At the risk of sounding like a reality television cliché, Reinhard Goebel’s career has taken him on a journey. He made his name founding and directing Musica Antiqua Köln, ploughing new ground (and breaking a few rules) by playing Baroque music on historically authentic instruments. However, Musica Antiqua Köln was wound up in 2007, and since then Goebel has preferred to perform Baroque music on modern instruments, describing the desire for original instruments as “a fetish”. So it’s fascinating to see him on the podium, directing the musicians of the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra in the complete Brandenburg Concertos: on the one hand he brings with him decades of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) tradition, but on the other he has turned his back on a significant element of it.

In fact, it surprised me how refreshing I found it to hear Bach’s music played on modern instruments and at modern concert pitch, so much so that it made me question how fair it is that the HIP orthodoxy has so comprehensively taken hold of our contemporary concert-going expectations. In truth, of course, whether you play Bach on modern instruments or on 18th-century instruments, there are gains and losses either way, and there will never be a completely correct way of doing it.

Maybe it’s because I’m in thrall to that orthodoxy that the losses struck me first. There was a homogeneity to the sound of this concert that you might more readily associate with Bruckner or Mahler, albeit on a much grander scale, of course. I hadn’t really appreciated heretofore how much I liked the way 18th-century instruments, especially winds and brass, announce themselves and make themselves known; and the aural integration meant that the horns in the first concerto, such an important part of the sound picture, sounded far too well behaved and blended-in.

However, that very homogeneity meant that Concerto No. 6 was a special treat, the introduction of the two viola da gambas giving the music a sumptuous middle ground, and blending perfectly with the other pair of (regular) violas. Furthermore, it wasn’t impossible for instruments to stand out of the texture when they needed to. The trumpet gleamed in No. 2, for example, and I loved the assertive set of oboes in 1 and 2, ornamenting with some delicious grace notes while bobbing and weaving their way through the music like dancers.

These performers were definitely towards the older end of Verbier’s young musician programme, but maybe the exposed nature of the Brandenburgs calls for more experience, something ably demonstrated by the principal violin, Roberto Gonzáles Monjas, who made sparks fly during No. 3. Max Volbers deserves a special mention, too: not only did he make the recorder come to life in Nos. 2 & 4, but he then played the massive harpsichord part in No. 5, making it all sound like a regular evening’s work.

My main reservations came from Goebel himself, though. He cut a rather incongruous figure on the podium, dressed in his dinner suit and flailing his baton around in the manner of Solti of Furtwängler. It’s almost as though he was trying to put up a barrier against the more contemporary practice of player-led performance, and it struck me as rather incongruous; artificial, almost.

In fact, when viewed as a whole, the whole evening was oddly inconsistent, despite spots of individual stardom. Some of the string players used Baroque bows and others didn’t; some of them used vibrato, others didn’t. Sometimes Goebels stood to conduct, sometimes he sat down; sometimes he left pauses between movements and sometimes he ran them together. All told, it felt as though each concerto was being run out individually and trotted around the circus ring rather than presenting a particular vision of the works as a whole. Nothing wrong with that necessarily; but if you don’t have anything to say about the Brandenburg Concertos as a unity then why play the entire set together in the first place?


Simon's press trip to Verbier was funded by Premier Comms

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