November 22, 2006


Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6; Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering”; Concerto in G Minor for Flute and Strings. Swiss Baroque Soloists directed by Andrés Gabetta. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos may be the most famous ignored job application in history.  Their exact provenance is still a matter of dispute, but some scholars believe Bach sent them to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt in the hope that they would so impress him that Bach would be offered a job.  Instead, like many a résumé today, they were unceremoniously thrust into a drawer, unregarded and unknown until rediscovered many years later.

     Whatever the exact truth of this story may be, it is certainly true that these six concertos are now so popular that it is fair to ask what new things can be added to them to justify an additional recording.  The answer turns out to be adding old things.  The Swiss Baroque Soloists play the concertos on original instruments – not the first ensemble to do so, to be sure, but one of the most adept, the players seeming as thoroughly comfortable with the transverse flute, violino piccolo and original forms of more familiar instruments as most orchestral players are with their modern versions.  The result is a period-instrument recording that does not feel like a museum piece – it feels like something that lives and breathes the air of an earlier time.  And some of that is heady air indeed: it is hard to believe the third movement of Concerto No. 3 can be played this accurately at so fast a tempo.

     The reason this and other fast, highly detailed movements are so effective is that the players are uniformly excellent, with Niklas Englund being especially impressive on trumpet in the second concerto and Giorgio Paronuzzi being suitably virtuosic (but without overdoing it) in the fifth.  Ensemble balance is exemplary throughout, and the mostly speedy tempi are well chosen – nothing drags here, yet there is no sense of artificially creating drama by speeding through movements for no good reason.

     This two-CD set has a couple of bonuses, too.  One is the Trio Sonata in C Minor from The Musical Offering, a piece based on a fugal theme given to Bach by King Friedrich II.  The king was a competent flautist, and the trio sonata uses that fact to advantage, its opening slow movement letting the flute and violin toss themes back and forth before the following Allegro gives the flute considerable prominence.  As would have been customary in Bach’s time, this Trio Sonata actually features four instruments: flute, violin, harpsichord and cello.  All are played with grace and stylistic sensitivity.

     In addition to playing the transverse flute in the Trio Sonata, Stéphane Réty transcribed the other “encore” piece here, the Concerto in G Minor for Flute and Strings.  This is familiar in another form, as the F Minor Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1056 – a work believed originally to have been a violin or oboe concerto before Bach himself transcribed it for harpsichord.  No one thinks it was ever a flute concerto, but it sounds especially light and fleet in this version and is a pleasant curiosity as well as a worthwhile ending for this fine CD set.

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