The 20 works on these six CDs from Alpha are all so familiar and well-recorded already that there had better be a good reason for releasing them.
There are several. And excellent ones. This is a set that might well become your reference for Bach's most important and best-known orchestral suites and concerti. In the first place the ensemble Café Zimmermann uses period instruments (or copies) and a thoroughly historically-informed playing style. It's named in honor of the meeting place in Catherinenstraße in Leipzig, Gottfried Zimmermann's coffee house, for the weekly concerts by the Collegium Musicum, which was founded by Georg Philipp Telemann and of which Bach was director from 1729 to 1739. If we are to appreciate how striking (revolutionary even) Bach's larger-scale orchestral music was at the time, we must hear it on forces as close as possible to those for which it was written.
This project was begun ten years ago and only now come to fruition. It offers over six hours of wonderful music at a very attractive price – prioritized the choice of musicians, recording venue and acoustics. Hughes Deschaux and Aline Blondiau take the credit. Their aim of achieving a balance and soundstage where every individual instrument is heard clearly has been achieved with great success. Indeed, there is great clarity and personality, distinctiveness and sense of difference as each of the instrumentalists plays, even in ensemble.
From the soft yet sure balance of the harpsichord to the ripieno instrumentalists in the D minor Concerto, BWV 1052 [CD.1 tr.s 1-3] to that for four harpsichords in A minor, BWV 1065 [CD.6 tr.s 13-15] the sensitivity and tightly-focused musicality of these musicians is evident. They delight in playing as an ensemble: listen to both the tutti and highlighted strings of the second (E Major) violin concerto, BWV 1042 [CD.1 tr.7], for instance. Even the famed solo obbligato passage at the end of the first movement of the fifth Brandenburg [CD.1 tr.10] is tempered, measured, restrained and delicate. Yet still manages to convey its stunning importance for (orchestral) music without bombast or spectacle. Surely this is close to how Bach meant it to sound: unostentatious and full of impact.
If there is another meeting point that is emphasized in these performances, it is that between the Baroque and the Enlightenment. The earlier age retained such things as the power of magic, the ability of music to evoke emotions through the use of techniques of Affekt, and a world view (in part in consequence) tinged with tragedy. But the dismissal of anything not amenable of proof and reason characterized the Enlightenment. In ways analogous perhaps to how we can understand Shakespeare as a person as well as creator, we'll probably never know exactly to what extent Bach retreated into his own inner world – particularly in the last two decades of his life and time in Leipzig and to what extent he wrestled the world around him into shapes and forms that met his needs. We can be sure, though, that the culture of Zimmermann's coffee house stood also for Bach's flexibility, his ventures into the cultural mainstream of the bustling and highly commercial world of mid-18th Century Leipzig. One of the essays in the highly informative booklet that comes with this set of CDs is particularly illuminating on the contemporary cultural significance and influence on ideas and even creativity of coffee itself.
It's that happy, persuasive and highly approachable – yet completely unadulterated and undiluted – blend of melody, melodic invention, profundity, immediacy, slight self-effacing yet utterly confident performing style that triumphs so soundly in these performances. Just as the Leipzig Collegium Musicum in Bach's time thrived on an ad hoc vivacity, passing musicians joining in and moving on, the sort of spontaneity that comes from not being obligated to court or church performances, so the producers and musicians in these performances have sought to create – and successfully created – a lightness and immediacy in their music-making. For all their welcome freshness, theirs is a vision that's matched completely by a depth of purely musical understanding and an appreciation of the traditions on which they're building. On the one hand Zimmermann's Collegium Musicum epitomizes the advent of the public concert. On the other, the sheer technique and musical integrity of the performances by the 21st Century Café Zimmermann ensemble takes the credit for music-making that's convincing, impressive on the "few-to-one" scale of the individual CD experience.
The instrumental sounds are crisp, punchy and potent; yet never raw or portentous. Each string and woodwind sound is transparent and pure without ever being an insipid distillation of the robust and at times quite extrovert vehicle for Bach's timeless orchestral structures. When you realize that the ensemble Café Zimmermann consists essentially of five bowed instruments and a harpsichord with other strings or wind instruments added as required, there is a remarkable cohesion and sense of togetherness in their playing. In fact, ensemble Café Zimmermann was founded (in 1998) by Pablo Valetti (violin) and Céline Frisch (harpsichord) in a spirit both of focused conviviality and the embrace of the new that must have pervaded the Leipzig institution. One perhaps never predictable result is very evident on these CDs… a uniting of performers and listeners through and thanks to the quality of the performers in very familiar repertoire. Yet another reason to recommend them without reservation.
The small and well-written booklet (over 150 pages in French, English and German) is of a high standard. After a general introduction that emphasizes very well the changing relationship between Bach and the social and cultural milieus in which he lived, the music itself is amply analyzed. The aim of the project was obviously to demolish some of the dogma that was perhaps inevitable as the Baroque HIP (Historically Informed Performance) movement secured a place the "early" music revival of the past half century. And replace it with interpretations that both were accurate, viable and musically legitimate – but also which breathed. Each work on these CDs amply fulfills the promise of such a modestly, unfussily yet unambiguously and self-confidently declared manifesto. In a phrase, Bach benefits from humanity instead of caricature. Choice references to some of the more distinguished (yet sadly still recherché) literature dealing with the musical and social context of these orchestral works illuminate the commentary on them, which is divided into six virtual "chapters" corresponding to the six CDs and bound into one.
The recordings for this set were made between 2000 and 2010 in the Chapel of the hôpital Notre-Dame de Bon Secours, Paris, the Arsenal de Metz, and the Temple Saint-Jean de Mulhouse. Each of these three locations is highly appropriate for the music; and although each has its own sonic characteristics, these never intrude on the music-making itself. From all of this, it will be obvious just what a particular and carefully-conceived project this is. Anything but just another set of Brandenburgs and Concerti. Rather, a statement that contributes to a significantly adjusted view of Bach. It barely needs five minutes of listening to any of the works on any of these CDs to see how successful the project is. Although it's possible that you will have your own preferred interpretation of some or all of these works (it's almost inevitable given their popularity), there's always room for one more, for another perceptive and expertly-played one. To have so many assembled so well is a huge achievement. It's sure to succeed. Don't hesitate.
Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey.