Shoot the flute player — Bach for our time
The Bach orchestral recordings I grew up with were anything but historically informed performances. I still own and enjoy LPs of the Brandenburg Concertos with Pablo Casals conducting the Marlboro Festival Orchestra and Otto Klemperer leading the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Bach Orchestral Suites. But now that the period instrument movement has won the day these recordings sound like they are from another planet. It’s a beautiful anachronistic planet, but still in another galaxy. I worship Klemperer in Romantic repertoire, but must admit his slow tempi and vibrato-laden singers make his Saint Matthew Passion recording play like the Oberammergau Passion Play on a propofol binge.
My Bach shelves are now filled with period instrument performances by such ensembles as the Leonhardt Consort, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, I Barrochisti, the Academy of Ancient Music and Concerto Italian. But the 70s are over and a new Bach recording on period instruments, or as they used to call them “authentic instruments,” is not enough to merit attention.
Attention must be paid to Ensemble Sonnerie’s daring new take on the Orchestral Suites on the excellent Avie label. Ensemble directors Monica Huggett and Ruiz suggest the Suites were written in Köthen for Prince Leopold. The Prince’s orchestra at Köthen consisted of strings, oboes, bassoon and harpsichord (the scoring for the First Suite) so Huggett and Ruiz think this is the original scoring for the other three Suites. Following that logic what’s on the recording could be the original version of the four suites.
The shining centerpiece of the set is oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz’s oboe and strings version of the Second Suite. Ruiz plays the solo part beautifully and with plenty of flash when needed. The oboe sounds better suited to the piece then the flute. Time for a confession I suppose. I am one early music guy who detests the sound of the flute and recorder as solo instruments. It works for me when joined by other instruments or voices, but when I hear it solo I reach for my gun. That being said, Ruiz’s performance has forever banished the memories of Jean-Pierre Rampal or James Galway tweeting their way through this music.
I miss the trumpet and drums in the Third Suite but Ensemble Sonnerie plays this music with such elegant lyricism that it is okay. I’m not ready to trash my Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin recording (Harmonia Mundi) but this fascinating reading by Ensemble Sonnerie is a must have and an essential for anyone who cares about Bach.
The Bach performances I’m enjoying the most these days are coming from the cleverly named Café Zimmermann. They honor Gottfried Zimmermann’s Leipzig coffee house, where Bach’s concertos were performed, with their name. Each of the four recordings Café Zimmermann they have released (on the super classy Alpha Production label) to date feature an orchestral suite, a concerto or two and one of the Brandenburg Concertos. I like this concert as album concept. Café Zimmermann is packed with some top-notch talent and is anchored by founders, violinist Pablo Valetti and the phenomenally talented harpsichordist Céline Frisch. Check out any volume in the series and enjoy the most thrilling Bach recordings currently available.
Who do you want serving your Bach?