Today it is thought that J.S. Bach’s chamber and ensemble music, including the four Orchestral Suites, date from his time in Leipzig from the 1720s onwards. When all the Orchestral Suites (BWV1066–1069) are put together, their inventive and varied nature is evident. The suites make great use of all ensemble instruments and incorporate a range of structures, as well as internal forms and dances. This variety is both reflective of one of their probable uses in student performance at Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum, and of the relatively long period over which they were written – more than a decade.

AAM © Marco Borggreve
AAM
© Marco Borggreve

The Academy of Ancient Music have not recorded these suites since 1988. But in tonight’s concert all four were on the menu under the directorship of Richard Egarr, in the slightly unforgiving acoustic of Southampton’s Turner Sims concert hall. The performance was authoritative, light of touch and thoroughly enjoyable – although the occasional legato sections revealed a warmth which was otherwise lacking in the ensemble’s timbre.

The naming of the Orchestral Suites does not reflect their chronological order. This concert started and ended with the two suites which make use of D major and timpani. No. 4, no. 2, and no. 1 were followed by Suite no. 3 – arguably the best of the lot – to finish. Each suite begins, following the French origins of the form, with an overture, a grand way to start which engages the whole ensemble. Subsequent movements use distinct instrumental blends and forms. For example, in Suite no. 4 , a dynamic fugal overture leads to two Bourrées, a Gavotte, a pair of Menuets and a final “Réjouissance”. The first Menuet has a stately atmosphere, but was made more lively by the AAM’s violins and oboes, who appeared to revel in the game of pairs that takes place as woodwind and strings take turns with the theme. The AAM captured the momentum and nimbleness appropriate to these dances with infectious energy – especially bassoonist Ursula Leveaux.

After this solid start came the descending arpeggio figure underpinning the Suite no. 2 in B minor – Bach’s last work for orchestra. Often referred to as the flute suite, no. 2 is notable for its concerto characteristics, featuring a solo flute. This was beautifully played by Rachel Brown, who casually floated through the virtuosic, highly ornamented solo line.

Suite no. 1 in C major has seven movements (as does no. 2), and the AAM managed to find the unique character in each. The interplay between first violin and harpsichord was excellent and where the instruments built multiple layers of polyphony, the effect was a rich and energised texture. Imitative entries were smooth, and there was some effective dynamic variation. Among Bach’s most famous few minutes of music, the Air on a G string was a pleasing highlight. The first violin, which takes the melodic lead, had a rather thin tone. But this was not necessarily detrimental. Rather, it reflected the consistently subtle and light-of-touch interpretation of all four suites. The steps of the walking bass line continuo were delicate and the rest of the ensemble worked with each other to create a sweet blend, the only criticism of which would be a slight lack of depth. This, however, was improved vastly in Suite no. 3.

It’s not just its second movement, the Air, that makes Suite no. 3 in D so impressive. Its Gavottes, Bourrée and Gigue present some arresting changes of rhythm and tempo. Also, the first Gavotte draws from the same, recognisable tune as the flute suite, a nice programming touch. The AAM again brought out the character of each dance, the one instrument on each part listening to the others and blending perfectly. As period performance ensembles go, this was out of the top draw – a well-structured programme played in an unpretentious style. With a relaxed presence on stage, standing around the harpsichord – where Richard Egarr is as much a part of the ensemble as its director – the AAM made each work sound easy. But most importantly, they shone a powerful light on the many moods of Bach’s Orchestral Suites, as, it seems, Bach himself would have heard them.

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