Like the Brandenburg Concertos, Bach's four orchestral suites show the Leipzig cantor at his most cosmopolitan and hedonistic. They may contain few “hits” – aside from No. 3's famous Air on a G String – but this collection of four “Ouvertures” offers a captivating mix of French dance rhythms, Italianate virtuosity and German contrapuntal craft. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, a leading period-instrument ensemble from Germany, presents the set in crisp, nimble and gutsy performances.
The orchestral suites date from his years in Leipzig, where he had a relatively large orchestra at his disposal and could make full use of it in his scoring. In recent years, a plausible theory has emerged that the suites originated much earlier and were, in fact, composed while he was still working in Cothen, where the court orchestra of Prince Leopold was a relatively small one. When Bach became Cantor in Leipzig, the theory goes, he expanded the orchestration of the suites for the larger forces he found there.
In the album's program notes, the Freiburgers dismiss the controversy, stating that Bach’s handwriting and the paper type “leave no room for doubt” that these were written in Leipzig. What's more they bring vibrant readings to these works, allowing the instrumental details to shine through. The suite's dance movements have a sparkling lilt, notably the gavottes and bourrées in Nos. 3 and 4. The minuets in Nos. 2 and 4 are both zesty and elegant, while the Badinerie gives flutist Karl Keiser a chance to shine. You shouldn’t be disappointed with the Air in No. 3 either, with the ensemble bringing out its gently expressive phrasing and beautifully judged embellishments.
J.S. Bach: Ouverturen (Complete Orchestral Suites)
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Available at Arkivmusic.com