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Brandenburg Concertos (with a little Shostakovich)

Ensemble Caprice performs Bach's Brandenburg Concerti under the direction of Matthias Maute on the Analekta label. Did I need another collection of Brandenburg Concertos? Probably not. If you read my appraisal of my collection centered around concerto no. 3, you could see I had a diverse set of historically-informed interpretations, some from some pretty "major" ensembles. I first heard Matthias Maute in Richmond, performing on transverse flute with a small ensemble, performing baroque chamber music. The Montreal-native made an impact in my mind, not only from his playing, but his height. If it wasn't for my following their ensemble on Twitter, I may not have noticed this release, pairing Bach's Brandenburg concertos with several of Shostakovich's preludes and fugues for piano, arranged here, for baroque orchestra. I'm not sure I get the combination. The liner notes give us some history on the Shostakovich collection. I've listened to them, modeled after Bach's WTC, as performed by Keith Jarrett. I never found them especially satisfying. But in the context of orchestral interludes, they act as little palette cleansers between the familiar "Brandenburg courses" in the meal. What follows are detailed notes on three of their readings, Concertos nos. 1, 3, and 5.

Concerto no. 3 BWV 1048

This clocks in at 4:29, which is very quick. The ensemble is full of rhythmic vitality and dynamic nuance. Their acoustic is a little live (recorded in the St-Augustin de Mirabel church in Québec), but we're nonetheless treated to an interesting image across the ensemble with ample bass represented. Their sound is light, which goes along with the sprightly pace. This certainly blows the dust off the 1721 manuscript like no other recording. Wow. These guys are putting some of the big boys to shame. Ensemble Caprice has arrived. The Adagio? Two chords, with just a twinkle from the harpsichord. But they make a big breath out of it, which is awesome. Anticipation, then release… Their second movement clocks in at 4:07, which is very quick tempo, but not hurried beyond comparison. The acoustic works against them a bit, I think, with a lot of smearing. There is some detail lost in the texture. I get the sense that first violinist Olivier Brault has taken a few "lessons" from Goebel, on how to stick-out on the top of the texture with a touch of flair. Maute does well to bring out some of the important rhythmic elements from the ensemble. The harpsichord comes through very clear, sounding somewhat like a mechanical machine that's pushing things along. While playing this fast has its challenges, I would have liked a little more dynamic contrast from the violin section, as they did in the first movement. All around, their reading is well-done. I'd keep Goebel and Co. in first place for the second movement. But Ensemble Caprice can take the title for the first!

Concerto no. 5 BWV 1050

What a fast opening! Sophie Larivière plays the flute here, who is also the ensemble's co-director. She has a beautiful tone, but her flute seems to be a bit unbalanced with the three soloists, coming across as unnaturally loud. In comparison, the harpsichord and violin sound on the thin side, tonally. Their play with rhythm in Bach's motives and rubato with tempo is fresh and satisfying. If I heard this live, I think I'd be an annoying guy bobbing his head up and down the whole time. Their playing together is seriously delicious. Of course, no. 5 features the extended solo for harpsichord. Erin Helyard does an admirable job. She plays with tempo in some very organic ways, never sounding like a machine with a too-steady tempo. She plays it as an "improvised cadenza," which is what we are left to believe Bach did for us. The solo is dramatic and flawless, a real treat that's both creative and technically impressive. The emotions pour over by the time the first movement ends. And they do it with a slight decrescendo which is just perfect. The middle movement features the three soloists, and too many times it can drag with the too-slow a tempo. These folks know how to truck through, without rushing. The third movement starts out strong with real bounce. The players emerge sounding fresh. With this trio, the acoustic is far more supportive than in the third concerto.

Concerto no. 1 BWV 1046

Readers likely know I like brassy horns. Horns can never be too loud, especially hunting horns. Oh, they do me right, these guys. It's likely the acoustic of the church that takes their triplets and horn calls and amplifies them so; watching these guys on a YouTube video was great fun. Maute let's them sit among the other players, in the back; I'd have taken their talents to the back wall, playing full-tilt, myself. I saw this done with Musica Antiqua Köln in one of their tours playing the "original Brandenburg Concertos" and it left a big impression on me. The first movement seems perfectly done with the just-right tempo. The second movement is famous for its opening oboe line. Our lead oboe player Matthew Jennejohn, isn't content playing things totally straight; he bends his pitch as a type of ornamental flourish, which tickles me to no end. Are you getting the sense I love these guys? The third movement of course features our little piccolo violin trying to overcome those big bad horns. I picture this kind of like David against Goliath, a guy playing this little violin, complete with harshly-bowed chords across multiple strings. The effect is somewhat lost here; Mr. Brault nor his instrument can stand out of the texture enough to bring across this effect. But the horns are so ever satisfying, still. This concerto ends with a series of dances, and with some ensembles, it can all go on for some time. EC here clocks in at just under 6 minutes, which shows anyone they're pushing things. Oboes together with just bassoon is a glorious sound, again, highlighting the best of their environment's acoustic. They're playful, but not to the degree that was done in La Stravaganza Hamburg's account. Their reading of Concerto no. 1 was astonishing, for the improvisation from the oboes and first violin. EC however does treat us to some satisfying phrasing from the strings in their dance. It's at once both inventive and surprising. Thrilling, even. Well-done. Oh, what's this? Solo violin improvisations? Oh, they didn't! Horn improvisations! Oh the fun!

Final Notes

So yes, there is room in the world for another reading of Bach's six concertos for a diverse set of instruments. For as long as there are creative, technically-able, good-humored musicians around, there is room for performances that can challenge our notions of what the music is, what it can be, and where it can go next. I haven't done enough to pay attention to this Canadian ensemble, who clearly in this record, are world-class musicians. While Tafelmusik may have been first in Canada as Toronto's major baroque orchestra, they've never captured the creativity these folks from Montreal show in their well-styled interpretations. The inclusion of several Shostakovich preludes and fugue certainly sets the collection apart, and you may not always choose to program these in. His music isn't on par with Bach's, but juxtaposed with Bach's, it sets you mind off in a new direction, out of the safe tonal world of Bach's baroque age. In the end, I like these palette cleansers. It shows off what kind of ensemble these folks are. They dare to try new things, to have some fun, and challenge our assumptions. This new recording is well-done, and it deserves to be shelved up with the best that came before it. Enthusiastically recommended.

Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum

17th Century German Chamber Music