|Comments:||Review by Jan Hanford:|
This is another in my series of reviews, "Which Brandenburg?"
Performance: Erratic vs. Exciting
Recording: Super-crisp but badly mixed
First, a common packaging complaint: It's two separate cd's with the concerti not distributed chronologically. It goes 2, 4, 1, 3, 6, 5. I know it's irrelevant but I like my Brandenburgs in numerical order without other works stuck in between. They put an Orchestral Suite at the end of each cd. Only 2? Why would I want only 2 of the 4 Orchestral Suites? Bad marketing strikes again, to say nothing of the ugly artwork (green sky?) and mundane booklet. No musician information is listed.
But now the recording:
I have received email both praising and condemning Harnoncourt. I really didn't know what to expect, I always liked his recordings of other composers so I thought I would give this one a try. Someone described him to me as "wooden." He is most definitely not that.
I see how he can be both admired and despised. He takes more liberties with the score than any other conductor I can think of. I had to refer to my scores to confirm what I was hearing, it really caught me by surprise. Of course the notes were right, but the rhythms are often awkward, over-interpreted, jumpy. My assumption is that he is making the Brandenburgs "his own" and is offering an interpretive departure from the norm. In this he succeeds, but it isn't for everybody. Two opposing but equally valid opinions of this recording might be that it is "graceless and crass" or "vigorous and innovative."
I've been in love with the Brandenburgs since 1967 so I'm intimately familiar with every note, perhaps too familiar and, therefore, I have trouble with performances that play with the score too much. Harnoncourt emphasizes secondary melodies that overpower the primary ones (or it could just be bad mixing, more on that later). He put accents on notes that aren't supposed to be there. In some cases he plays slurred eighth notes as dotted eighths and sixteenths. The result is obnoxious to my ears but may be heard as refreshing to others. There is a lot of speedy chopping, sawing, hammering staccato and squawking. I think the term is a "spirited" performance. Many find it exciting, I find it exhausting; like being in a race. Sometimes there is an extreme variance in solo and tutti that makes listening difficult: first it's too quiet, then it's too loud, etc. Also, there are a few brief moments where the orchestra is not together, like they're having trouble keeping up.
It really is a matter of personal taste. In fact, this whole recording is a matter of personal taste. There are many people who would say, "oh no, yet another recording of the Brandenburgs... same old thing..." and find Harnoncourt's personal interpretation rewarding, exciting, and bringing fresh ideas to over-recorded repertoire. It doesn't work for me, but I can see the value of it for people who appreciate it.
My exceptions are Nos. 5 and 6. They are lovely. Vigorous but not as choppy and well within my tolerance level. No. 5 is especially nicely done. Even the recording mix is improved on these, it's much more balanced. I really enjoyed these two! If I didn't know better I'd say when he recorded the other four concerti he was having a bad day.
Which brings me to another comment about this recording which is the mix. The sound is incredibly clear, it's a beautiful digital recording. But there are times where the strings are so undermixed that I couldn't hear them, the oboe is too loud, the harpsichord is often much too loud, etc. It almost sounds as if one of the multiple microphones used in the recording session wasn't working properly and entire melodies and sections of the orchestra are barely audible. It's very unbalanced. As I said earlier, the exceptions are Nos. 5 and 6. All of the sudden the problem is fixed and it sounds much better. If the rest of the concerti were
recorded as well as these I might like this recording.
Do I like this recording? Sorry, no. Will I listen to it again? Perhaps. I would not recommend it to a Brandenburg novice, it would give a completely wrong idea of what these works are really like. I can see that some people might like it very much, people who like a little adventure with their music. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that! I'm just not one of those people.