Bach: Complete Orchestral Suites
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There is no dearth of recordings of the Bach Orchestral Suites, but this new one goes right to the top of the list of recommended performances. Pearlman and his Boston Baroque play on period instruments but there is never any stridency in the strings, none of the odd pressured quality that can creep into "historically informed" readings. The 3rd and 4th suites, the most heavily scored, are given truly rousing readings, with the trumpets and timpani making a joyful noise and the oboes and bassoon audible and very welcome in the mix---the recording is well-balanced. The first suite has prominent wind parts as well, and Pearlman weaves them in and out of the orchestral fiber effectively, as the music indicates. The tricky Suite No. 2 is often presented as a type of flute concerto, but Pearlman has the solo flute backed up by multiple strings in the grander passages and reduces them to solos when the flute has its own melodic line. And most importantly, he realizes that the movements of all the suites are dances, and so the music, in its own, French Baroque way, swings. The recording is as fine as the performances, which is to say, remarkable. --Robert Levine
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Overall the main characteristics to note are, firstly, the faster than usual outer sections of each of the four overtures. The central sections are more regular in tempo so there is a weighting towards fleetness in the overtures. This is a significant point as the overtures are by far the largest part of each suite and the balance of tempo is thus quite different here.
Another characteristic is the relatively restrained impact of the three trumpets in suites 3 and 4. These are more blended with the rest of the players rather than providing the more dominant effect found in Gardiner's excellent account for example.
The final point worth mentioning is the changed order of the suites to 4, 1 3 then 2. This is in line with latest research which suggests that this is a more like chronological order. If this is a problem, then tracking order on CD players is easy to adjust.
This is a lively and very likeable set of the four suites. I would suggest that is makes an interesting and enjoyable complementary set to that by Gardiner, a set that I would not wish to be without. I would suggest that purchasers might be best served musically by investing in both sets but if only one is possible then both could be safely considered as an 'only' purchase.
That was resolved for a lot of people when the single CD performance led by Neville Marriner appeared in the 1970s. That recording has stood the test of time and had the one-CD market to itself...until this one came along. In this recording, Martin Pearlman leads the Boston Baroque period band in somewhat romanticized concepts of the music. The timpani bellows in these recordings in a way you don't often hear in period performance. There are also ritards at the end of symphonic statements, another trend away from PPP. And Pearlman tends to dot the rhythmic pulse in concluding moments, like he does in the Passsapied finale of the Suite No. 1 in C Minor.
I like all these affects and believe it brings a warmth and slight romance to the music that isn't often heard these days. What I like most, however, is the unhurried performance of the wonderful Suite No. 2, where flutist Chirstopher Krueger gives competition to every name performer that has done this music. This is a very different performance than I have ever heard in this wonderful music. The relaxed performance allows Bach's score to breathe, take life and wing, and float along as if gossamer mist in a slight wind.
Not every moment of this CD is this perfect but most of them are pretty darn good. Listeners looking for an economical approach to the complete Bach orchestral suite canon have this and the "ancient" Marriner versions to choose from. This one is in new millennium DDD sound, is wonderfully played, is warm and verging on a romantic approach, and can be had for $5-$8 used on Amazon.com. There's not much reason to reject it, in my opinion.
I never realized how much of a difference the conductor makes in the way a piece is performed; clearly in Pearlman's case, he's not just some guy standing on a podium waving his arms. These performances are brimming with a life that brings out all the color and genius of Bach. Whatever your mood, I defy you to listen to these pieces without them bringing a smile to your face and a tap to your toes.