It is thirty years since Reinhard Goebel recorded J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with Musica Antiqua Köln. It was well-regarded although some writers were taken aback by the high speeds adopted. Today a swift approach is more common – two decades later, John Eliot Gardiner also tended towards swiftness in his excellent recording but I have not noted any complaints, Goebel continues to rejoice in dashing tempos and they have become faster than ever, for which there is great conviction in evidence. These latest accounts are considerably higher in pitch than those with the Köln ensemble, the strings no longer feature nineteenth-century-like expressive warmth and in his booklet-note Goebel makes a case for his current approach by being self-deprecating when he says “gone the grinding Allegro moderato eighth-notes.”
From the outset, the balance typifies Goebel’s style – violins are now not emphasised to give a comfortable feel. Instead, every intricate detail becomes evident and each melodic fragment is displayed forwardly by the relevant instrument. The first movement of Concerto No.1 provides a welter of colour at much the same speed as in 1985 but in the Adagio the oboe no longer has time to dwell romantically on the opening theme. On reaching the Finale there is an even bigger shock: where previously this Minuet with multiple Trios took seven-and-a-half minutes, the Berliners take a mere six.
In Concerto No.2 only in the central Andante is the conductor’s urgency displayed, but throughout, the extremely difficult problem of balancing the concertante group of violin, recorder, oboe and trumpet is solved to perfection – in particular the light-toned trumpet has a delicate flexibility that is rarely encountered. The fleet reading of No.3 confirms the advantage gained from Goebel directing rather than, as in his previous recording, leading from the violin. No attempt is made to expand the two-chord link between the two movements beyond a modest harpsichord flourish and the Finale is as exciting as any I have ever heard. It is absolutely precise and how refreshing that it simply stops – none of the anticipatory emphatic slowing that has spoilt many a performance. Immediately following comes the ‘Sinfonia’ to Cantata BWV174 – very appropriate since it is strongly connected to the theme that begins Concerto No.3: in addition to strings and continuo there are two oboes, a taille (an alto oboe), bassoon and two horns to enrich the music for a delightfully optimistic five-minute interlude.
Disc Two commences with the ‘Sinfonia’ to Cantata BWV42 (borrowed by Bach from BWV66a), again very appropriate – ideal in fact – because a pair of oboes lead the ensemble in a manner similar to that in which two recorders join a violin to create the lyrical nature of Brandenburg No.4, which finds Goebel more relaxed – slower than thirty years previously at a speed exactly matching Gardiner or, in a modern-orchestra version, Riccardo Chailly. This music is suited to the elegant, forward-sweeping approach that Goebel applies – again the warm clarity of the recording is advantageous, such as subtle flute trills that often go unheard are here gently gracious, and the springy gait of the Andante makes the solo lines exceptionally cheerful. A serious approach is taken to No.5. Given the exemplary skills of the players it is no surprise that transverse flute, violin and harpsichord make a virtuosic group and the extended keyboard cadenza is brought off with spectacular accuracy by Raphael Alpermann. Goebel’s rethink of Concerto No.6 has resulted in slower tempos, still lively and he now propels the music more effectively than previously – I feel sure that the subtle ‘lift’ to the rhythms can be attributed to his now conducting. (I wonder how he directed this violin-free Concerto in the previous recording.)
Generally, fast speeds in eighteenth-century music do not always appeal, yet so precise is the playing and so exhilarating the rhythmic pulse that Goebel manages to justify his challengingly personal yet convincing view of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.