NEARLY 30 recordings of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are available at present, many of them using the gambas, recorders and other instruments of Bach's time for which these six works were written. Perhaps as many as half of the recordings are more than merely satisfactory, and some of the very best are on low-priced or "mid-price" labels.
The Brandenburg recording I've enjoyed most in the last 15 years is the one by the Saarland Radio Chamber Orchestra under Karl Ristenpart (Nonesuch HB-73006). This marvelous musician enlivened every piece of music he touched, and the freshness of his Brandenburgs in indicated at the very outset, in the way his superb performers on the natural horn punch out those usually obscured (or simply ignored) triplets. All that follows adds up to a model of clarity, vigor and all-round good sense.
The one drawback in the None-such set is the side layout. Because the six concertos are presented in strict numerical order, No. 5, the greatest of the lot, is interrupted for turnover between its first and second movements. Most of the subsequent recordings have avoided this irritation by ignoring the numerical sequence in favor of one that makes sense on discs, and the latest of these is at once so spirited, so downright beautiful and so handsomely recorded that almost any established favorite would have to yield pride of place to it.
Helmut Winschermann conducts his Deutsche Bachsolisten (German Bach Soloists) in these energetic and expert performances (Arabesque 8088-2; cassettes 9088-2). There is little to say about them except that they make a happier impression than any others I know. Tempos are brisk but never outlandish; rhythms are firm and well-sprung; phrasing is buoyantly natural, balance impeccable. The soloists are absolutely first-rate and each is heard in ideal focus. The pressings (domestic) are exemplary.
But who are these fine soloists? Arabesque doesn't list any of their names, not even that of the excellent harpsichordist in the very soloistic Fifth Concerto. Curiously, however, Arabesque does list the names of all the principals and continuo players in each of the eight works in the Winschermann group's Handel package -- the six Opus 3 concerti grossi plus the alternative version of No. 4 and the so-called "Alexander's Feast" Concerto in C major (8089-2; cassettes 9089-2). This seems a little backward, if not perverse.
Furthermore, Arabesque devotes the inside liners of its gatefold containers to a listing of its catalogue, thus confining the annotations to the back liner alone. This makes for type that is too small to read comfortably. But aurally both of these sets are worthwhile -- the Bach actually outstanding and the Handel taking current honors at least by default.
The Handel set arrived more or less simultaneously with the single disc of the six Opus 3 concertos alone (omitting No. 4b), performed by the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner (RCA Erato STU 71367). Gardiner has given us some very striking recordings of baroque music (and those Massenet suites), and he has some unusually stimulating thoughts on these concertos, but there are lapses here and there. At its best this is extremely fine music-making, and the recorded sound is rich and luminous.
None of the really outstanding recordings of the Opus 3 concertos issued in the last 25 years is available now -- not Raymond Leppard's, or August Wenzinger's, or the Collegium Aureum's. The new Winschermann is an attractive set, but by no means as persuasive as the same outfit's Brandenburgs. One hopes Philips will reissue the sterling Leppard recording in its Sequenza series, and/or that Quintessence will revive the Collegium Aureum set. Both, among their other virtues, were more warmly recorded than the new Winschermann.