Last year, Trevor Pinnock decided to celebrate his 60th birthday in style. He gathered a group of top-notch musicians for the sole purpose of performing the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Brandenburgs have played an important role in Pinnock's career. He recorded them in the early 1980s with the English Concert, a period-instrument ensemble he founded in 1972. A few colleagues from that group are part of The European Brandenburg Ensemble.
Originally, this group was to give just one concert at the beautifully refurbished Sheffield City Hall Ballroom, in Sheffield, England. That concert became the launching pad for a year-long tour that took the group across Europe and the Far East.
When Pinnock first recorded the Brandenburg Concertos, he was in awe of the composer's discipline. Twenty-five years later, Pinnock relishes Bach's sense of daring.
On this new recording, The Brandenburg Ensemble examines these concertos from various angles by experimenting with things like phrasing and pitch. The result is a crisp, unified sound, and a welcome addition to a long list of Brandenburg Concerto recordings.
I went right to the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 to hear how Trevor Pinnock approached the harpsichord solo. This work is essentially the first keyboard concerto ever written.
In Bach's day, the keyboard was well-known as a solo instrument, but rarely heard as a concerto soloist. Bach sets the harpsichord at center stage, allowing it to completely take over the final minutes of the first movement.
Trevor Pinnock sails through the frenzied cadenza. The sound of the harpsichord is exhilarating, yet warm. Just add a light show and screaming fans, and Pinnock could be a rock star.
Two prominent hunting horns announce the first Brandenburg concerto, which opens this two-CD set. Compare this opening movement to that of The English Concert's 1982 recording, and the tempo change is immediately apparent. I prefer the quicker tempo, and the brighter sound offered up in the new performance.
The European Brandenburg Ensemble is made up of 27 virtuoso performers. The Concerto No. 2 gives several of them the solo spotlight, including trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin. The harmony between these soloists is exquisite.
In the third Brandenburg Concerto, virtually all of the players are soloists. Three choirs of violins, violas and cellos create tight, intertwining textures.
Pinnock assembled the European Brandenburg Ensemble with the sole purpose of performing Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. In order to get beyond any preconceived notions of what these works should sound like, Pinnock invited players from different countries and different generations to join his expedition.
The ensemble gathered on Pinnock's 60th birthday in December 2006, to record all six concertos before launching their year-long tour. What started as a very special birthday present is now a beautifully wrapped musical package for all of us to enjoy.