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Boston Baroque, one of America's great orchestras, gives revelatory performances of the Bach orchestral suites on this new Telarc recording. With the four suites on a single disc, and with Telarc's trademark standard of recording quality, this is an important and attractive addition to the discography, as well as a fitting celebration of Boston Baroque's 30th anniversary season. Another major celebration is Boston Baroque's first tour to major American classical music venues. The tour, which features the ensemble's Grammy-nominated interpretation of the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers (CD-80453) begins at Walt Disney Hall (the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic), as part of that venue's inaugural season. The tour continues with performances at Ravinia and Tanglewood.
Founded in 1973 by the American harpsichordist and conductor Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque has established an international reputation for the excellence of its performances—both live and on disc. Stereo Review magazine has called Boston Baroque "perhaps the finest period instrument ensemble in this country."
Boston Baroque has made more than a dozen recordings for the Telarc label in little more than a decade, revisiting celebrated musical monuments of the 17th and 18th century, like Handel's Messiah, Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, B Minor Mass, Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, as well as exploring neglected areas of the repertory, like Gluck's opera Iphigénie en Tauride, The Philosopher's Stone (composed in part by Mozart), and an exquisite, ear-opening collection of music by Moravians in Early America. Critical response to these recordings has been consistently rapturous. Early Music America declared the Gluck recording, "So dynamic and moving that lovers of opera will find themselves transported" and the Moravian disc "a triumph"; Stereo Review called Dido and Aeneas "extravagantly beautiful"; Gramophone praised the Brandenburg Concertos as "thoughtful, sensitive, stylish, and joyous"; and Fanfare proclaimed: "Martin Pearlman produces sonorous and spirited results imbued with the soul of the composer...This is a set of the Brandenburgs to treasure and it belongs on the shelf of every Bachophile or lover of the Baroque." Boston Baroque has been nominated for three Grammy Awards.
For this recording, Pearlman and his orchestra bring to bear their vast experience with Bach's music, as well as the latest scholarship. In a break from tradition, the suites are presented in what has been determined to be their order of composition rather than their published order. "Unlike the Brandenburgs, the Orchestral Suites were never assembled by Bach into a single finished volume," Pearlman explains. "We have no autograph scores for these works and therefore know the music principally through instrumental parts copied out by Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel, among others. The numbering of the suites is not by Bach but follows what was originally thought to be the order of their composition. However, that chronology has been revised in recent years. The first and fourth suites are both thought to date from the mid-1720's, not long after Bach took up his position in Leipzig; the third dates from 1731 and the second from the late 1730's. The order of suites on the present recording follows not the numbering but this rough chronology."
It is not merely scholarship but Pearlman and the orchestra's deep musical understanding that gives these interpretations their satisfying richness. Careful attention is paid to balance, for instance. Pearlman points out as an example that the light scoring of the B Minor Suite (for a single flute, strings and harpsichord continuo) has led some to consider it a solo flute piece, much like a concerto, and in order to balance the solo flute, have performed the work with only solo strings in the orchestra. "However," says Pearlman, "the writing, particularly in the overture, is just as full and the character just as weighty as in the other suites, and it does not suggest an exceptionally light sonority. Using multiple violins need not bury the sound of the flute, but the two can be blended into a richer sonority, especially with the sound of the wooden flute and the gut strings of Baroque instruments. I do, however, reduce back to single strings in solo flute passages."
The character of each movement is brought out, too, and Pearlman and the musicians revel in the music's many felicities. Since the majority of the movements are based on popular French dance forms of the day, the focus is on bringing out the individual personality of each dance. In the C Major Suite, for example, Pearlman notes that among the many interesting features in these dances, "we might mention the graceful, shifting accents in the Courante, as well as the second Gavotte, in which the woodwind trio is accompanied by the strings playing 'horn calls.' The lively Forlane is in three layers: a 'tune' in dotted rhythms in the top voice, flowing figuration in the middle voices, and a relatively static bass line. The suite closes with two Passepieds both based on the same tune: the melody from the first Passepied is played by unison strings in the second, as the oboes weave figuration above it."
This loving attention to detail, combined with the spirited virtuosity of Pearlman's band, make for a richly satisfying experience for the listener.