As a glutton for punishment, I devoted a portion of my evening to listening to every copy of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #3 I had in their original guises (I skipped arrangements for other instruments, including those for synthesizer or jazz trio). I don’t own every conceivable edition, but I have enough that the comparison was fun.
A little history before we dig-in.
First, the ancient variety. As a reader here, you by now likely know the curious story behind the set of six Brandenburg Concertos: how they were practically “lost,” how they were to be a job application for Bach, and how each one is unique. Who is to say if Bach hadn’t written scores more of pieces like these, forever lost. But the fact that these pieces have survived despite the Brandenburg edition in other guises, such as a Cantata sinfonia, or in an arrangement, brings interesting things to bare for the modern fan of this music. Were these true “originals?” Or were they arrangements made for an occasion. We may never conclusively know.
The third concerto (BWV 1048) is written for 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, and basso continuo. The score actually reads “violone e cembalo.”
There’s been a lot of speculation about this instrumentation. I wrote at length in the past about my own interpretation of this concerto as a reference to the Music of the Spheres concept. There’s an easy association to be made with the holy trinity; some have gone so far as to count measures and notes for other numerical curiosities. The opening movement is happy, and it’s natural, when played in a certain tempo range, to tap your foot to the beat. It’s in “cut time,” so it’s no mistake for it to take off right away. G major is a sunny key; and everyone is playing in unison among their instrument groups. It’s later that Bach makes things interesting by introducing dynamics.
Fortes and pianos were not especially commonplace in Bach’s scores.
It is important to note these, if for nothing else, to see how dramatically the performers make of these instructions.
For the most part, that bass line follows the cellos, but there is a time in the first movement where it breaks away from the cellos, who get their own taste for technique.
I hear a natural crescendo here in the line for bass and harpsichord, and like it when the bass adds this (it’s not marked, of course). It’s one of the few times the instrument gets to stand out. There is, of course, some question as to whether or not the instrument is a “double bass” in modern parlance, or a “large cello.” Both 8′ (same pitch) and 16′ (octave lower) instruments existed at the time. Personally I think the double bass helps round out the ensemble sound.
There is no formal “middle movement.” And the lack of one has caused challenges with performers. Some have made up their own to fill in for the lack of a proper middle movement. Others have used the two chords that separate the outer movements as a palette from which to improvise. And still others feel the two chords, clearly marked “Adagio” in the score, ought to only be played as written without embellishment.
Reinhard Goebel lobbied hard for the 2-chord version, and recorded it that way, too. I understand his rationale, but I’m also a fan for the versions that embellish with the violin or harpsichord over the chords. I’ve never been a fan of substituting another Bach slow movement in between. Bach is often portrayed as being old fashioned, but why is the two-chord interlude insufficient? There could a programmatic explanation, or just one of Bach’s innovations. We may never know.
The third movement is fugal, as a fast opening theme in the first violin is then carried into the second, then the thrid. This type of writing might have cascaded exactly this way down through the score, but it does not. Instead, the “gist” of this imitative writing works down to the entire instrument groups, instead to individual lines. There could be any number of reasons for Bach’s decision here; one probable one is that the players of the lower instruments were not as skilled as the violinists. Another is the complexity of writing counterpoint in 9 or 10 parts.
It’s this last movement, with it’s perpetual drive, that’s made BWV 1048 one of my all-time favorite pieces of music. So let’s see how the various versions compare.
Pinnock/English Concert (1982)
Pinnock eventually returned to these works to great acclaim, but this one on Archiv has been deemed a classic. Simon Standage led the ensemble on violin. It’s a remarkably clear, well-done recording, with a nice stereo image of the ensemble. There are some nice shapes to the lines, with an “interpretation” coming across well. I don’t own Hogwood’s competing collection, but I have heard it. I always found Pinnock’s to be more warm and a little less “academic” or stiff. Pinnock chooses a safe tempo, but it’s workable. Standage contributes solo violin to connect the two (fast) movements.
I should stop here and tell the second part of the “history” of this work. It’s my history.
The Pinnock recording has been with me for a very long time. It’s the first “classical” collection my parents bought me, after discovering Baroque music in the late 1980s with the English Concert performing Bach’s harpsichord concertos. It was ripe with treasures inside, of course. I’ve listened to this version of the 3rd Brandenburg concerto easily over 100 times. It became a “standard” for me.
Throughout high school, this piece would become a favorite of my best friend and I. We’d play it loudly in the car, although we eventually came to prefer my friend’s version, which I’ll reference below.
Pickett/New London Consort
The likes of Pavlo Beznosiuk and Catherine Mackintosh grace the roster of this ensemble, along with keyboard player Richard Egarr. Pickett, interestingly enough, performed in Pinnock’s set with recorder. His tempos, however, are slower. Too, there are less dynamic contrasts (loud/soft) between notes and phrases. Dynamically, I wrote, “it just sits flat.” This could have been due, too, to the recording.
Pickett employs both harpsichord and organ for the continuo, which sonically is nice. This is one of the first recordings to play the Adagio with two chords without embelishment.
This reading on Virgin Veritas has a very strong Brandenburg 1. The first violin comes across as especially strong. The tempos chosen are fast, which I like. In fact, the whole recording had great potential. I commented on this review, from 2001. I didn’t share all the kudos with the reviewer. The sound quality is horrible.
I got the sense that it was recorded from afar, from within a heating duct. What remains is mostly echo, or some second-hand account. The lower instruments sound muddy and distorted, with far too much reverb ruining the sound. Rampe uses two chords in the Adagio, and the final movement builds a lot of energy with their chosen tempo.
I’ve liked their releases of Bach concerti. They take a very brisk first movement, and your toe does tap. They have a much drier sound than the Rampe recording. There’s a nice stereo separation between the parts, and each of the groups is easily distinguishable from the sound stage. Some moments of real drama creep in, and the first violin has its moments of glory.
The harpsichord is lost a bit in the texture. I wanted more bass in this recording; either placement, or more extrovert playing.
They too employ the two-chord technique.
Their second movement is fast, but it is more relaxed than some of the others. Where the cellos break from the bass with fast notes, they articulate nicely and cleanly, perhaps as clean as any of the recordings get. In the end, the interpretation has a lot of energy, but there was still potential for more, with accents, etc.
Goebel/Musica Antiqua Köln
This is the set my friend purchased; and to this day it remains my favorite of the concertos. Why? Likely for their rendition of BWV 1048! There’s more “air” to the sound, especially around the instruments. It seems to be the “just right” amount of reverb, while keeping detail preserved. There was a concerted effort to have each of the groups of “threes” distinct, and it paid off aesthetically. While it was not as closely miked as the Zimmermann recording, the harpsichord survives, and even sparkles from between the string texture. The first movement has speed, but instead of it being a race to the finish line, Goebel is smart enough to shape phrases with slight rubato which treats the music beautifully.
Goebel shines when he emerges from the violin texture. It’s the best violin playing from any of the recordings I own. The “bottom” playing isn’t as clean as Café Zimmermann’s, but it’s the only negative distinction. They utilize the two chords in the Adagio.
The second movement is illegally fast. It was at the time, and still is, a technical tour-de-force. It’s exciting and even exhilarating. The dynamic contrasts are overt, and it works. In the end, this recording still sounds fresh and interesting.
Egarr/Academy of Ancient Music
I had the good fortune of meeting Egarr at a live performance of the Brandenburgs outside Washington, D. C. That’s where I picked-up this recording.
They use a lower pitch (as does Rampe) at a=392, and they also take a decidedly more stately tempo. The wet acoustic doesn’t help with speed; if they went any faster, the sound would be mush. And despite using a 1:1 ratio, this recording made the ensemble sound fuller.
On the up, there was a nice depth to the soundstage.
As I listened, I wrote down “toasty brown.” That was the color that came to mind as I listened, from the color of the ensemble.
They use the 2-chord approach, with harpsichord embellishments. Egarr does well here with that.
The second movement is no “speed contest.” They take their time. The AAM sounds like a well-oiled machine, but one that has some age on it. Some interesting continuo playing (improvised) comes from Egarr in this movement.
Antonini/Il Giardino Armonico
Compared to the AAM, this sound is dry. They lack a cohesive ensemble sound. Their opening is taken at a moderately-fast tempo, and Antonini plays up on the dynamic contrasts. The violin, when it emerges, is well-articulated, but also a little safe. The energy is warm, but it lacks “fire.” They treat the two chords like Pinnock, with a violin solo, but this time Onofri improves it.
The second movement is fast; it’s a really good tempo, without ever feeling “god, this is too fast.” The ensemble is a little top-heavy (more bass!), but they use really good dynamic contrasts in their phrasing.
I closed with CI. They chose a really nice opening tempo, and have an acoustic very similar to the one used on the MAK recording. The sound in the recording is generous, with more depth and breadth than most. The instruments from each group are easy to pick out. The balance of the harpsichord sounds natural, and it’s easy to pick out of the texture.
The dynamic contrasts employed are not as overt as the ones in the IGA performance. The violins try some nice phrasing adjustments in the repeat, it’s carried across from first, second, third. Their bass comes through, when it’s really needed.
During the Adagio, the harpsichord opens with a little improvisation, but it’s tasteful. Their conductor cuts through, too, in the second movement.
While the first violin is strong, it lacks the finesse and “daring” of Goebel. They choose nearly the same speed movement two, but there’s less urgency. They lavish us with dynamic contrasts, and all around, have a strong effort.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my traversal of BWV 1048 from my collection. If you have a must-have or “love it” version yourself that I didn’t review, be sure and let me know!