Based on the assumption that the music that came to be collected in Bach's four Orchestral Suites came from earlier versions, to which the composer much later added trumpets, drums and partly oboes when the music was to appear in a larger format, Concerto Copenhagen and Lars Ulrik Mortensen played the Suites at Essen's Philharmonie one player to a part (as on their recent recording), as few overall as five and as many as eleven. If the expectation might reasonably have been for bracing clarity, especially with most of the instruments individually miked, the result was instead richly homogeneous. The Suites were preceded by careful tuning sessions, the players used a minimum of overt embellishment, always effective and appropriate, as if they felt that nothing more was needed than the printed notes. Mortensen led with spirited intensity at a French harpsichord made by Detmar Hungerberg in 1996 after an instrument made by Pierre Donzelague in Lyon in 1711; his own playing was surprisingly discrete.

Concerto Copenhagen
© Philharmonie Essen

It worked especially when the orchestra's superb oboes were on stage in the First and Fourth Suites. The sheer passion with which they tore into the fast passages and the range of their nuance, timbre and dynamics in lyrical moments, stole the show, especially with no trumpets or drums. The bassoon also played elegantly, no mere bumpkin, giving the music a fluid motion that coupled well with the cello and double bass. Nothing was routinely metrical nor merely ornamental; the way the oboes and violins become intertwined in one of Bach's most hidden magical moments, the second Gavotte, was heavenly, followed by an exhilarating sense of swing in the Forlane.

Concerto Copenhagen oboes
© Philharmonie Essen

Flutist Katy Bircher played the Second Suite with ravishing tone and in the Bourrée set a wonderfully breathless pace that seemed spontaneous even without an audience – good thing Mortensen hadn't decided to go back to Bach's possible earlier choices for the solo part of either violin or oboe. In the midst of an evening of Bach Suites, there were occasional tendencies to pro forma in the Second but then something would happen, like the Sarabande moving at just the right unexpectedly slow pace to create attention, or the Polonaise managing to be both stately and sexy. Bircher's Double was pure poetry and the often chirpy Badinerie cruised beautifully, serenely.

In the Third Suite the repeating figures in the introduction to the Overture were quite hypnotic, the Air sounded more engaging than ethereal, and while the Gavottes sounded silly without the trumpets, the Bourrée was irresistible.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream presented by Philharmonie Essen