Title: Bach BWV 1051
Release Date: 01 Jan 2014
License: CC BY-NC-SA
One of the things that remains the most interesting when it comes to classical music is the ability of musicians and artists throughout the ages to re-interpret pieces in ways the composer(s) would never have been able to conceive when they originally composed the works in the first place. If for no other reason, they couldn’t have imagined the technology that we would have available in just a few centuries. And this is one of those cases, Re-Lab re-interprets Bach.
More recent musicians have taken advantage of these technologies to re-imagine how a work is to be interpreted. Wendy Carlos and Isao Tomita are two exemplary examples of artists that took works by Bach, Debussy, Holst and others and gave us synthesizer versions of the works of the masters that can be either seen as genius or blasphemy depending on your point of view.
Re-Lab is a more recent addition to this line of re-interpretation using modern synthesizer and studio techniques. In this particular release the third movement of Bach’s BWV 1051 Brandenburg Concerto is the object of reinterpretation.
About The Recording
Now the first thing to note about this recording: every track is the same (approximately) 6 minute long movement. So you are listening to the same piece over and over and over. And, it become s obvious very quickly – like by the second track, that it’s exactly the same arrangement of this movement. There is no variation in the voicing or part structure to account for different timbres or textural settings. Yes, some parts may have moved up or down a register in order to account for the range of the instrument, but in most cases not even that has been changed.
Let’s talk about the settings. None of the settings for these realizations are a string orchestra. We have piano, guitar, synthesizer, and organ settings. A few of these instruments are quite appropriate to the music: some of the piano sounds, and the guitar in particular quite nice. The synthesizer sounds on ‘Galaxy’ and ‘Organic’ are the most reminiscent of Carlos and Tomita style sound choices.
The other factor that Re-Lab experiments with a lot on this release is tempo. The range is anywhere from about 40bpm all the way up to 200bpm. This can be quite jarring for listeners that are most familiar with the work being performed at something close to 100bpm. Several recordings I have here, including Sir Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin In The Fields, and Yehudi Menuhin and the Bath Festival Orchestra both tend to use approximately a 100bpm tempo.
How Re-Lab Re-Interprets Bach
So, what’s my overall impression? While I applaud Re-Lab for experimenting with this work a fair bit, there are a lot of things that are problematic with the way the work is explored on this release.
As I hinted earlier, all the arrangements are exactly the same. There is no attempt to take idiosyncratic aspects of the instruments like piano, harpsichord, and guitar into account and re-work the arrangement to make them work better on the instrument.
This also leads to a problem that some of the lines of counterpoint become difficult to follow. What initially sounds like a single piano, or a piano three hands, suddenly becomes indistinct as multiple lines of counterpoint take off in different directions, and then when the continuo enters it becomes even more confusing.
Also, presenting no less than seven piano versions at various tempos is quite superfluous and doesn’t serve to make the recording very listenable. In many cases we have tempos that are too fast and the counterpoint and continuo parts become a complete jumble, or we have tempos that are too slow such that the stately dance or processional aspects of the piece are completely lost. Losing those elements removes most of the character from the piece.
There is another issue that plagues this release. Re-Lab’s insistence on playing with dynamics in the counterpoint lines on the piano versions of the piece. Where there is an echoed phrase that was normally between the 1st and 2nd violin, Re-Lab has chosen to make the 2nd’s version softer. This just feels kludgy and un-balanced, as it does in other places where the piano goes from playing forte down to piano in dynamics. Most scholars agree that keyboards during this time period did not have much (if any) dynamic range to them, so if the Bach had produced a keyboard version of this work it wouldn’t have had these kind of dynamics, especially ones that seem quite at odds with the structure of the piece. Granted these are completely different settings, however the dynamics need to feel like they fit the piece naturally.
The thing is, I will again applaud the experiment. However, the artist really doesn’t seem to grasp a lot of the internal intricacies of the work and fully incorporate or compensate for them within these realizations, and for a work that is so well known, it’s a shame to hear it abused in this manner.
And, honestly, some more thought should have been given to how tracks / versions were chosen for this release. As I said, seven piano versions of the same arrangement only varying by tempo is quite excessive. Three or four piano versions would have been fine, and probably cut the release close to an hour, instead of the bloated 1 hour and 27 minutes of this release.