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Fanfare Magazine: 38:5 (04-05/2015) 
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Berlin Classics

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Reviewer: George Chien

One of the perks of age is that you get talk about the good old days. Another is that you get to tell how hard life was back then. It all evens out; youngsters won’t believe either. For instance, if I tell of walking to and from school in the winter snow up hill both ways, it would be met with skepticism. But it’s true. I grew up in one of New York’s upstate snow belts—lots and lots of winter wonderland—on the aptly named Prospect Street, which overlooked the aptly designated downtown. The school resided grandly on another hill on the other side of town. So it was down, but then ultimately up both ways. Of course, kids may get the slopes and angles—and the snow—but the walking to school bit? No way! Well, yes, way! (Disclosure: I was not above accepting a ride.)

When I was trudging through those knee-high drifts, the Brandenburg Concertos were considered esoterica, music to stimulate the intelligentsia, not entertainment for the likes of you or me. When I bought my first set, I had basically two options, neither on a major label. And that did not include the one that substituted a saxophone for the trumpet in No. 2. No. 2 was thought virtually unplayable on the modern trumpets in use, and the Brandenburgs existed outside the standard orchestral repertory, reserved, as they are now, for specialists. To hear them live was a rare treat. Times have decidedly changed. Bach’s music, including the Brandenburgs, has ascended to the highest echelon of popularity. Hearing them live is still a treat, but not so rare. As for recordings, they are still made by specialists. Now recording the Brandenburgs has become as much a rite of passage for Baroque ensembles as the Beethoven symphonies once were for orchestras and conductors. I’ve accumulated over 50 versions, and there may be as many more that I haven’t heard. The quality of the new Brandenburg sets, including this one, is generally and gratifyingly high. The once forbidding trumpet part has become not exactly a walk in the park, more like a romp. Concerto Köln, one of the top Baroque ensembles for the past quarter century, has taken the plunge, with predictably fine results. One caution: Occasionally the impulse to improvise gets the best of some of the players, creating a noodling effect that can be more distracting than enlightening. There are limits to freedom! Overall, however, it’s an eminently listenable set, though not quite able to break into the top rank represented by Pinnock 1 and/or Pinnock 2.



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