Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos

Concerto Copenhagen, Lars Ulrik Mortensen
94:26 (2 SACDs in a single jewel case)
cpo 555 158-2

The arrival of two new sets of Brandenburgs at virtually the same time is an exciting moment. Both are very good, and I find myself comparing them not only with each other but also against what is for me the benchmark recording of recent years, the set by the Dunedin Consort under John Butt recorded in 2012, and with Cecilia Bernardini playing the violin, as she does in Zephiro’s recording, directed by Alfredo Bernardini, her father.

Some basic impressions first.  Zefiro’s set, like the Dunedin’s, is at low pitch – though at 398, rather than the conventional 392, though I find the difference in pitch barely distinguishable – and their very slightly faster tempi adds a sense of cheerful rumbustiousness, which given that Bernardini is himself a wind-player you might expect. The sound is wholehearted – a useful table on p. 28 of the booklet shows exactly who plays which instrument in which movement, and the cembalo continuo a little too plonky at times, perhaps a downside of being miked very close, so that strings are nearest. The Copenhagen set is pitched conventionally at 415, and has the effortlessly elegant playing of Lars Ulrik Mortensen holding the ensemble together. He draws a sensuous web-like string sound from his players – less energy maybe than Bernardini, but more elegance and always single strings. And pretty perfect balance – no competing egos here, and a better recording technique.

Many people will go straight to Brandenburg II to see if the trumpet player is up to it. Robert Farley in the Copenhagen set certainly is: this is playing of a very skilled virtuoso: very well balanced with his violin, oboe and recorder-playing colleagues. And the rhythmical, dancing playing of the group is underlined by the use of an 8’ violone in this concerto as in Concerto VI. Perhaps one of the reasons that I warm to the harpsichord playing here is that Mortensen seems to be playing a longer-bodied, more Italian style instrument (to judge from the photographs in the booklet); yet this seems to serve admirably in the more exposed parts of Concerto V, where the balance between the flute, violin and harpsichord and the rest of the (one-to-a-part) strings seems nigh perfect.

Brandenburg II from Zefiro is more full blooded, with ripieno string parts, and the third movement taken at what seems to me to be an unmusically fast tempo.  I have a question here for both groups: given the key of F, and Haussmann’s well-known painting of Bach’s star trumpeter in Leipzig, Gottfried Reiche, holding what appears to be a tromba da caccia, are none of our trumpeters at the top of their game pursuing the reconstructions of this instrument which was the subject of an experimental foray in the 1930s and was briefly pursued by Friedbert Syhre of Leipzig in the 1970s? The photo of Gabriele Cassone in Bernardini’s booklet shows him playing what looks like a straight trumpet, described in the notes as a trumpet in F ‘modelled after different original instruments of the 18th century’.  Concerto Copenhagen’s booklet has no detail of instruments, pitch or temperaments. I know that there are no models to copy, but where has research got to in this shadow-land between the visual and the pragmatic? There is a Youtube video of BWV 109 by Rudolf Lutz and the J. S. Bach Stiftung at St Gallen where the tromba is clearly a slide trumpet with a curly Reicha-type tromba da caccia attached.

In Brandenburg III, the contrasts are not so immediate but equally striking: by contrast with Copenhagen’s feeling for the form of the two movements, the vigorous Zefiro version stresses the rustic energy – like an unending and uninhibited village dance as glimpsed by Breughel, where one gyrating couple spins off another.

In IV and V, many of the same patterns persist. Slightly faster tempi and a more robust approach to their bowing give Zefiro a more playful energy, while elegance and poise, and a better-balanced recording, give Copenhagen tremendous clarity and the slight edge for me. What may determine your preference in IV is the quite lovely playing of Cecilia Bernardini for Zefiro, emerging as a real leader of the band, and drawing the full-toned recorder players into her rhapsodicfreedom. This is very good music-making indeed.

V with its trio sections and exposed clavier part offers different challenges. Reducing the string doubling to single strings gives Zefiro a new clarity in V (and IV, too), while their ‘after Mietke’ harpsichord blooms into life. Their French-style flute is a good contrast to Bernardini’s Italian violin, and incontrast here the Copenhagens sound almost restrained, though I personally lovethe tone Katie Bircher produces from her sustained flute line.

In VI, the contrast in style is less marked, partly because the participants are identical, including Zefiro using a G violone for the first time. The music seems to calm them down, and we hear some of the most introspective playing we have heard. There is not quite the same intensity as Copenhagen brings, however, and theslow movement is almost over-indulgently luxurious.

Another difference is that time is found is Zefiro’s recording to squeeze in the Fourth Suite on the second CD, having fitted 1-4 on the first. Elegantly played, and with no extreme tempi, which they failed to include in an earlier CD of the other Ouvertures.

So while I can recommend both new recordings wholeheartedly, even though Copenhagen are disappointingly light on information concerning the instruments, temperament, etc., I urge potential buyers to consider – and listen to specimen tracks on Spotify or somesuch – whether or not they prefer either of the new recordings over the excellent version produced by John Butt with the Dunedin Consort in2012 at A=392, and which is available on LINN CKD 430.