Sunday 6 October 2013

Buoyant, characterful performances of Bach’s Orchestral Suites brilliantly played by Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande on a new release from Accent

Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Orchestral Suites or Ouvertüres were based on the style of the French ouverture popular at that time, usually consisting of a slow introduction, usually repeated, followed by a fugal Allegro and often including movements in some of the many dance forms of the period.

There is, of course, no shortage of recordings of these works to choose from. I first came to enjoy these works through the Decca modern instrument recording by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martins in the Fields. Since then I have enjoyed performances by such period instrument ensembles as Academy of Ancient Music directed by Christopher Hogwood and the Wiener Akademie directed by Martin Haselböck. With so many fine recordings of these works available on disc any new recording has to bring some new quality or insight.

A new release from Accent featuring La Petite Bande directed by Sigiswald Kuijken certainly brings a fresh sound to Bach’s Orchestral Suites with, as the name of the ensemble suggests, a small number of players that give a transparency of sound together with great rhythmic buoyancy.

It is difficult to date Bach’s suites. Bach scholar, Christoph Wolff, suggests that Nos. 1 and 4 were probably written sometime after 1725, with Nos. 2 and 3 written during his years directing the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig around 1731 and 1738/39 respectively. Sigiswald Kuijken, no mean Bach scholar himself, points out in his excellent booklet notes, that most of the sources for these works date from Bach’s Leipzig years (from 1723 until his death in 1750) though he doubts that they were necessarily intended for the Collegium Musicum that Bach started directing from 1729, since Bach reused the Overture of his fourth suite in the opening chorus of his Christmas cantata BWV110 Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (Let our mouth be full of laughter) dated 1725.

The instrumentation for each suite in these performances is; Suite No.1 in C major: four violins, viola, basse de violon, two oboes, bassoon and harpsichord; Suite No.2 in B minor: two violins, viola, basse de violon, flute and harpsichord; Suite No.3 in D major: four violins, viola, two basse de violon, two oboes, three trumpets, timpani and harpsichord and Suite No.4 in D major: four violins, viola, two basse de violon, three oboes, timpani and harpsichord.

The Belgium period performance ensemble La Petite Bande was founded in 1972 by Sigiswald Kuijken at the request of the record company Harmonia Mundi (Germany) in order to record Lully's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, under the direction of Gustav Leonhardt. The orchestra takes its name from Lully's own orchestra at the court of Louis XIV. All its members are internationally renowned specialists in early music. Although originally La Petite Bande was not meant to become a permanent orchestra, the success of the recordings was such that they began to give concerts regularly. Having initially concentrated mainly on French music, the orchestra's repertoire has expanded over the years to include music by the Italian masters and that of Bach, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart and others. La Petite Bande has performed in a multitude of international festivals and concert series, in Europe, Japan, Australia, South America and China.

The opening Ouverture of Bach’s Suite No.1 in C major, BWV1066 is light and transparent with the size of La Petite Bande, surely the size band Bach would have expected, really paying dividends. The music is full of life with an agility that is really attractive. A stately yet flowing Courante follows with a real dance rhythm before the Gavotte I and II where Kuijken knows just how to get his players to point up the dance rhythms. The blend of flowing oboes against the more rhythmic strings is wonderful. The Forlane fairly scoots along, making a lovely little connecting piece to the Menuet I and II in which one can imagine an elegant baroque dance scene. The playing from La Petite Bande is incisive, lithe and perfectly blended. Bourée I and II bring some lovely oboe sounds that show through in this lively French dance. With Passepied I and II, Kuijken achieves a tempo and rhythm that is perfect for the Passepied, a fast version of a Menuet.

Trumpets and timpani make a striking entry to the Suite No.3 in D major, BWV 1068, placed second on this disc, with playing of terrific rhythmic bounce. When the Ouverture really gets going there is playing of terrific flare and agility. Bach’s famous Air is not allowed to drag and, in this chamber sized performance, takes on a whole new character, very refreshingly done. In the Gavotte I and II, Bach doesn’t seem to have envisaged this as simple dance music adding, as he does, bright trumpets, nevertheless Kaijken and his band give us a real Gavotte. There is a terrific Bourée that really moves along, with more of those great trumpets sounds. A glorious bouncing Gigue brings an end to this suite.

Suite No.2 in B minor, BWV1067 opens with lovely little flute phrases in the Ouverture, exquisitely played, with a lovely blending of textures with the strings. It is the light, graceful flow of the Rondeau that makes it such a lovely performance. There is a lovely Sarabande, gorgeous in its chamber proportions, a lively Bourée I and II where all the textures of the instruments come and a poised and crisp Polonaise I and II and a beautifully shaped little Menuet. In the final Badinerie (meaning trifle or jest) Kuijken actually maintains a moderate tempo in comparison with some rather more manic performances.

Suite No.4 in D major, BWV1069 sees the return of the trumpets and timpani with this small ensemble making some beautiful full sounds in the Ouverture, buoyant and full of clarity and style. The Bourée I and II have some fine bassoon passages, intricate and fluid and a gloriously done Gavotte, full of stately charm, with some lovely sweeps of sound. After the beautifully turned Menuet I and II, the Rejouissance (Rejoicing) is nicely structured with Kuijken not letting the music run away with itself as some do, giving a rhythmic, light performance with those three baroque oboes and three trumpets adding to a fine conclusion.

These are buoyant, characterful performances brilliantly played by Kuijken and his band. The recording is very fine indeed, full of depth and there are booklet notes by Sigiswald Kuijken himself. 

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