Of all the concertos in Western Classical music, the most recorded and the most famous, arguably, are the six Brandenburg Concertos composed by Johann Sebastian Bach and presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg circa 1721. In the considered opinions of many, these are, arguably, the best concertos ever - an opinion I hold as I am especially fond of Baroque music (the era to which these belong) - known for its music that was characteristic of a certain Joie-de-Vivre. You can find a complete and reliable history of these concertos, down to the last details, on the internet - so I will not repeat that here. The purpose of this review is to share my joy of this delightful audio-video recording - which, in my opinion, also happens to be a reference recording for both its audio and visual aspects.
Incidentally, my first serious introduction to Western Classical about 4-5 years ago, and which led me to explore this genre, was also a recording of Brandenburg Concertos - but not the one being reviewed here.
This Blu Ray is a live recording of the concert held at the Teatro Municipale Romolo Valli at Reggio Emilia in Italy in April 2007. The Blu Ray was edited to get rid of all the applause between concertos - and only the thunderous one at the end (along with the Encore) was retained. The videography is excellent beyond par - with cameras focussing on either the ensemble or the soloists as the musical context demands. The Blu-Ray has 2 audio options - a PCM 2.0 Stereo and a PCM 5.1 Multi-channel - both uncompressed and lossless. And both are excellent. But given a choice, I will go with the Multi-channel as it captures the depth of the theater and the reverberations better and conveys more of a live feel.
With this background, it is time now to talk a little about the music itself.
The Six Concertos were composed over an extended period of time by Bach - as they are very much varied in their musical textures - and hence they need not be heard in any particular prescribed order. This is very much the case in this recording as they do not appear in the numerical sequence. These concertos were composed for a wide range of instruments popular in that time - with the exception of a few such as the family of Plucked instruments (Guitar, Lute, etc) and the family of Drums (Timpani, etc). All of these concertos are primarily string based - with solos of Violin, Violas, Horns, Trumpet, Oboes, Flute, Recorders, and the Harpsichord.
Bach was a genius and in my opinion the genius of these concertos lies in the fact that they are a curious blend of polyphony - utterly melodious but not hummable. The reason being the multiple themes or the same theme repeated in multiple voices which are overlapped with delays. When I try to hum any one theme - I find it weird unless the accompanying themes or voices are also hummed - and having a single mouth, I cannot. I guess that is the reason why there are no solo instrument transcriptions or recordings of them.
Highlighted below are some of the salient features of the Concertos in the order in which the appear on this Blu Ray:
Concerto No: 1
This is the only concerto comprising 4 movements - the other 5 are each of 3 movements - and hence also the longest of them. The first movement features glorious sequence of Horns and Oboes emerging out of the backbone of strings (violins, violas, and cellos). The second one has one of oboes and cellos. The third features a tantalising point-counterpoint between Horns and Oboes. The fourth movement actually comprises 6 movements beginning and ending and centered on the same Menuet with other dance forms (Trio, Polka) as the others. The fifth sub-movement again features a point-counterpoint between Oboes and Bassoon.
Concerto No: 4
This is my personal favourite. It is completely string based and the third movement features an overlap-staggered play of the same theme - played first by violins, then the violas, and finally the cellos and double bass. The harmonies and melodies play out beautifully without there ever being even a microsecond of mistimed notes that may have led to collapse of the concerto. The 2nd movement of this concerto is a one-minute puzzle - with different conductors filling in what they deem fit - and in this case it is a short solo on the Harpsichord. No one knows what the genius of Bach intended here and hence to each his own.
Concerto No: 5
This entire concerto is based on a lovely interplay of flute and violins - and the Harpsichord makes a mainstream entry with a glorious solo - instead of being relegated to the background as part of the Basso Continuo (with Cellos and Double Bass).
Concerto No: 6
This is a strange one as it does not feature Violins at all in any of its 3 movements. It is based on a septet of 2 Viola Da Gambas, 2 Violas, 1 Cello, 1 Double Bass, and the Harpsichord. And it features lovely interplays between all of them - especially the violas and the lone Cello.
Concerto No: 4
This is primarily based on complex interplays between a lone violin and 2 recorders - embedded in strings comprising violins, violas, cellos, and double bass.
Concerto No: 2
This is a glorious rendering of brilliant interplays between Violin, Trumpet, Recorder, and Oboe - all singles - with an equally glorious background of the entire ensemble.
The Encore - is a shorter and faster version of the 3 movement of the Concerto No: 2 - with the recorder being substituted by a mini recorder (piccolo) which is a real test for the quality of tweeters in speakers. If these sound harsh then be certain that the tweeters in your speakers are damaged.
NITPICKS: The sound of the Harpsichord is not consistent when it is part of the Basso Continuo - as it is mostly overwhelmed by its partners (Cellos and Double Bass). The Basso Continuo, as a whole, however, is gloriously recorded and hence does not alter the sublime experience of the Concertos in any way. The Blu Ray begins with the Concertos directly and does not begin with the options of setting the Audio. You have to press the Menu on the remote of the Blu Ray player to get to those options.
OVERALL: This is a gorgeous and reference quality Blu Ray - recorded in the early years of Blu Rays (2007) - and, in my opinion, is a standard to which all concert (and even movie) recordings should reach at minimum, and then surpass as technology advances. It is far superior in all these aspects than many of the later Hollywood Blu Ray movie releases. The included booklet offers detailed notes on the history and music of the concertos - and as well as the names each of the musicians. The video, while playing each concerto, shows the names of the principal musicians/soloists and the instruments they are playing. Fortunately, it is a Region-Free Blu Ray that can be enjoyed by music lovers all over the world.
Performed by: Orchestra Mozart.
Conducted by: Maestro Claudio Abbado.
Produced by: EuroArts.
Duration: 100 Minutes
BluRay (All Regions)
By Rajendra (Raj) Chittar
Rajendra (Raj) Chittar is based in Bengaluru. He is a retired theoretical Computer Scientist/Software professional. He now luxuriates in his modest but slowly growing collection of Hindustani & Western Classical, Jazz, Classic Rock, Bollywood (pre-1980) music and his books on Mathematics and Physics.
He can be contacted via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on cell +91-8105977500.