Stuttgarter Kammerorchestra – ‘J.S. Bach – The Complete Brandenburg Concertos’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

December 23, in Titles

Innovative, that’s how I’d describe the TACET DVD-Audio release, J.S. Bach, The Complete Brandenburg Concertos. Released in mid 2001, the disc is promoted by TACET as ‘real surround sound’, which although a somewhat clichйd description, really does apply in this case.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos need little introduction; they have been popular stalwarts of the baroque repertoire since the early 18th century. Just when or why Bach composed the concertos is still a mystery, it’s misleading to assume they were created for the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg simply because a collective score was dedicated to the margrave in 1721, since analysis of the musical style, especially of the sixth concerto, indicates earlier origins, it has a part written for viola da gamba, a precursor to the cello.

The Brandenburg Concertos represent the lighter side of Bach, the foot-tapping second allegro of the Fifth Concerto for example, but there are sombre moments, passages of the Sixth Concerto in particular.

For the TACET DVD-Audio recording, all six concertos – the disc runs well over an hour and a half – were performed by the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester (the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra) under leader Benjamin Hudson. The orchestra was founded in 1945 and quickly became know for Bach interpretations that elevated works such as the Brandenburg Concertos above the lacklustre performances that were the norm at the time. Dennis Russell Davis has been artistic director since 1995, the same year Hudson became leader.

Bach’s concertos often encompass passages and phrases written for a wide variety of musical abilities, some elements were incorporated specifically for Bach’s employers – such as Prince Leopold – to join in, whilst others demand virtuoso solo and ensemble performances. Both the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester and Hudson fall distinctly into this latter category, and their musical accomplishments are particularly apparent here.

Before continuing on to the disc itself however, we need to discuss the loudspeaker placement recommended by TACET for the most convincing playback of their multi-channel titles. In the accompanying inlay card, the text and diagram indicates that all five loudspeakers should be positioned equal distances apart around the listening position. With the centre at 0°, the left and right front loudspeakers would be at +72° and -72°, while the surrounds would be at +144° and -144°. This breaks all the rules of ideal loudspeaker placement; at 140° the surrounds are too far behind the listening position whilst the left/right pair are too far apart to image correctly, particularly important in this instance as the title does not have any centre channel content.

For experimental purposes, I did temporarily reposition the small M&K loudspeakers in my second system to the locations recommended by TACET, but was not at all pleased with the results; due to the width apart of the left/right pair there was little – if any – phantom centre image and although at times the rear placement did aid presentation, unless additional side loudspeakers were used to fill in the void between front and rears – rendering the TACET layout suggestions moot – surround envelopment and positioning suffered greatly. Back in my main system, complete with a standard 7.1 loudspeaker placement, the TACET disc came alive, so the moral of this story is to stick with conventional, recognised loudspeaker positioning and not try to adapt your system on a per-recording basis.

I used the word ‘innovative’ earlier in this review, because of the way TACET engineers Andreas Spreer and Roland Kistner have used the multi-channel surround pallet afforded by DVD-Audio and Dolby Digital. All six concertos are presented as 2/2.0 – no centre and no LFE – but even with only four channels in use, both the width and depth of the soundstage is impressive, to say the least.

For the First Concerto, TACET have placed the entire Kammerorchester to the front of the listening position with the rear channels conveying the ambience of the Gцnningen church in which the piece was recorded. This is the most conventional surround presentation on the entire disc and surprisingly, in light of the remainder, the least effective. The reverberation present tends to blur dynamic transients and disguise the subtleties of the performance, but the sense of space created around the room is both affective and convincing.

The Second Concerto is presented in a more radical manner, the Kammerorchester is spread around the listener whereas the four primary soloists – violin, flute, oboe and trumpet – have been placed into each of the four cardinal loudspeaker positions. On paper, this approach sounds rather extreme and one could be forgiven for expecting a rather gimmicky experience, but in practice, somewhat surprisingly, the idea works exceptionally well.

Yet another presentation style has been used for the third, and perhaps best known Brandenburg Concerto. Here, the violins are placed to the left of the room, the violas phantom centre and the cellos to the right. It is the most effective and entertaining surround experience on the disc; each section of the Kammerorchester is clearly defined and can be followed as a separate entity, and yet each part of the orchestra also contributes to what is an utterly convincing whole. Again, it’s important to stress that the result is not distracting or annoying in any way, in fact the experience is engrossing at times as it allows a greater insight into Bach’s complex composition.

For the fourth and fifth concertos, some may say TACET have overstepped the line just a tad because although the solo flutes, violin and in the case of the Fifth Concerto the harpsichord are placed with great precision in front of the listener, the remainder of the orchestra is positioned largely to the rear. This actually replicates the orchestra layout often used to perform the Fifth Concerto, wherein the soloists turn to face the remainder of the players, but as a surround performance the result is hard to come to terms with, especially if you’re using the TACET suggested rear loudspeaker placement and they’re some distance behind your listening position.

In contrast, the final Sixth Concerto soloists are placed directly in front of and behind the listener, with the orchestra to either side, and here a rearward surround loudspeaker placement actually behoves the overall effect.

Although the disc is 48kHz 24-bit – and interestingly uses uncompressed linear PCM instead of compressed Meridian Lossless Packing – its fidelity is excellent. The strings of the First Concerto’s allegro are of particular note since each instrument is presented in such an open and ‘airy’ manner, as are those of the Fourth Concerto. Violins have none of that squeaky harsh quality usually associated with the instruments; instead they have a more immediate expressive voice, complete with the rasping of the lower registers during the difficult presto passages.

The gentle harpsichord and flute elements of the Fifth Concerto are also presented with surprising finesse, a perfect counterfoil for the lilting second allegro that follows. There isn’t much bass to be found throughout any of the Brandenburg Concertos and you wouldn’t expect any significant low-end from a chamber orchestra, but that doesn’t prevent one feeling a sense of dynamic realism, especially when the cellos combine with the remainder of the orchestra. My only criticism involves the trumpet solos of the Second Concerto, they’re a smidgen harsh, but overall this is a top-notch recording of the six works.

The TACET disc has no extras whatsoever, not even still images to accompany each track, just a simple static play list from which to make your selection. It does however, begin playing the moment it is inserted into either a DVD-Video or DVD-Audio machine, so is one of the few titles that does not require a video display. Interestingly, although TACET hail from Germany where the video standard is PAL, the disc menu is NTSC, which on reflection affords the greatest worldwide compatibility.

So it’s hats off to TACET; the recordings featured here are first-rate, which, when coupled with the intriguing and highly entertaining surround presentation make for a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.

J.S. Bach – The Complete Brandenburg Concertos can be ordered via the TACET web site: http://www.tacet.de/

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