Bach, Brandenburg Concertos

Orchestra of the Antipodes, Antony Walker, conductor
Classical, Early Music
ABC Classics 476 1923
Reviewed by , April 1st, 2014

Although there seems to be no evidence that Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt paid much attention at all to the ‘Brandenburg’ concertos — he appears never to have organised for their performance, for example — great attention has been paid to them ever since their rediscovery in 1849. For generations of listeners, these concertos almost paradigmatically represent Bach the ‘orchestral’ composer. Accordingly, recordings of them are legion. The Orchestra of the Antipodes’ recent recording joins a plethora of other such recordings, but the addition is a highly welcome one.

Conductor Antony Walker founded the Orchestra of the Antipodes, now conducts major opera companies internationally

Conductor Antony Walker founded the Orchestra of the Antipodes, now conducts major opera companies internationally

Familiarity with the Brandenburg Concertos runs the risk of breeding a certain amount of contempt, but it is well to remember how truly revolutionary these works are. Cast in a variety of forms revealing the deep stylistic knowledge Bach had — everything from Vivaldian concerto grosso ritornello form to the Austro-German orchestral dance suite of the seventeenth century of Biber and Muffat and the rambunctious traditions of ‘folk’ music — as well as his genius for novel instrumental combinations, the Brandenburg Concertos should astonish us at every turn. The principal challenge of the Brandenburg Concertos — reading their revolutionary nature — is at the heart of successful performance. The Orchestra of the Antipodes gives us this in spades, giving fresh and deeply characterised readings that reveal a deep sympathy for the music without a trace of jadedness. We hear afresh the unexpected hemiolas and the rhythmic volatility, the sheer brashness of the hunting party brass in the first concerto, the warm and dark hues of the mixed seventeenth-century’s beloved violin family/viola da gamba family sonority in the final concerto. Everything is etched in fine detail, nothing left to chance, all deeply considered.

Each of the two CDs in this release concludes with four of the sinfonias from the cantatas, each of them itself a fine study in orchestration and concertante technique. Those who know the cantatas in detail will find several favourites here, the plangent sinfonia from Ich steh mit einen Fuß im Grabe, the sparkling organ concerto from Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, the major-key suffering of the sinfonia from the Actus tragicus and the aching sinfonia from Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis among them.

This is a highly recommended recording. I can only hope a recording of the orchestral suites, or an exploration of Bach’s contemporaries or near contemporaries (I think of Muffat and Handel in particular), is not far behind it.

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