Academy of St. James (Pini) – ‘Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos’ A DVD-Audio review by Chris Salocks

To some listeners, this release of the Brandenburg concertos will seem like a throwback to those innocent days before the ascendancy of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement, which now dominates so much of recorded music – especially of the baroque and classic eras. But to many other listeners, these modern-instrument performances, which first appeared on CD in 1993 on the Omega label, will be a breath of fresh air in their lack of artifice and mannerism. And they’ve never sounded better than in this Silverline Classics DVD-Audio incarnation. The 5.1 MLP surround format sounds glorious, reflecting what are evidently the wide-open acoustics of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. In fact, the two-channel stereo tracks perhaps contain just a slight overabundance of reverberation that yet balances out magnificently and organically in multichannel mode. Close your eyes and you’re in the middle of a large, empty hall, with its clarity combined with a long, natural decay period.

The superiority of the multichannel version of these performances might seem surprising in view of the likelihood that the original engineers probably never envisioned a 5.1 surround format, and I suppose that some listeners might be disturbed by the idea of the current transfer/restoration engineers and technicians somehow synthesizing a 5.1 format where none existed in the original. (Remember those stereo recordings back in the LP days synthesized from mono originals? Ecch!) But as much as one might be uncomfortable in theory with the idea of synthesizing new tracks that did not exist on the original master tapes, one can’t argue with the results, in terms of sonic realism and attractiveness as heard on this disc. Studio techniques today are light-years away from those early synthesized stereo aberrations, and this disc triumphantly validates the use of these sophisticated and subtle techniques in modern classical recording environments.

There is one oddity in the sound, and this might have to do as much with Baroque seating arrangements as with modern recording techniques. As with most recordings, the violins are on the left throughout (except when there are no violins – in the Sixth Concerto). However, in the Fourth Concerto, only the solo violin is on the left – the ripieno violins are on the right! (This is true of both the stereo 2.0 and multichannel 5.1 formats.) I did some spot checking with some other recordings of the Brandenburgs I had available (three different East German performances), and this anomaly is nowhere to be heard in those performances. As I said, given the nature of Baroque seating arrangements, the disposition of forces in the Fourth Concerto is more surprising than alarming, and I’m inclined to give the production team the benefit of the doubt, given the care with which every other aspect of this recording has been realized.

The performances are all directed by Carl Pini, who doubles as solo violinist in all but the third and sixth concertos. Pini, a veteran participant in other well-known recordings of these works, such as the ones led by Thurston Dart, Johannes Somary, and Neville Marriner, brings all his considerable experience to bear in these renditions. The outstanding quality of these performances is their naturalness. The tempi are neither hustled along (a too frequent failing of many HIP renditions) nor dragged. They just sound right – energetic but not pushed, articulate but not mannered. Indeed, articulation is nicely varied throughout these performances, but without the kind of self-regarding exaggeration you hear from the majority of early music groups. The unaffected, unpretentious qualities of these performances are becoming more and more rare these days – even performers on modern instruments seem to be losing the ability to interpret Baroque and classic music without noticeable artifice. The “art which conceals art” seems to be less of a factor in interpretation, at least as evidenced on recent recordings.

I’d also like to put in a word of praise for the sonority of the modern instruments heard on this recording – the rich, full sound of the French horns in the first concerto and the ample tone of the solo flutes in the second and fifth concertos are just a couple of examples among the many which could be cited. I once had a professor who spent an entire lecture in praise of the Baroque (wooden) flute. He concluded his class by remarking, “And just think – today they use those…” (and here he contorted his face into a withering sneer) “…metal things!” All I can say is that the “metal things” on this recording sound far superior to any Baroque flute described so rapturously by the professor.

Among the extras on this DVD is a short, interesting feature on how the original tapes were restored and transferred. A certain amount of detective work was involved in finding the original master tapes, since the climate-controlled warehouse where the tapes are stored contained multiple boxed tapes of the same performance. In many cases, both the real master tape and the first-generation copies were all labeled “master”. An expert on Vanguard’s tape filing system was brought in to help determine which tapes were indeed the actual masters. This step seems typical of the care with which these productions were undertaken.

The disc also includes a short composer biography (text only), a speaker set-up section, tech notes (including equipment used), and credits.

Finally, it should also be mentioned that this DVD-Audio title represents good value, containing all six concertos, on a single disc, where two discs would be necessary in CD format.