Concerto Köln

Bach: The Orchestral Suites

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German historical-instrument group Concerto Köln came on the scene in the 1980s and achieved immediate popularity with lively performances of Baroque music, free from the radical shock of Harnoncourt or the sometimes precious quality of English groups. It has done fine recordings of Baroque opera with a variety of conductors and was ahead of the curve in the rediscovery of German and Italian repertories of the 18th century. In this dual-CD release commemorating its 25th anniversary as a group, Concerto Köln seems to be trying to keep its edge. No leader is listed, but violinist Sylvie Kraus and onetime music director Martin Sandhoff are credited with the "Gesamtkonzeption." It's an unusual overall conception, focused on the dance component of Bach's orchestral suites. The booklet notes by Kraus (in English, German, and French) support this idea elegantly, pointing to the little-known fact that Bach, as a schoolboy at the St. Michaels Monastery School in Lüneberg, had a French dance teacher who was a student of the great Lully himself. Your reaction to the musical results may depend on how far you're willing to go in accepting the whole concept. Many of the minuets are taken at a blistering pace in an attempt to keep the strong forward momentum going, and they come out sounding like the 18th century equivalent of dance aerobics music. The big overtures, on the other hand, represent Concerto Köln at its best, with lively phrasing applied at every juncture, and the famous Air on a G string (track 2), from the Suite No. 3 for orchestra in D major, BWV 1068, is taken quite slowly and has a lovely floating quality (apparently it is exempt from the dance concept). The disc is nicely engineered, and the small group, even with rotating membership in the different suites, achieves a very alert ensemble. Try the minuets and bourrées, and see how you like them.

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