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Bach Brandenburg Concertos


Naxos- Swiss Baroque Soloists
Naxos 8.557755-56

ARTS- I Barocchisti/ Fasolis
ARTS 47715-8, 47716-8


ARTS – Triple concerto BWV1044

Naxos – Trio Sonata from the Musical offering BWV1079; Flute concerto BWV 1056


Take a much-recorded Baroque work, run through some of the illustrious versions that have been made of it over the years; a history of fashions in Baroque music will emerge. This is stylistically more obvious than for later periods; although ‘authenticity' has colonised works closer to the present day, we still look to Furtwaengler or Schnabel for their Beethoven in ways that are much less significant for historical performances of the Baroque.


The Brandenburgs (BWV1046-1051) of course easily win ‘most-recorded work' in the concerto grosso category (one imagines the Four Seasons are even easier winners of the solo concerto one). Remembering the Brandenburgs of Britten, Leppard, Marriner, Collegium Areum, Pinnock, Musica Antiqua Cologne, Il Giardino Armonico, to name a very few, is to recall an obvious and expected progression- instruments become more authentic, ensembles smaller and crisper, above all tempi faster. The Cologne (Reinhard Goebel) version raised eyebrows for its sheer speed when it appeared; though it still sounds fast, it is no longer surprising. Run the above sequence backwards, and Benjamin Britten's version will sound almost funereal. Old versions of Baroque music therefore sound dated, in ways that old versions of Chopin or Mozart do not, in terms of how radically our expectations have changed.


To Leppard's generation, let alone Britten or Beecham's, these two fine new versions would sound nearly identical. Within a contemporary context, however, they are nearly opposites. Both versions are passionate, full of integrity and eminently satisfying. Each is well recorded, and consistent with the artistic approach. Swiss Baroque Soloists give lithe, chamber-style performances, lean and precise, I Barocchisti are by terms more virtuosic and more sunny, with less earnestness, but more grandeur and showing-off.


Conveniently for the critic, Concerto 1 shows these differences most strikingly. The opening movement has far better melodic line and aural projection from I Barocchisti, and the Swiss Baroque Soloists are also handicapped by some idiosyncratic intonation, here and in the minuet finale, in the horn. Yet, by the time the Polonaise arrives in the multi-movement finale, it is they, not the Swiss-Italian Barocchisti, who better convey the disconcerting profundity of the movement, and one suspects this advantage would increase on repeated playing.


There is, predictably, less variation in tempo from the Naxos set, whose measured, committed concertos 2 and 3 are highlights; from the Barocchisti, on the other hand, 4 is large-scale and expansive, 5, unashamedly extrovert, with breathtaking harpsichord virtuosity from Fasolis. Choices in string and recorded sound are as expected too, with far more pronounced swoops and dynamic contrasts from the Swiss-italians, and a much more evidently brilliant sheen to the tone. The recording makes them sound like a bigger band. One set is metal, the other wood.


Another sign of our times is that the six concertos at slower speeds used to make two extremely well-filled LPs, but even with fillers, they are now two short CDs. No-one will decide between these sets on the couplings, but it should be noted Arts has the completely appropriate so-called Triple concerto, Naxos a transcription by the set's flautist Stephane Rety of the work better known as Harpsichord Concerto No 1, and a trio sonata from the Musical Offering.


Initially I thought it fanciful to think of these two sets as stereotypical of Switzerland either side of the Alps, one Germanically driven and Gallicly ironic, the other with Italian expansivity and display. However, these conform also to the archetypes of Baroque styles themselves, the very same national tendencies to be observed in Vivaldi or Rameau, that Bach blended into his own voice, so much so that we now think of him first as the epitome of his era's music. So the idea that today's interpreters are swayed by the archetypes from which the tradition is derived is fair.


It would be invidious to choose between these two sets, although Naxos value, compactly packaged on a double CD, or Arts' superbly high quality of production and SACD option may matter. In the end, it depends on whether you see Bach as essentially joyful and uplifting (I Barocchisti), or fundamentally intense and questioning (The Swiss Baroque Soloists). No-one who buys both will lose out either.


Ying Chang




© Peter Grahame Woolf