International Record Review, April 2009
With such an intriguing title, here’s a recording which is going to attract a lot of attention. The mere mention of ‘Brandenburg’ has a strong Pavlovian effect, conjuring up complex textures, colourful instrumentation and Bachian genius. It’s going to be a great disappointment then. That’s the trouble with raising expectations too high.
Yet behind the crafty marketing it’s a different story. The music here is well worth our attention, as long as we approach it in the right way with a proper sense of its original context. The 12 concertos of Torelli’s Concerti musicali were published in 1698 and so belong to the earliest stage in the development of the concerto. It was an historically important publication, pre-dating both Vivaldi’s Op. 3 L’estro armonico of 1711 (which effectively defined the solo, ritornello concerto) and Corelli’s influential Op. 6, published in 1714 (which effectively defined the concerto grosso). Compared with Vivaldi’s and Corelli’s publications the concertos of Torelli’s Op. 6 were ultimately less influential and individual in style. However, now that we’ve actually got the chance to hear these early works, their subtle charms are quite persuasive. Short-breathed they may be — Concerto No. 5 in G minor lasts just over three minutes — but they speak a different language from either Corelli or Vivaldi, which is most refreshing. The novelties have yet to turn to clichés, and it seems very daring when (for the first time in the history of the concerto) Torelli indicates that certain passages in three of the concertos should be played by a solo violin (and a pair of them in No. 10). Heavens, where could such sensuous innovations lead?
So what does the director of Charivari Agréable — Kah-Ming Ng — mean when he calls these ‘The Original Brandenburg Concertos’? Well, they were the first set of concertos dedicated to the powerful Brandenburg dynasty — in this case, Sophie Charlotte, the Electress of Brandenburg, grandmother of Frederick the Great and the sister-in-law of Bach’s dedicatee, Christian Ludwig. She was a formidable but cultivated lady whose attention was also courted by Corelli (who dedicated his celebrated Op. 5 Violin Sonatas to her), and she could count on no less an intellectual than Gottfried Leibniz as a close friend.
Compared with Bach, Torelli made much more of an effort. Johann Sebastian merely revised six earlier works which were selected for their musical quality, not their practicality. Christian Ludwig’s modest musical establishment could never have been expected either to have the variety of instruments nor the players with the virtuoso abilities to tackle Bach’s offerings. Torelli’s works, though, were ideal for Sophie Charlotte’s musical Kapelle. Scored simply for strings and continuo they made demands on neither technique nor concentration. Perhaps these really should be thought of as the true Brandenburgs after all. In the end, of course, both sets of concertos failed to net their composers employment at the court of Brandenburg-Prussia, which was probably just as well, since by all accounts it was a rather stifling environment … servants (and that included musicians) were expected to know their place.
There’s a pleasing sparkle to these performances; it’s as if the members of Charivari Agréable have pretended not to know anything about music after 1700 and have therefore been able to capture something of the original freshness of these works. There’s intimacy too: this definitely sounds like a chamber ensemble writ large rather than a chamber orchestra downsizing. Ng also has a little bit of unexpected colour up his sleeve. He argues convincingly for the addition of wind instruments ad libitum — such practices were widespread at the time — and so oboes, bassoon and recorders enrich the textures from time to time.
In summary, this is a rewarding glimpse of the early history of the concerto, explained in wonderfully Baroque booklet notes by Ng. No masterpieces, but bags of potential.
Gramophone, June 2009
Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709) spent much of his career working in Bologna’s Basilica of San Petronio, where instrumental music in Italy reached a new golden age during the 17th century.However, for a few years (1696-1701) the illustrious orchestra was temporarily disbanded for financial reasons, and TOreli sought his livelihood north of the Alps. His 12 Concerti musicali, Op 6, here called by Charivari Agreable the "Original Brandenburg Concertos", were published in 1698 and dedicated to Electress Sophie Charlotte of Brandenburg (the sister of the future Goerge I of Britain, and also patron of Corelli and the philosopher Leibniz). Torelli, an acclaimed cellist and violinist, also found employment at the court of Georg Frierich II, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach (neither of these were members of the same branch of the famikly as Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt, to whom Bach gave the Brandenburg Concertos in 1721).
Charivari Agreable’s accomplished performances prove that Torelli’s music doesn’t deserve to remain neglected. The Oxford-based ensemble has a distinctly international make-up, and expertly conjures the appropriate tautness, melancholic depth, athleticism and amiableness of the mosty short movements. For example, Concert No 5 has well judged contrasts between slower melancholic moments and oboe-driven colourful fast sections. The opening of No 10 is played rapturously by violinists Bojan Cicic and Linda Hannah-Andersson. Editorial woodwind parts, suh as a pai of recorders in No 7, bring delightful variety to music that was published for only strings and continuo.
Kah-Ming Ng claims that Torelli might have done much the same at Ansbach, and praises that the collection is "the most historically significant concerto publication" before Vivaldi’s L’estro armonio (1711) and Corelli’s Op 6 (1714). On the evidence of these emphatic performances, he might be right.
All Music Guide
The "original Brandenburg concertos" subtitle of this release means less than it seems to suggest; the works have nothing to do with Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, which didn’t even have that name until many years after the fact. The connection is that Torelli’s concertos here were dedicated, in 1698, to Sophie Charlotte, Electress of Brandenburg-Ansbach and eventually the leader honored by the Charlottenburg castle in Berlin. Bach’s concertos were dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg, member of another branch of the Prussian ruling line. The big news here is not the Brandenburg connection but the entirely fresh performances of Torelli’s Op. 6 concertos. This set of 12 pieces (rounded out here by a short sonata à quattro) was a key development in the emergence of the concerto grosso as a genre; some of them can be played with one instrument to a part, but the Concerto in D minor, Op. 6, No. 10 (tracks 31-34), contains passages specifically marked as solos. Often these pieces seem rather shapeless in performance, but the historical-performance group Charivari Agréable makes a daring move here, and it pays off: relying on the rather thin evidence that Torelli would have had an opera orchestra available at the time, and on what they call "our deep immersion in the historical performance practice of the period," they double some of the string lines with recorder, oboe, or bassoon. This works like a charm, and it’s a bit hard to figure out why; the effect is a little mysterious. It is not done with the intent of creating a symphonic effect. Instead, the doublings are subtle, used mostly to emphasize the interior lines that are drowned out by a phalanx of glittering violins. The entire texture takes on a density that hasn’t been heard in these works before, and the very precise, lively lines forged by keyboardist and director Kah-Ming Ng make the music into something kaleidoscopic instead of shapeless. Ng in his booklet notes (in English only) states "the hope that Torelli’s inventive inner-part writing might be better heard, his melodic genius more appreciated, and his full stature as a protagonist in the pantheon of concerto composers vindicated at last." These aims are startlingly realized.
The Consort, Vol. 66, Summer 2010
The title of this disc, The Original Brandenburg Concertos, is both clever and captivating, and makes an excellent selling-point. The music has some connection with the court of Brandenburg too, despite the fact that any link with Bach is distinctly tangential: Bach’s Margrave of Brandenburg was Christian Ludwig (1677-1734). He was half-brother to Frederich III who became elector of Brandenburg in 1688 (and the first King of Prussia in 1701), and it was to his wife, Sophie Charlotte as Electress of Brandenburg, that Torelli (1658-1709) dedicated these concertos.
These twelve concertos were suitable for both orchestral performance (for example for civic and institutional occasions, and church services) and for chamber performances in private concerts. Three concertos (6, 10 and 12) bear the word ‘Solo’ – the first ever indication of performance by a solo violin (in the case of no.1O, two solo violins) – as Torelli himself makes clear. No less valid was the practice of reducing the texture to an essential core of principal players on the one hand (as Muffat says ‘should you be short of string players’); or on the other hand of doubling the parts by as many as three or four instruments to a part. By following these suggestions, the group creates a variety of timbre and sonority which is further enhanced by the decision to include oboes (and occasionally recorders) in selected works, in keeping with the range of sounds available to Torelli at Ansbach – although to my taste the recorders sound rather ‘hooty’. Further variety is achieved by the occasional inclusion of a gamba in the concertino group (for example, in concerto no.6 in C minor). Such devices are certainly to be welcomed, since it must be confessed that the works lack exceptional originality of invention, or any great sense of surprise.
Charivari Agréable was founded in Oxford in 1993, and quickly made its way to fame. It still has the virtue of combining unusual programming with scholarly research, and at the same time producing a full-bodied, warm sound and an eloquent style. Under its director, Kah-Ming Ng, it appears to be infinitely adaptable, finding musicians who can fit into any of its many and varied programmes. This is perhaps the problem with a recording such as this, since, although very fine, these performers do not give the impression of knowing the works inside out; this is perhaps because for a ‘British’ group they are certainly eclectic: Kah-Ming Ng himself was born in Malaysia of Cantonese- Hakka descent, the leader, Bojan Cicic is Croatian, Linda Hannah-Andersson is Swedish, Jlilrgen Skogmo Norwegian, and Veronique Matarasso of complex lineage … and so on. Charivari Agréable may not have the high-flying exuberant style of the best continental groups, and on this disc they sound perhaps a little bottom-heavy (maybe the fault of the recording engineer); nevertheless, at their best, the sound produced by these musicians has a definition and sweetness which is rare north of the Alps.
Kah-Ming Ng’s liner notes are generous, informative and scholarly in approach, too, although he causes some unintentional moments of hilarity in his close but not complete grasp of English: the ‘golden handcuff with which Torelli was welcomed back to the cappella musicale of San Petronio in Bologna in 1701 particularly springs to mind!