Naturally, Brilliant Classics could not afford to get the best baroque performers - this is a super budget set - but one thing that the listener discovers in this set is that there are many fine, even excellent "second tier" performers of Bach's music. Many of the instrumental ensembles whose recordings are in this set are excellent. The Consort of London, for example, is a pleasant surprise. They perform the Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites…
La Petite Bande has recorded a spectacular rendition of Bach’s four orchestral suites, certainly some of the most spectacular instrumental music of the Baroque repertoire. La Petite Bande director, Sigiswald Kuijken, has written a very informative essay explaining the history of these pieces. Unfortunately, more is unknown than known. Kuijken speculates that the works were conceived for string orchestra and the wind parts were added at a later date. He also notes that sections of the 4th Suite were reused in the opening chorus of the Christmas Cantata, BWV 110. Kuijken also remarks that he has rethought his approach to these works opting for small musical forces as opposed to the rather large ensemble that La Petite Bande employed in its performances and recording of about 30 years ago.
The Ensemble Pygmalion directed by Raphaël Pichon commences its collaboration with Harmonia Mundi with this new recording of J.S. Bach’s lost music to the Köthener Trauermusik (Cöthen funeral music), BWV 244a. Founded in 2006 at the European Bach Festival, Ensemble Pygmalion is a combination of choir and orchestra - all young performers with experience of authentic instruments and period-informed performance. Its repertoire concentrates primarily on Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean-Philippe Rameau.
Although J.S. Bach's orchestral music has been transcribed for guitar ensemble before, notably selected Brandenburg Concertos by the De Falla Trio and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, this is the first recording of the four suites for orchestra that I have heard in a setting of this type; it is not a source of material that readily springs to mind for such treatment and certainly purists would decry such practices.
Originally recorded in stereo in 1978 and 1979 and released on two separate LPs, these performances of Bach's Orchestral Suites (also known as the Overtures) with Trevor Pinnock leading his English Consort were as good as it got at the time for period instrument performances. And this 2007 single-disc re-release does not change that assessment. The Consort's strings are dry but warm – check out the Air from the Third Suite – the winds are colorful and quirky – check out the Forlane from the First Suite – the brass is controlled but cutting – check out the Ouverture from the Fourth Suite – and the timpani is vivacious but thankfully not overwhelming – check out the Réjouissance, also from the Fourth Suite. Pinnock's conducting is almost universally light and lively, and when it's not in the Second Suite, it's because the music itself is dark and dreary. Although there are dozens of great performances of the suites to choose from, if you're only going to have one recording on the shelf, it should be Pinnock's.(James Leonard)