August 19, 2010


Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6; Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052; Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1056; Violin Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052 (reconstruction). Jeannette Sorrell, harpsichord and conducting Apollo’s Fire/The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra; Elizabeth Wallfisch, violin. AVIE. $27.95 (2 CDs).

Mozart: Symphony No. 40; “In un istante” and “Parto, m’affretto” from “Lucio Silla”; Ballet Music from “Idomeneo”; Kontretänze K. 123, K. 462/5, K. 462/6; Menuetto cantabile, K. 463. Apollo’s Fire/The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra conducted by Jeannette Sorrell; Amanda Forsythe, soprano. AVIE. $16.50.

     The main things that these CDs have going for them are absolutely wonderful playing on period instruments and sure-handed, idiomatic conducting. The main things they have going against them are the competitiveness of the repertoire and some quirks in the presentations.

     Many orchestras are coming up with cutesy names for themselves nowadays, presumably trying to make themselves more memorable. Jeannette Sorrell’s ensemble, though, seems unsure whether to go the traditional or cute route, using the names Apollo’s Fire and Cleveland Baroque Orchestra at the same time. This is unnecessarily confusing – which the chamber group’s performances of Baroque and Classical-era music are definitely not. Both these new releases offer very high-quality readings of fairly standard repertoire, played with such skill on period instruments that there is more of a natural flow to the readings than some period-instrument groups provide. There is nothing awkward here at all. There are, however, places where listeners may quibble a bit with the interpretations. In Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, things are almost too smooth. Those intentionally intrusive hunting horns in Concerto No. 2, for example, sound thoroughly tamed for the aristocracy here, blending beautifully with the more upper-crust instruments – but whether that is the sound Bach wanted is arguable. Still, the last movement of this concerto is a highlight of this two-CD set: poised, balanced and beautiful. Other individual movements of the concertos are outstanding as well, including the opening movements of Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 – the first of these with truly wonderful flute playing, the second of them with Sorrell showing just how fine a harpsichord player she can be in all modes, from basso continuo to virtuoso display. As a conductor of the Brandenburgs, Sorrell takes a middle-of-the-road approach to tempos (the finale of No. 3 is quite fast, but that is now a middle-of-the-road approach); some movements tend to drag a bit as a result, but others glow. What is generally lacking in the performances is a sense of exuberant dance rhythms – in the finale of No. 6, for example. This whole Brandenburg set sounds excellent but is rather staid and reserved, breaking no new interpretative ground but standing firmly on a fine period-instrument foundation.

     The three additional Bach concertos in this two-disc set, although they will not be the reason that listeners purchase the CDs, are quite worthwhile. Sorrell again shines as soloist in the harpsichord concertos BWV 1052 and BWV 1056 – she has excellent technique and a fine sense of how to vary her instrument’s registers, resulting in a combination of high style and very attractive sound. Elizabeth Wallfisch does a fine job, too, as soloist in a reconstruction of the violin concerto on which the harpsichord work BWV 1052 was presumably based – the violin version being long lost. Connoisseurs will enjoy comparing the two readings of BWV 1052; all listeners can simply enjoy the very fine music-making in both renditions.

     The musicality is equally fine in the Mozart CD by Sorrell’s ensemble – in fact, this version of Symphony No. 40 is one of the best available. The work’s G Minor darkness is accentuated by the period instruments; but, thanks to the small size of the orchestra, the work does not sound overwrought or overly Romantic. Tempos are very well chosen, balance among instruments is top-notch, and the symphony’s emotional underpinnings come through very clearly and dramatically without seeming in any way overdone. There is lilt and real style here – and excellent playing. But this CD has its oddities, too, because of the remaining works on it. Individually, these pieces are very well performed indeed: Amanda Forsythe is simply outstanding in the accompanied recitative and aria from Lucio Silla, and the ballet music from Idomeneo sounds not only triumphant but also genuinely danceable. But it is a little difficult to decide who the ideal buyer of this CD would be. Half the hour-long disc is devoted to the symphony, which is actually worth the price of the release – but buyers may not see things that way. The Lucio Silla and Idomeneo excerpts are certainly not throwaways, but neither are they reasons to rush to make a purchase. The dances that fill out the CD as encores are pleasant trifles and most likely were encores – they were recorded live in 2003 (with K. 123 actually played twice on the disc), while the rest of the performances date to 2008. This CD seems more like a “concert souvenir” than anything else – the sort of disc that people like to take home as a memento after hearing a fine ensemble perform. Whether its undoubted high quality is enough to make it appealing to an audience that has not heard this period orchestra in live performances is a question that only sales of the CD can really answer. But one thing is already certain: whether it calls itself Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra or some uneasy mixture of the two names, Sorrell’s ensemble is a distinguished one whose future endeavors bear watching – and hearing.

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