BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS: 1 to 4. Sir Neville Marriner and ASMIF / EMI Red Line – an owner’s review

Patrick Latimer writes:

JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are some of the most recorded classical works in existence and there is a crowded field of competing versions still available. These include the Busch Chamber Orchestra recorded at Abbey Road Studio in 1935 to the Dunedin Consort on the Linn label last year. This collection of the first four (of six) concertos is in itself one of several different versions recorded by Sir Neville Marriner and his Academy of St. Martins in the Field.

This is a budget re-release on EMI red line in 1997 of a recording from 1987 –presumably recorded at Abbey Road Studios. In the tradition of budget releases, the information in the CD booklet is minimal.

Brandenburg Concertos have been described as the summit of Baroque instrumental music and deservedly so. They are also unlike other instrumental works by Bach in their very varied choice of instruments and despite the popular misconception of Bach and Baroque as mathematical music of form, they are an emotional experience – or at least they should be.

The conventional image of Bach is a serious religious figure. Despite bereavement and enduring the financial and class issues arising from the Baroque musician’s transitional status between household servant and professional, one gets the impression that Bach may have had a subtle sense of humour. Some musicologists have even suggested that the curious choices of instruments in the Brandenburgs may have been a coded criticism or even irreverent send up of his noble patrons.

Interpretations of the Brandenburgs over the years tend to fall in one of three camps. If this sounds a bit tedious and academic then I can only apologise but which camp the performance finds itself in makes a big difference to the listening experience. One only has to go on to the buyer reviews on Amazon and see some of the catty exchanges between some reviewers to see that people can get worked up about their Brandenburg Concertos and rightly so I say.

In chronological order, the first camp is the old school romantic interpretation. I am not going to dwell on this style in great depth. It involves big orchestras, conventional instruments – not period instruments – lots of vibrato on the strings, a big saturated sound and very slow tempi and a conductor. A good example would be Herbert Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon from about 1967.

This style is out of fashion and has been for a while. It was on its way out in 1967. It is seen nowadays as putting Baroque polyphony into a romantic (19th. Century) symphonic straightjacket.

The second camp could be described as the liberal democrats of baroque performance. These are the historically informed performers. The USP of the historically informed performers is baroque sized chamber orchestras, faster baroque tempos but on modern instruments. Although this tendency really took off in the 1960’s, The Busch Chamber Orchestra was probably making a tentative stab in this direction as long ago as the 1930s. This is the camp that Sir Neville Marriner falls in. For a while in the 60s and 70s this was how Baroque music was done. It was the dominant paradigm.

Then along came the third camp whom I shall call the period instrument brigade. As the name suggests this group – and I use the term loosely – are defined by their use of either actual 18th. Century instruments or copies thereof.

Violinmakers must like them because any number of antique violins, violas, cellos and double basses have had their bridges rebuilt and otherwise been put back to original spec 18th. Century style. More troublesome are so called natural trumpets and horns requiring artists to perform without the aid of valves. The upshot of all this was that for the first ten years or so this tendency struggled a bit while people found their feet with the original instruments. However once it got going it eventually got the upper hand over the historically informed brigade and nowadays this is the ruling clique.

Ironically most of the period instrument performers in the UK started off working with Sir Neville and the Academy. His most serious competitor was probably Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music.

This recording dates from when Christopher Hogwood and the AAM and numerous other period instrument performers have got the upper hand over Sir Neville. In fact the Academy of St. Martin in the Field ended up becoming more of a jobbing chamber orchestra covering opera intermezzi and film music and 20th. Century British composers inter alia. It was as if they had been forced out of Baroque music by the period instrument cabal.

In this light, this recorded performance from 1997 can be seen as Sir Neville and the ASMIF (as they are known) climbing back into the baroque bear pit and taking on all comers.

Sir Neville and the Academy give a pretty good account of themselves. Compared to their previous recording for the Philips label this sounds less smooth and more attacking. The lower strings have good heft and thrum to them and the use of recorder as opposed to flute pays off for me. The recorder has a wistful lost quality about it that you do not get on the flute. Some times the strings sound a bit ragged but I wonder if this is a conscious decision to take the battle to the period instrument brigade.

The trumpet is positively strident. I was listening on headphones when I went from the first movement to the second where trumpet replaces the horns and it was a bit wince-inducing but ….. I liked it.

In the baroque era, the trumpet was not a subtle instrument. It was usually paired (although not in the Brandenburg 2) with kettle drums and suggests celebration and rejoicing as in the final two orchestral suites.

Although the reputation of Abbey Road Studios is huge, I think this CD is let down a bit by the sound engineering. People talk of problems with early digital recordings. By 1987 EMI had been digitally mastering for almost ten years but 1987 probably still falls into the early CD era. Specifically instrument separation is not that good and there is a slight feeling of the recording having been made in a broom cupboard that is to say the sound is crowded and a bit muddied.

Compared to a 2002 recording of the Canadian period instrument ensemble Tafelmusik the recording is less clear and less spacious.

It is fantastic that there are so many competing accounts available but the problem for the newcomer is that there are some rather out there versions in the crowded marketplace. I will not name names, but the period instrument brigade can be prone to extremes. At one extreme there are over-researched historical performances which are too dry, academic and stilted to give any enjoyment. At the other extreme you can find spontaneous under-rehearsed performances on oddly tuned esoteric archaic instruments that tend toward jam sessions in a folk club where the message gets lost in the medium.

This version of the first four Brandenburgs is as good an introduction to the pieces for a neophyte as any at a giveaway price.

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