos

Bach Brandenburg Concertos; Il Gusto Barocco, Jörg Halubek; Berlin Classics
Bach Brandenburg Concertos; Il Gusto Barocco, Jörg Halubek; Berlin Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 March 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new recording from German period instrument ensemble Il Gusto Barocco combines scholarship with sheer enjoyment

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos is such a wild and wacky set of pieces that it is no wonder that every set of performers has their own view of them. Reinhard Goebbel recently gave a pair of fascinating talks for Kirill Gerstein Invites which introduced us to the complexities of trying to interpret the music based on Bach's manuscript, which is not the work of a professional copyist but of Bach himself. There is thus, probably no definitive account of the music possible on disc, each set of performers will create their own solutions to the work's problems.

The set of concertos is an assemblage of largely pre-existing works which Bach would have performed with the court kapelle in Köthen and commentators have pointed out that the range of solo instruments matches what we know about the players of the kapelle, whilst the inclusion of viols in the final concerto almost certainly reflects the fact that Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen played the viola da gamba. However there remain curiosities about the work (partly because Bach seems to have been re-composing the music as he copied it) and unanswered questions. The lack of any Baroque performing tradition (the dedicatee lacked the requisite musical establishment to bring off a performance so the manuscript languished until the 19th century) means we only have Bach's manuscript to go on.

For their new recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos on Berlin Classics, Jörg Halubek and Il Gusto Barocco have aimed to incorporate the latest research into the works. But the recording also arises out of the ensemble's performances of the concertos at the Bachwoche in Ansbach, with a result that these are very much lived in performances. The ensemble is based around 13 strings (violins, violas, cellos and violone) with the addition of an extra cello just for Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 with Jörg Halubek directing from the keyboard, and there is also a second keyboard player.

The results have an engaging chamber quality to them, lithe and lively with a nice transparency of texture and some great dance rhythms. Whilst there is some spectacular solo playing from individual performers, and of course the concertos give a wide variety of instruments their chance in the spotlight, what comes over is the sense of ensemble, with players advancing and receding as necessary rather than being over spotlit. Having listened to the disc a few times, this is definitely a recording that I would be happy to live with. Throughout, Halubek and the players seem to have no particular axe to grind, and instead make the music live and dance.

If you read the booklet notes, the most interesting thing about the performances of concerto no. 1 is that Anaïs Chen plays a violino piccolo rather than a standard violin. A smaller instrument with a rather strong high timbre, but the results do not stand out anywhere like as much as you would imagine and the end seems to achieve a greater sense of transparency in the upper register. Of course, there are other notable things in this concerto and we must note the spectacular playing from the two horn players Alessandro Denabian, and Elisa Bognetti who seem to make stratsopherically high horn writing natural and obvious. Tempos vary from the delicate to the robust, but as with the other concertos on the disc we never visit extremes just for the sake of it.     

With concerto no. 2, it is of course the turn of the trumpet and Russell Gilmour certainly does not disappoint. Not only does he give us some superb clarino trumpet playing, but the balance between him and the other soloists is admirable, a feeling of intimacy which continues in the slow movement (when the trumpet is absent), and both outer movements with trumpet have a lovely sense of joy to them.

Of the six concertos, concerto no. 3 is the one with hardly any axe to grinded, simply a delightful concerto for ten strings and keyboard. Here given a nice intimate feel. The opening is not too fast, but still has an engaging tap to the rhythm, whilst the second movement is simply a pair of chords with no extra improvisation. Things hot up for the finale movement which has a lovely buzz to it. I well remember, as a teenage viola player, the sheer joy that this movement could bring when played right and her the players sound as if they are having fun.

Concerto no. 4 is perhaps the most conventional of set, with relatively straightforward concertino of violin and two recorders, though of course nothing is completely straightforward at all and here we get some really virtuosic writing. There is a steadiness to the tempo in the first movement, but within that there is some superb rhythmic detail from soloists and ripieno, and the recorders at a delightfully perky sound to the piece.  The slow movement has a nice chamber feel, whilst the Presto is again not too impulsive so that there is time and space for the virtuosic detail, all enlivened by the ensemble's feel for rhythm.

Concerto no. 5 features a standard chamber line-up of flute, violin, cello and keyboard which Bach uses on its own in the slow movement, and in the outer movements there is also plenty of scope for the four players to show how they function beautifully as an ensemble. But then right in the middle of the opening movement, Bach slaps the huge keyboard cadenza, brilliantly played here by Halubek. The slow movement is marked 'Affetuoso' and it is certainly that here, with a joyfully dancing finale.

The final concerto returns us to the all string world of concerto no. 3, except Bach drops the violins and adds violas da gamba, resulting in a lovely dark texture reminiscent of a viol consort. The seven players give us a beautifully intelligent chamber rendition of the concerto, making feel like a group of friends playing ending on a joyfully dance-y note.

The recording was made in the Orangery at Residenz Ansbach in Ansbach, built by Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, a cousin of the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt to whom Bach dedicated the concertos, so a very apt venue. 

Few people in Bach's time would have expected a complete performance of such a collection of concertos, the set would simply have been source material for individual performances; the concept of a complete work is very much a later idea. But what the manuscript does give us is a snapshot of Bach working in Köthen. Much of his work there either does not survive (the princely library no longer exists) or is filtered through the Bach of the Leipzig period as he repurposed Köthen material for use with other ensembles, so this set of six concertos enables us to imagine what Bach and his court kapelle got up to when they really wanted to show off. Because that is what these pieces are about, showing off.

There is an engaging freshness to these performances, as well as a naturalness. You never feel that Halubek is trying to make a point, whatever research has been included is simply folded into the performance, and we can enjoy the music for its own sake.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - Brandenburg Concertos
Il Gusto Barocco
Jörg Halubek
Recorded 3 and 4 August 2019, Orangerie zu Ansbach

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