Neville Marriner

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos; Orchestral Suites

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While most serious listeners already have their favorite sets of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites, newcomers searching for respectable recordings at a reasonable price would do well to start with this triple-CD set by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. These recordings were made in 1984 and 1985, and still offer fine sound for early digital recording and exceptional musical value. Marriner's performances may not be as exacting and scrupulous about Baroque performance practice as those of Gustav Leonhardt or Trevor Pinnock, but they are informed by serious scholarship and have sufficient appeal to make the finer points debatable. The playing is, as always, impeccably clean, deeply musical, and reasonably authentic in execution, even though the Academy uses modern instruments, a rub for purists. While these performances lack the charming timbres of period instruments and are possibly too full-sounding for connoisseurs of a leaner Baroque sound, the fair-minded listener will not find them deficient at all in spirit or color. The Brandenburg Concertos are robust and exciting, and the soloists are all first-rate. Especially noteworthy, George Malcolm's harpsichord solo in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 is vigorous and clearly audible against the orchestra. Marriner's recordings of Bach's Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4 are admirable for their meticulous musicianship, close approximation of period practice, and fine digital sound for the time. Most listeners will appreciate these credible and energetic performances, particularly of the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, which is given a rather robust character and played with as much panache as the more extroverted suites that follow. Naturally, the brass dominate the Suite No. 3 in D major, and the Suite No. 4 in D major, and the ensemble makes these works sound festive and jubilant. But the Air of the Suite No. 3 (also known as the "Air on the G string") impresses with its contrasting introspection, and the Academy plays it with exceptional tenderness.

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