Site review by ramesh June 14, 2006
|This SACD set contains the same performances as the set issued earlier by Vanguard under a different serial number. The current release has the virtue of being much cheaper, the two disc set being priced at approximately the same as one premium SACD.
The works were recorded in London's Conway Hall in 1975, with the ECO of the period : the lead violinist was Carl Pini, with Simon Standage also participating; one of the recorder players in the Fourth Concerto was David Munrow. The four multichannel tracks were recorded with the typical quad gimmickry : to quote from Seymour Solomon, the owner of Vanguard, 'These… were recorded onto four tracks and were done from the vantage point of the conductor… Generally, most of the tutti are heard from the front two channels. However, in many movements where there is dialogue between winds and strings, these alternate between the front and rear speakers.'
In the mid seventies, these had to compete with the other sets from the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, I Musici and Karl Richter's 1967 recordings, amongst many others. All these sets utilised mainly modern instruments, with harpsichord continuo and solo. As for the instrumental variants, Somary uses a flute in the Second, and two recorders in the Fourth. The Sixth was composed for two violas, two viola da gambas, one cello, one violone and harpsichord. Somary's notes state, 'Because the cello part is different from the two viola da gamba parts and because the transparency intended by Bach might be lost when using cellos instead of viola da gambas, we took care to preserve the original instrumentation in this recording. Even the double bass has been replaced by the fretted six-stringed violone.'
It's interesting that Somary chooses to employ the word 'transparency' with regards to late baroque music. Earlier in the notes with respect to the finale of the Fifth, he refers to choosing 'the more traditional approach of treating the opening note as part of a triplet figure, thus providing rhythmic consistency and smoothness…' The conductor's approach is pragmatic in his choice of instruments and timbre. Indeed, transparency, rhythmic consistency and smoothness are terms which aptly sum up the overriding impression of this set. To someone relatively unfamiliar with the Brandenburgs, this would be a satisfying middle-of-the-road purchase, as it would be for music students who want it for course work. It is never less than proficient. Moreover, in the SACD format one can hear much more of the score than in most CDs of these works. However, I often found my attention wandering. Several movements don't descend into enervation and blandness for the simple reason that they started off so from the very first note. Nevertheless, there are enough points of interesting detail salvaged from the rhythmic pudding. In some ways, Somary conducting Bach has all the transparency, fidelity to the score and emotional disengagement of Boulez conducting Mahler. One can't write it off, but it's hardly desert island material.
Interestingly, Somary's opening allegri are often brisker than in some period performances, eg Harnoncourt's later digital set. The first two movements of the First are among the dullest performances here, so anyone wanting to sample is advised to try the Second, Fourth and Fifth concerti.
Part of the problem is that the melodic lines are flat rather than well-inflected, so the phrases dovetail into the next in an overly legato manner. Also, many of the hairpin accents and momentary pauses, plus the other interpretational quirks of the period instruments brigade, are missing. Accents in the strings when they do come, are often fuller in the middle of the note rather than emphasising the leading edge of the chord. Hence they are full rather than crisp, but more in the manner of nineteenth century string music. On the credit side, there aren't any miscalculations which could become irritating on repeated listening, as is par for the course with Harnoncourt; but then, one doesn't get this conductor's moments of insight and vision either. Excellent academic conducting from someone who obtained his music degree from Yale. Buy it and impress your friends with ping-pong multichannel; for musical satisfaction, play the expensive stereo-only Richter set from Japanese Universal.
There is commendably little tape hiss. There is no info on the remastering process, but as I can't hear PCM artefacts, it might very well be a DSD transfer like the RCA and PentaTone analogue tapes. In stereo, the recording has nice stage depth for a small chamber orchestra, and is not set too closely. Compared to the 1967 Richter set of the Brandenburgs, the orchestral colours sound anaemic. This is probably a combination of recording, orchestra and conducting style. There are a couple of moderately loud but brief tape drop-outs and clicks.