John Puccio reviews ...

 
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Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 4-6; Triple Concerto, BWV 1044. Trevor Pinnock, the English Concert. DG Archiv 474 220-2.

The excellent little accompanying booklet note mentions that these 1982 recordings were among the first performed of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos on period instruments. They were about the fourth or fifth period recordings, actually, with Haroncourt's 1967 recordings probably being the first. Be that as it may, Pinnock and his band play the pieces as well as anybody before or since, and it's always good to see them show up at a mid price.

The hallmark of Pinnock's interpretations have always been their vivacity, their liveliness, which at the time they were made was attributed to the relatively fast tempos of the outer movements, tempos that have now become commonplace among not only the period-instruments crowd but with modern-instrument enthusiasts as well. More than just playing fast, Pinnock leads well-judged renderings, well balanced, well played. Indeed, Simon Standage's violin virtuosity alone seems worthy of the disc's price. It's also helpful to have Pinnock's 1984 reading of Bach's Triple Concerto, BWV 1044, along for the ride, too.

The turning point for a lot of potential buyers, however, and there must be a few people around who haven't already bought these recordings in one of their previous incarnations, may be the early digital sound. One can look at it in two ways, depending upon one's playback system. Either the sonics are wonderfully clean, light, and transparent, opening up textures never heard before; or they are bright and hard, lacking weight, and opening up textures never wanted before. I must admit that the recording sounded a bit bright to my ears on first playing it, but then by comparison everything else I put on sounded dull, clouded, and over-reverberant. Comparisons aren't always what they're cracked up to be.

I still don't think the recorded sound is as natural as that offered up by Leonhardt and his all-star crew in their 1976 period-instruments performances, now remastered by Sony Seon. Nor do I think the interpretations are any more lively or loving than Jordi Savall's with the Le Concert des Nations on Astree. But the Pinnock discs have the advantage of coming in at a mid price, which is something, although you have to buy two of them to get all six concertos since the folks at Archiv have not seen fit to include all of them in one, lower-priced two-disc set. Oh, well. These discs are still well worth investigating.

Bach: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1, 3, and 4. Jeanne Lamon, Tafelmusik. Analekta FL 2 3134.

The wonder is not that Jeanne Lamon and her Baroque orchestra, Tafelmusik, do so fine a job playing the Bach Orchestral Suites, but that it's taken them so long to record them. To say they're played about as well as one could imagine is an understatement.

It's also a small wonder to realize that Bach wrote only a handful of orchestral items: the four Suites, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Violin Concertos, the Musical Offering, and a handful of clavier and flute concertos with strings accompaniment. The bulk of his copious output was liturgical music. Anyway, the Overtures begin here with No. 3, probably because it contains the famous "Air," played by Ms. Lamon with consummate care, and continue with Nos. 1 and 4. They all possess plenty of variety, much like Handel's "Water Music," and Tafelmusik invests them with appropriate zest.

Moreover, Tafelmusik play with a precision of attack seldom found in period-instrument bands. They're really so good at what they do, they make their instruments sound like the smoothest, most-polished modern ensemble. They're a joy to listen to, even if I have a fondness for Jordi Savall's more spontaneous but Raggedy Annie approach.

Nothing to worry about in terms of the audio reproduction, either. Tafelmusik's new label, Analekta, provides them with good, clear sonics. The sound is a bit forward and bass light, perhaps, but it reveals a load of inner detail that one might not notice otherwise. The only minor flaw to the whole affair is getting only three of the four Suites on the single disc, but at sixty-seven minutes on the one, a second disc would have been necessary to accommodate all four. Still, there's a plenty zesty set of all four Suites on a single mid-price disc from Marriner and the Academy (Decca) if you don't mind the modern instruments they use. It's even brighter recorded than this release, but it's quite invigorating. Otherwise, Ms. Lamon and her group must be considered among the handful of best period-instruments renditions of the Orchestral Suites on record.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral"; "Prometheus" and "Coriolan" Overtures; "Egmont" Overture and Incidental Music. Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 67966-2.

It's been about five years since EMI last issued Klemperer's classic 1957 performance of the Beethoven "Pastoral" Symphony on CD, so I suppose it was appropriate it showed up again, this time in their "Great Recordings of the Century" line. Certainly, it's one of the great performances of the 20th century.

I believe this is the recording's third CD incarnation, my reservations about its first CD rendering being in regard to its sound. It was thin, harsh, and noisy. By comparison, the 20-bit remastering released in 1998 as part of EMI's "Klemperer Legacy" series, was smoother, fuller, and relatively quieter. Nonetheless, it retained a good deal of the original disc's clarity, sounding more transparent than most new releases. This new mastering appears to be the same as the "Klemperer Legacy" one, so I can recommend it with hesitation.

The earlier disc's coupling, the conductor's reading of the Beethoven First Symphony, was not nearly so characterful as his Sixth, being too massive to convey all of the work's good cheer, so it's good to see it has been replaced here by several overtures, the "Creatures of Prometheus" and the "Coriolan," plus the Overture and Incidental Music to "Egmont," all recorded the same year as the Sixth, 1957, a very good year, indeed.

But it's for the Sixth that people will want to buy this disc. Remember when Klemperer's producer, Walter Legge, asked Klemperer if he didn't think he took the scherzo a little too slowly, Klemperer replied, "You will get used to it." Well, we've had over 40 years to get used to it, and I suspect by now it has pretty much grown on us. Steady but firm is the key here.

Klemperer's performance continues to be one of the most relaxed, leisurely, bucolic interpretations ever put to disc. It has not and will not find favor among the Toscanini crowd, but it has delighted most everyone else since it was recorded.

The first movement, "The Arrival in the Country," is taken very deliberately, very purposefully, its repetitions made more weighty through its unhurried pace, yet never dragging, never feeling lugubrious. The second movement, "The Scene at the Brook," flows naturally and smoothly, maintaining the easygoing nature of the setting. Then comes Klemperer's famous third movement, usually a quick and boisterous allegro representing peasant merrymaking, but here taken as though the peasants were more than tipsy when the scherzo started, rather lumbering stably along. The storm that follows is weightily structured in big, bold outlines, flowing effortlessly into the highlight of the piece, one of the most joyous "Shepherd's Hymn" in any Sixth around.

This is no namby-pamby performance but one with a clear and assertive vision of pastoral life. Along with three or four other conductors, Klemperer leads the field in Beethoven Sixths. For the curious, the others I would place on my list for outstanding Sixths are Bohm (DG), Reiner (especially in its new, and expensive, JVC remastering), Jochum (EMI), and Walter (Sony). This is an old, exclusive, and distinguished group of master musicians, among whom Klemperer stands tall.

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Le Corsaire overture; Trojan March; Royal Hunt and Storm. Sir Thomas Beecham, French Radio Symphony Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 67972-2.

The wonder is not why EMI decided to remaster Beecham's 1959 recording of the Symphonie fantastique in their "Great Recordings of the Century" series, but why it took them so long!

I am sometimes hesitant to recommend anything as the absolute best of its kind, largely because few things are, indeed, the absolute best of anything, but Beecham's interpretation of Berlioz is without doubt the best I've ever heard. It is in every sense the absolute finest reading...

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