|Comments:||Review by Jan Hanford:|
The question of "Which Brandenburg... ?" comes up a lot. I decided to investigate several of the versions out there.
This recording by von Karajan has been around forever and I passed it up for as long because the idea of him doing Bach seemed absurd. Mahler, yes; Bach, no. Well, it turns out not to be so bad but a warning: it is not for anyone even slightly purist.
This recording is not of the ultra-crisp digital variety. It is very warm, which I find refreshing, and the solo instruments are not in your face but, rather, are blended into the orchestra. Actually I find this more like a live performance would sound. The strings are especially lush, which is very appealing to me after the sometimes harsh and choppy sounds of the currently trendy "authentic instruments" recordings.
The tempos are very nice, slow but not too slow, fast but not frenetic and have a very lively feel. However, there are a couple rhythmic oddities that prevent me from declaring this recording "wonderful." The fourth movement of Brandenburg No. 1 is tooo slowwwww. He adds about 2 minutes to the movement and, although it is beautiful, it sounds really slow. The horn-fifths section near the end picks up and sounds great, but then the recapitulation is slow again. The other unusual glitch is the second movement of Brandenburg No. 4. My score has slurred eighth notes and the first theme. He interprets them as dotted eighths with a sixteenth. It deviates too much from how I've come to know the melodies. Perhaps his source is more authentic than mine, or less, it doesn't matter; it sounds odd.
Throughout the recording there are gorgeous moments, truly beautiful! Especially in the slow movements, particularly in No. 1 and No. 6. Other times the phrasing or ornamentation is just a little unusual. But it's never bad, just different. Considering that these musicians spent so much of their time playing Mahler and Richard Strauss, the fact they can play Bach with any sensitivity at all is impressive to me. One delightful difference is the use of flutes in No. 4 instead of recorders; they're lovely. No. 5 uses a harpsichord, so they didn't change that, thankfully.
I would recommend this recording to a beginning listener because of the lush, and familiar, sound of the orchestra, and to a listening veteran who wants to hear something different.