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When a new recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos lands on the doormat to review, it's hard to know whether to be excited at the prospect of a new look at this famous and much-recorded work, or to scream for mercy. Can any new recording of them be fresh and rightly different enough in order to justify itself, especially given that the market is also flooded with premiere recordings ranging from early music to the newly written?
Perhaps yes on this occasion, for whilst every other Tom, Dick and Harry of the music world seems to have recorded the Brandenburgs, Gardiner has not, and without additional sells such as new scholarly insights on pitch or instrumentation, this disc stands up on its own quite simply as a smashing performance that has evidently been recorded for sheer delight in the music.
Despite Gardiner's name appearing as prominently as usual alongside that of the English Baroque Soloists, the small instrumental forces required have actually rendered him redundant as a director on this occasion. Nevertheless, his musical stamp is all over the recording in his role as facilitator, encourager, and consultant as to how the concertos should be interpreted and balanced. Gardiner's programme notes urge us to never forget that, "for all its ingenuity, elegance and craft, this is essentially dance music". No doubt thanks to this approach, the concertos do carry additional sparkle to usual. You can always count on Gardiner to set a nippy pace, and there's no change here: rhythm and forward momentum are the names of the game.
In terms of attack, the faster movements bounce happily along with notes held just long enough to sound lilting rather than choppy, whilst the expansive legato lines of the slower movements are enjoyed for all they're worth. The ensemble playing is a model of cohesive teamwork, but the players also shine as individuals in the many virtuoso solo passages peppered throughout the set, bringing excitement to some ear-poppingly difficult writing without ever losing the line of musical thought. What more could anyone ask for?