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Brandenburg Concertos BWV 1046-1051
Conducted by Richard Egarr

O-4

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos

 

Brandenburg Concertos BWV 1046-1051 [21:39, 11:17, 10:59, 14:46, 21:18, 16:04]

Richard Egarr

The Academy of Ancient Music

Richard Egarr (Harpsichord)

Harmonia Mundi 807461

May 2008

2-SACD / TT: 96:03

Recorded at St. Jude's-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden, London, England.
Buy this album at:
2-SACD: Amazon.com
Music Download: Amazon.com

Brandenburg Concertos (Egarr / AAM)

Jens F. Laurson wrote (March 9, 2009):
WETA 90.9 FM
Saturday, 3.7.09, 6:00 am
http://www.weta.org/fmblog/?p=465

Egarr's Brandenburg Concertos

Recordings of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are ample; deducting for duplications and compilations, ArkivMusic lists about 50 available complete versions. Most of them could be lumped into two categories: Historically Informed Performances (HIP), and `old fashioned performances'. Of course that's a gross simplification, especially when the latter category is supposed to contain, much less describe, interpretations by performers as different as the Busch Chamber Players (just re-issued on EMI Great Recordings of the Century), Cortot/Orchestre de l'École Normale de Musique, Karajan/BPO, Benjamin Britten/ECO, Karl Richter/Munich Bach Orchestra, and Marinner/Academy of St.Martin in the Fields. But then man is a categorizing animal and likes those kinds of classifications and won't be deterred, even when some performances, like Helmut Rilling/Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra and Helmut Müller-Brühl/Cologne Chamber Orchestra, peskily straddle the fence.

Conveniently, this latest addition to the catalog on Harmonia Mundi with the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) under its new Music Director Richard Egarr fits the much more confined former category of "HIP", though that hardly means less competition. On a twofer of the same label, we can find the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin. Egarr's predecessor Christopher Hogwood recorded the Brandenburg Concertos with the AAM, not even 20 years ago (still available on L'oiseau-Lyre/London). Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus (Teldec) vie for our attention, as do Il Giardino Armonico (also Teldec), Ton Koopman/ABO (Erato, oop), Martin Perlman/Boston Baroque (Telarc), Jan Willem de Vriend/Combattimento Consort Amsterdam (Challenge), Reinhard Goebel/Musica Antiqua Köln, and Pinnock/English Concert (both Archiv). And that's just of the top of my head (or CD shelf, as it were).

Unfortunately I didn't have the old AAM disc handy for comparison, but the two most recent major period instrument releases-Alessandrini/Concerto Italiano on Naïve and Pinnock/Brandenburg Ensemble on Avie (reviewed in concert and on CD)-served nicely to elucidate contrast and similarities. Egarr and Alessandrini use one player per part; Pinnock mostly uses a small ensemble, switching to one-to-a-part only for the Fifth Concerto.

Egarr presents the concertos in order, and the First Concerto starts boldly with a dark and round, slightly stuffed horn sound, perfectly executed by the natural horn players Andrew Clark and David Bentley. When these (natural) horns barge in with the excitement of an ensuing hunt, it's never without hearing the difficulties involved, but here less so than on many other recordings. The darkness has a reason: Egarr chose the `French' Baroque pitch for this recording, which, at A = 392 Hz, is another semitone lower than the standard baroque pitch of A415. Even Pinnock, who records at the latter pitch, mentions the temptation of exploring these works at A390, which was the `Cammerton' in Köthen during Bach's time.

Egarr's swift Adagio (compare his 3:09 to Alessandrini's 4:02 or Pinnock's 3:39), doesn't indulge his oboists and the violino piccolo very much, but establishes a pleasantly fresh pulse. The ritardando in the third movement (Allegro) of the First Concerto, just before the music jolts back out of this brief contemplative point, is massive. Although Alessandrini beats him in extensiveness by stretching it to 25, not just 20, seconds and coming to a complete halt, Egarr makes it sound even more audacious by starting it a few notes earlier, keeping the music going throughout, and then bolts on even more explosively than Concerto Italiano does. Compared to that, Pinnock just about ignores the ritardando, being through and done with it in 10 seconds and never letting it interrupt the flow of the music.

The Menuet is a nervously, yet steadily chugging little thing in Alessandrini's hands, a bright and graceful dancing movement with Pinnock. With Egarr it has a contemplative, incredibly sensuous flow. Or, to put a less positive spin on it: it's a case of muffled lurching. It's quite beautiful, actually, but direct comparison (fortunately not a common way of listening to this music) treats Egarr's 9:51 less kindly than does enjoyment in splendid isolation. Pinnock takes 7:32 and Alessandrini just over 7 minutes if you deduct all the Menuet-repeats, including the "Grand Reprise" for the last Menuet, he takes.

Egarr has no time for any cadenza-improvising or movement-substituting between the two Adagio-chords of the Third Concerto, stating in the accompanying notes that "Bach's `Bar' [the one containing these two chords] is perfect'" and citing (initially) compelling mathematical context in his support.

The Presto from the Fourth Concerto just purls along with gentle ease, Egarr's finely spun harpsichord interjections make Pinnock sound comparatively earthbound. The flute vibrato in the opening Allegro of the Fifth Concerto is tasteful enough, not as overt as with Alessandrini and not as borderline out-of-tune as with Pinnock. The vibrancy of the violin and flute part in the Affetuoso has its charm, but isn't as elegant as the longer lines Alessandrini affords. The concluding Allegro could stand in for much of the general differences between these recordings: Egarr buoyant, unintrusive, with a soft flexibility to the ensemble's tone, Alessandrini explosive with a bit more edge, and Pinnock in-between, rawer, occasionally just a little heavier, and the harpsichord more up-front.

In Egarr's recording I particularly love the silken airiness of the Second Concerto's Allegro and the-musicologically incorrect-use of theorbo basso continuo throughout and,-most imaginatively-instead (!) of the harpsichord in the Adagio ma non tanto of the Sixth Concerto. To quote Egarr, who readily admits there being no historical context for either theorbo or guitar (employed in the Fifth Concerto), the added continuo color was "a delicious luxury which [he] couldn't forgo."

From his previous recordings, I've never found Richard Egarr to be a man of extremes, and he performs these works with a well-judged moderation, too. His Allegros are not quite so fast, his Adagios not overly slow, his accents lively but not spiked. His touch on the harpsichord is soft and ever-deft. He doesn't set out to shock (not even peripherally), or primarily excite, but to delight. This warm touch reminds of Jordi Savall's version with Le Concert des Nations more than any other HIP account I know.

The sound is excellent: rich and with lots of room to bloom-although on the soft side, further emphasizing the character of the interpretation. Voices are not as easily separable as in the Alessandrini recording, which offers more clarity. The presentation of the SACD Surround capable recording is up to Harmonia Mundi's usual high standards, the liner notes by Richard Egarr (in English, French, German) eminently worth reading, and information on all the musicians and instruments they use is given in well chosen and readable fonts.

The continued improvements in the skill of playing original instruments are still notable. I used to think that Pinnock's English Concert recording was about as good as it gets - a notion I was disabused of by many subsequent groups bettering that laudable effort. Egarr won't be the last word in this progression, either, but the increments are getting smaller and smaller. No doubt related to the general mellowness of this version, I find it a small but decided improvement even over Pinnock/Avie. Favorite HIP versions are the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin (HMU) and Savall (Naïve); Egarr joins them. Is this a must-have for anyone who already enjoys one or two HIP Brandenburgs in their collection? Of course not. Will you want to add it, anyway? You bet.

Richard Egarr and the AAM will perform the Brandenburg Concertos in Fairfax at the George Mason Center for the Arts on Sunday, March 22nd and at Carnegie Hall on March 23rd. [jfl]

Stephen Benson wrote (March 9, 2009):
Jens F. Laurson wrote:
< Is this a must-have for anyone who already enjoys one or two HIP Brandenburgs in their collection? Of course not. Will you want to add it, anyway? You bet. >
And it's on sale at hbdirect.com until Monday, March 9, at midnight.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 9, 2009):
Jens F. Laurson wrote:
< http://www.weta.org/fmblog/?p=465
Egarr's Brandenburg Concertos
(...)
Richard Egarr and the AAM will perform the Brandenburg Concertos in Fairfax at the George Mason Center for the Arts on Sunday, March 22nd and at Carnegie Hall on March 23rd. [jfl] >
Yep, I ordered a copy of it this morning after seeing your blog version of this last night. I'm hoping to attend that Fairfax performance. Their North American tour with the Brandenburgs has many other venues,
as well, starting this Wednesday: http://www.aam.co.uk/

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 9, 2009):
[To Stephen Benson] Yeah, but $31.49 plus shipping (on sale at HBDirect) is way higher than the amount I paid this morning from mdt.co.uk : $21.30 (because VAT gets excluded), plus 75p for p&p, airmail.

Stephen Benson wrote (March 9, 2009):
[To Bradley Lehman] Well, then, I'm glad I hadn't ordered it yet from HB!

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (March 9, 2009):
Are there any samples of this recording available? I'm a bit shocked Harmonia Mundi's American site didn't include any given the tour.

P.S. The Karl Ristenpart recording of the Brandenburgs is a great version and I think it was one of the first that had the horn parts really distinct and bellowing (like they should!!)

Paul Dirmeikis wrote (March 9, 2009):
[To Kim Patrick Clow] Here are some samples: JPC

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 9, 2009):
Jens F. Laurson wrote:
< Egarr's Brandenburg Concertos
[...]
this latest addition to the catalog on Harmonia Mundi with the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) under its new Music Director Richard Egarr >
It is worth noting in the context of other recent discussion that Egarr was an early adopter and champion of Bach/Lehman tuning.

 

Egarr's OVPP Brandenburgs

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 12, 2009):
Is there any historical justification for this OVPP performance? I've been listening to the clips on iTunes, and they sound interesting, though a bit weak because of the lack of instruments. I thought the Branderburgs were scored for a precise number of instruments...

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2009):
Kirk McElhearn wrote:
< Is there any historical justification for this OVPP performance? I've been listening to the clips on iTunes, and they sound interesting, though a bit weak because of the lack of instruments. I thought the Branderburgs were scored for a precise number of instruments... >
OPPP performances of the Brandenburgs have been around for many years, especially in concertos 3 and 6.

Hogwood's 1985 set was OPPP, except for having one extra violinist in concerto 2. Anthony Newman's 1972 set was OPPP, except for one extra violinist on each part in concerto 1.

Historically, I'd think the harder case to make would be *not* to use soloists on all parts throughout all these concertos.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 12, 2009):
[To Bradley Lehman] Why does Egarr's set sound so "small"? I've been listening to clips of it and comparing with Pinnock's recent recording, which clearly sounds like there are, at least, multiple strings...

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (March 13, 2009):
[To Kirk McElhearn] It maybe due to Egarr using a pretty low tuning-- A=390, it gives the music a darker, less bright sound. Of course, I wonder if that makes the trumpet part a wee bit easier to play in the 2nd concerto?

Stephen Benson wrote (March 13, 2009):
Kirk McElhearn wrote:
< Is there any historical justification for this OVPP performance? I've been listening to the clips on iTunes, and they sound interesting, though a bit weak because of the lack of instruments. I thought the Branderburgs were scored for a precise number of instruments... >
Malcolm Boyd, in his Cambridge Music Handbook companion to the Brandenburgs, suggests that there is no clear-cut interpretation of Bach's use of the phrase "avec plusieurs instruments". He suggests in the middle of an exhaustive analysis of the possibilities: "Perhaps, then, Bach's intention was to indicate that his concertos require several, as distinct from many, players -- in other words, one player to a part. Yet again, the term 'plusieurs instruments' might be interpreted as meaning 'several different instruments', since one of Bach's intentions in composing the Brandenburgs (or at least in putting them together as a set) seems to have been to embrace as wide a variety of instrumentation as possible."

 

Brandenburg Concertos (Egarr / AAM)

Santu de Silva wrote (March 23, 2009):
Stephen Benson wrote:
< Well, then, I'm glad I hadn't ordered it yet from HB! >
A friend of mine just attended a concert in Santa Barbara, and got an autographed copy for $38, roughly...

Stephen Benson wrote (March 23, 2009):
[To Santu de Silva] Following up on Brad's information, I ordered it from mdt.co.uk and paid a total, including shipping and handling, of $23.20. I'm thoroughly enjoying Egarr's fresh take on this oft-recorded material. There's a palpable enthusiasm and infectious delight in the music-making.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 23, 2009):
[To Stephen Benson] They're playing at Carnegie tonight. Yesterday's show at Fairfax VA (George Mason U) was excellent, although the hall was too big. He took the finale of #4 even faster than on the recording. Great flair.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (March 23, 2009):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< They're playing at Carnegie tonight. Yesterday's show at Fairfax VA (George Mason U) was excellent, although the hall was too big. >
I've tried to buy tickets several times today for the New York concert, and so far no luck. The box office told me this has been sold out for months. Since this happens pretty frequently for early music ensemble concerts by the big names here in NYC, which makes me ask the obvious question, why wouldn't there be at least two or maybe three concerts, given the demand. Tickets are at least 50.00 for tonight's concert, and since the hall holds about 600 people, AAM is making a good bit of money. Certainly it would economic to have two concerts?

In the meanwhile, I'll keep checking in for a ticket.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 30, 2009):
[To Kim Patrick Clow] I have read no reviews after the concerts. I have heard a scathing review, one of horror, so to say, on Towe on Thurs, Teri Noël Towe's (I give him an honorary diaeresis). Teri really thought it one of the worst excesses of Hipdom and was, as I recall, esp. displeased with the use of a massive lute-like instrument in the continuo, something he felt that Bach would never have done.

Now, on the whole, dear Teri in general as a mantra "bitches" about Hipdom altogether (although he now and then names a recording that he is simply mad oveand it is an Hip performance, a fact that he usually doesn't make note of).

At all events, he found the present performance more circus than performance. Of course all summariens are mine and not Teri's own and are liable to distortion. I-myself-- have no opinion as neither was I there nor have I heard any possible broadcast.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (March 30, 2009):
Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote:
< Teri Noël Towe's (I give him an honorary diaeresis). Teri really thought it one of the worst excesses of Hipdom and was, as I recall, esp. displeased with the use of a massive lute-like instrument in the continuo, something he felt that Bach would never have done. >
Well, we're all entitled to our thoughts about music and performances, but I have to ask: how do we know Bach wouldn't have used a luter player? Even if you could prove he didn't, so what? Here is a small selection of reviews I found online just in a few moments, I'll start with the New York Times, hardly known for being "pushovers:"

"Mr. Egarr's traversal of the "Brandenburgs" was not just an idle walk through these six concertos. The group has just released a zestily played, beautifully recorded account of the set on the Harmonia Mundi label, and the academy is touring the United States to promote it. Not surprisingly, the concert readings closely mirrored the recorded ones in tempo and shape, and in solutions to specific problems, like what to do with the two-chord second movement of the Concerto No. 3."

Dallas News review:

"Those looking for a fresh take on what may be Bach's most popular pieces need look no further. Richard Egarr's new Brandenburg Concertos aren't like anybody else's.

He has had his Academy of Ancient Music tune to a very low pitch, which mellows out the string tone and sweetens and makes manageable the terrifying trumpet part in No. 2. He has encouraged the natural horns in No. 1 to play with an invigorating rustic burr, and all the orchestral lines are played one to a part, which makes the intricate counterpart of Concertos 3 and 6 absolutely transparent. You're guaranteed to hear details you've never noticed before.

On harpsichord, Egarr swaggers through the long solo in No. 5's first movement with the complex phrasing he's known for. That sequence may be a drawback for some, but like everything else here, it puts the familiar in a dazzling new light."

The Guardian:

"Though there are already CD versions of the Brandenburg Concertos to suit every taste, Richard Egarr's recordings still manage to carve out a distinctive niche of their own."

In fact there are many reviews online for the recording and concert tour, and none of them are bad. Reviews of the concert tour may have mentioned large halls being an issue that would drown the performances out and make them seem thin, and some technical issues now and then (the New York Times mentioned the trumpet solo was dicey a few times), but most everything I've read is very positive.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 30, 2009):
Kim Patrick Clow wrote:
< Well, we're all entitled to our thoughts about music and performances, but I have to ask: how do we know Bach wouldn't have used a luter player? Even if you could prove he didn't, so what? Here is a small selection of reviews I found online just in a few moments, I'll start with the New York Times, hardly known for being "pushovers:" >
thank you, Kim. Teri of course is on this list. Usually, it is my impression that he doesn't post his impressions of live concerts. Of course, were these private comments to me, I would not quote them. They were, as I noted, commentary on his delightful Thurs. mornings mostly Bach radio program. And his comments were soooo negative that I was rather surprised. He firmly believes that such a huge lute instrument Bach used several times as an obbligato instrument but not as a continuo or part thereof. I concur with you, who cares; such may indeed be performers' prerogative. The essential is to express the music. Recently he stated that one of the Harnoncourt recordings of the 3rd orchestral Ouverture was his absolute favorite and more recently that the Skip Sémpe Telemann recorder Suite or whatever was the greatest. So, in spite of his constant beating up on HIP, he can't actually believe it. He does however have a GREAT preference for very anti-HIP, olden performances, some of which I enjoy and all of which I am happy he subjects me to. Only sorry that I don't know how to record onto the computer bc. much of which he plays is very unavailable. At all events maybe he will now react:-).

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (March 30, 2009):
Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote:
< He firmly believes that such a huge lute instrument Bach used several times as an obbligato instrument but not as a continuo or part thereof. I concur with you, who cares; such may indeed be performers' prerogative. The essential is to express the music. >
From my work on source materials of music by Graupner, Telemann, Fasch, and Johann Endler, for the INSTRUMENTAL music, there are multiple copies of the bass part, in some instances for the Endler symphonies, up to four (!) which is very odd when you constrasted with the violin parts (maybe 2 for Violin 1 and 2 for Violin 2, very very rarely 3). This heavy focus on the bass line continued for sometime--e.g. when Mozart went to Paris for the 2nd time and wrote his Paris Symphony, the orchestra there used 10 cellos (Christopher Hogwood recreated that in his recordings for all of the Mozart symphonies).

Why the focus on the bass sound? Maybe it was the fundamental element and basis for the harmony? Mayabe baroque cellos and double bass sound very loud (interesting when you see the Academy of Ancient Music's performance on the Thames River of Handel's Water Music, accoustic tests were done to find out how far the instruments sound would carry--- the cello was the worst, you would have to have been very close to the barge to hear it).

All that said, given how baroque composers seem to have a love affair with bass instruments and beefing up the sound any way they could, I don't know why having a lute or guitar in the continuo section would seem pretty logical to me. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 30, 2009):
< Not surprisingly, the concert readings closely mirrored the recorded ones in tempo and shape, and in solutions to specific problems, like what to do with the two-chord second movement of the Concerto No. 3." >
An interesting touch I noticed, both in the concert and the recording: in concerto #1's section where it alternates a minuet with other movements for smaller ensembles, Egarr experiments with leaving out the oboes (and bringing them in only on the repeat). It's like adding or subtracting organ stops, changing the tone colors to give some variety for the listener. It gives the oboists some rest after their long passages of continuous playing, too.

In the concert performance I heard, part of the audience burst into applause during the final ritornello of concerto #5's first movement...just after the end of Egarr's solo. It was like people applauding an impressive solo in jazz. He told me later that it happened a few other times during the tour, too.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (March 30, 2009):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< In the concert performance I heard, part of the audience burst into applause during the final ritornello of concerto #5's first movement...just after the end of Egarr's solo. It was like people applauding an impressive solo in jazz. He told me later that it happened a few other times during the tour, too. >
That's great, and historically accurate ;) Composers often relied on applause DURING a movement to get immediate feedback on how an effect worked, e.g. Mozart cited this in reference to his Paris symphony.

James Atkins Pritchard wrote (March 31, 2009):
Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote:
< Recently he stated that one of the Harnoncourt recordings of the 3rd orchestral Ouverture was his absolute favorite and more recently that the Skip Sémpe Telemann recorder Suite or whatever was the greatest. So, in spite of his constant beating up on HIP, he can't actually believe it. He does however haa GREAT preference for very anti-HIP, olden performances, >
Perhaps what he's looking to do is not so much to reject historically informed practices themselves but rather to reject on the one hand the notion that all historically informed performances must be good simply in virtue of their being HIP and on the other the notion that all non-HIP performances must be bad simply because they're not HIP.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 31, 2009):
[To James Atkins Pritchard] Do you not and does not everyone here agree about that? I cannot imagine a rational and music-loving being who would not concur with that statement. Of course there were sensitive and great musicians of all periods and, IF that musician made Bach alive, made Bach swing, that musician is worthy of all applause and of course one would expect each musician to be of his time and place. so I cannot possibly disagree with you. Nevertheless, as one who counts Teri as a sort of virtual friend after about 8 years of off-list conversation and after seeking many of the nearly impossible to find LPs that he recommends, and now listening for months to his radio program, I have a reasonably formed opinion that he leans heavily toward the ancient, truly recordings that most would not listen to today, even if one could as many of these items were never on CD and some were rare in their LP days.

Again Teri is welcome to correct me.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 31, 2009):
[To Bradley Lehman] Although this variable is most interesting and no doubt would greatly please Aryeh (our jazz- and Bach-fiend), I strongly feel that for such matters as the huge Lute-monster to have its full effect, DVD, not audio recording is needed. Video (seeing) does influence hearing even in non-vocal concerts.

James Atkins Pritchard wrote (March 31, 2009):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] Certainly I concur. But I have at times encountered arguably irrational people who seem not to, people for whom non-HIP performances are in some strange way improper or morally questionable.

I regard as indispensable many of the great Bach performances of the early and middle 20th c. as well as many recent HIP performances. In my view one needn't choose between them; at the same time there's nothing wrong with preferring one or the other.

As far as I can see you and I don't disagree.

Ed Myskowski wrote (April 2, 2009):
< In the concert performance I heard, part of the audience burst into applause during the final ritornello of concerto #5's first movement...just after the end of Egarr's solo. It was like people applauding an impressive solo in jazz. He told me later that it happened a few other times during the tour, too. >
<< Although this variable is most interesting and no doubt would greatly please Aryeh (our jazz- and Bach-fiend) >>
Perhaps friend was the intended word? Either way, count me among the multitude of jazz and Bach enthusiasts. Aficionados?

 

Brandenburg Concertos BWV 1046-1051: Details
Recordings:
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
Güttlers Brandenburgs | Review: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1, 2 & 5 - conducted by Karl Richter | Review of Brandenburg Concertos by Tafelmusik
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Discussions of Individual Recordings:
Brandenburg Concertos - R. Alessandrini | Brandenburg Concertos - R. Egarr | Brandenburg Concertos - N. Harnoncourt | Brandenburg Concertos - O. Klemperer

Richard Egarr: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Review: Harpsichord Works by Richard Egarr | Egarr Goldbergs [B. Lehman] | Richard Egarr Performs Bach's Goldberg Variations [D. Satz] | Goldberg Variations Review: Egarr [P. Bright]
Discussions of Instrumental Recordings:
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 - R. Egarr | Brandenburg Concertos - R. Egarr

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Last update: June 16, 2009 11:34:03