January 24, 2008


Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6; Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering”; Concerto for Flute and Strings after Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1056. Swiss Baroque Soloists conducted by Andrés Gabetta. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

      With all the recordings that have been made of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos – and the lesser but still substantial number made on original instruments – what could possibly make a new rendition of the cycle interesting? Superb playing? But other performances have that. Fascinating choice of tempos? There have been other such. An impeccably collaborative approach to the music? Less common, but still not unique.

      No, what sets apart these performances by the Swiss Baroque Soloists can only be called youthfulness – and the enthusiasm that comes with it. This original-instruments chamber ensemble was formed by violinist Andrés Gabetta and trumpeter Niklas Eklund in 2003. When the performances on this new recording of the Brandenburgs occurred, in 2005, Gabetta was 29 and Eklund 36. Other performers on these CDs are in the same age range. And before anyone thinks that this gives them insufficient gravitas for Bach, it is worth remembering that the Brandenburgs themselves are the work of a man in his early 30s: Bach was 36 when he dedicated the concertos to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt, and had composed at least some of the works several years earlier.

      Whatever the historical facts surrounding the Brandenburgs may be, the up-to-date fact is that the Swiss Baroque Soloists handle this music as if few others have ever bothered with it. There is a freshness and delicacy to their playing that is quite remarkable, and their sense of ensemble has to be heard to be believed – how can musicians play the finale of Brandenburg No. 3 at such a breakneck pace, get all the grace notes right, and sweep listeners along without making it feel (except in the first burst of astonishment) that the work is being rushed? In general, tempos in all the fast movements here are quick (albeit not as dramatically so as in the finale of No. 3), accentuation is careful, instrumental balance is beautifully maintained, and the clarity of the presentation seems to reflect equal clarity of thought about how the music should sound. These performances will not please anyone looking for a more relaxed, more traditional approach to the Brandenburgs, but they make this familiar music sound fresh by simply refusing to be bound by the conventions under which it has been played in the past.

      This is not to say that the Swiss Baroque Soloists lack scholarship. In fact, their readings are very carefully planned. To return to Brandenburg No. 3, consider the two chords that are all Bach offers for a middle movement. Scholars have long debated what should be played here, with answers ranging from playing the chords as written to inserting a movement from another work. The Swiss Baroque Soloists, based on a practice of the time, insert a harpsichord improvisation, played with élan by Giorgio Paronuzzi (who also does an excellent job with the concerto-level complexities of No. 5 – and provides fine continuo backup everywhere).

      One thing the set unfortunately does not offer is the earlier version of No. 5, or at least the earlier version of the harpsichord cadenza from the first movement – a shame, since the earlier cadenza and concerto are very rarely heard. There was plenty of room for them – each CD, even with some extra non-Brandenburg material, lasts only 57 minutes – and the earlier version of No. 5 is even mentioned in Keith Anderson’s booklet notes. On the other hand, the extras that the set does contain are well worth having. The Trio Sonata that forms the centerpiece of The Musical Offering is handled here with seriousness, elegance and fine instrumental balance. And the Flute Concerto, transcribed by Stéphane Réty (who is also the soloist in the Trio Sonata and Brandenburg No. 5), is a fascinating alternative approach to the Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1056, which most scholars believe was originally a violin or oboe concerto. There may be nothing authentic in Réty’s transcription, but the music sounds very good indeed on the flute, and this work – like the entirety of this two-CD set – shows the willingness of highly talented younger performers to treat Bach’s music as something very much alive, not at all a museum piece that must be handled with great reverence and in conformity with long-established rules.

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