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Fanfare Magazine: 38:5 (04-05/2015) 
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AAM Records

Code-barres / Barcode : 5060340150037

"... warmly recommended."

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Reviewer: James A. Altena

In these new recordings of Bach’s four orchestral suites, Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) follow up on their one-performer-per-part (hereafter OPPP) renditions of the Brandenburg Concertos. (See the Critics’ Corner section of this issue for an extended discussion by me regarding evidence for use of OPPP, in response to criticism of it previously raised in these pages.) In the highly informative and well-written booklet notes, Bach scholar Christoph Wolff discusses several relevant points of recent Bach scholarship, including redating of the suites from Bach’s Cöthen years to his Leipzig period, performances under Bach by the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, and the re-evaluated role of instrumental music among students of the Thomasschule. Egarr adds a brief supplemental note explaining the decision to use both OPPP and “low” French pitch for these suites (based, of course, upon French models). While not explicitly mentioned, he also sparingly employs the technique of notes inégales (cf. the Menuet in the fourth suite), but not that of double-dotting. (For example, in the overture to the second suite, Egarr plays the score exactly as notated, instead of applying the rhythmic pattern precisely notated in the first measure to subsequent similar measures as Bach most likely intended.) In adopting this approach, however, Egarr pointedly rejects “the mounting competition to see who can play the Orchestral Suites faster—and more metronomically!—than the last ensemble,” a trend resulting in performances that “are often ludicrously frenetic.” This does not mean, of course, that Egarr has decided to combine OPPP with tempos of a Klemperer-like breadth; indeed, virtually all of the movements time out within a few seconds of those on the recordings by Egarr’s predecessor Christopher Hogwood and by Roy Goodman with the Brandenburg Consort. However, for once the slow introductions to the overture movements are—quite refreshingly, in my book—allowed to breathe naturally instead of being hustled out the door; and the (relatively) heavy tread of the Third Suite’s Bourée comes as a real surprise. A bit oddly, though, despite Egarr’s statement, I felt that the playing of the flute part in the overture to the second suite had a more metronomic feel to it than in these other recordings, though it works nicely on its own terms.

How does this OPPP performance come off in terms of sonority and balances? Overall, quite well. My own preference is for a slightly larger ensemble, and sometimes in the Third and Fourth suites in particular I thought that more strings would be welcome to offset the greater weight of the trumpets and timpani. However, since many Bach musicologists now believe that the surviving autograph parts (by Bach, his son C. P. E. Bach, and Bach’s pupil Johann Ludwig Krebs) are strong evidence of OPPP scoring, that is a matter of subjective taste. I will note that, having played this set on several different systems, ranging from a portable CD player to a full-size five-speaker stereo system, the performances come across significantly better on the latter; on smaller systems the solo string parts can sound a bit anemic. As is the wont of the AAM, the timbre of the string players is on the more astringent side, which especially displeases those who are not favorably inclined toward HIP renditions to begin with; but while I myself also prefer a warmer string tone, there is nothing here that sets my teeth on edge. The recorded sound is ideally crisp and clear.

The one disadvantage to this set is that it sells for the price of two full-price CDs (about $30 on Amazon) for just slightly over 90 minutes of music. By contrast, the aforementioned competing sets by Hogwood and Goodman (the latter being my favorite version), among several others, offer generous fillers and are available as mid-price sets. If by any chance you are just starting out on acquiring an HIP performance of the suites for your collection, I would suggest you choose one of those instead, as this new set is something of a luxury item. However, if you have the disposable income and the inclination to try an OPPP approach to these works, then by all means do buy this set; warmly recommended.



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