The Sept. 24 death of prominent conductor and musicologist Christopher Hogwood came just as the orchestra he founded in 1973, the Academy of Ancient Music, was set to take on some of his signature pieces: the Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4 by J. S. Bach. Along with a new recording of the suites, the British ensemble is bringing them on the road. A North American tour includes a stop at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall that NPR Music and WQXR will broadcast.
Led by Hogwood's successor, harpsichordist Richard Egarr, the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) seems bent on refreshing these popular works. The rap on them is familiar — well-constructed, good for business, but lacking some of the the gravity and grandeur of Bach's church works and fugal masterpieces.
Even so, the four pieces — amalgams of French, Italian and German styles — display some of the fascinating ways Bach would approach the festive side of music-making. The suites usually begin with an overture, followed by a collection of dances. Suite No. 2 is a display vehicle for the transverse flute — a hot property in the 1730s — while the Third Suite contains the famous "Air on the G String," often used in weddings and TV commercials. Suites Nos. 1 and 4, all grace and influence, show the influence of French style.
In performance, AAM follows a practice established by Hogwood in the 1980s, presenting only one string instrument to a part, so there are often more trumpeters than violinists. AAM arrives at Carnegie Hall after having played the suites in Paris and Montreal (the group tours constantly, in addition to holding residencies at the Barbican in London and the University of Cambridge). The hometown critics have expressed their approval of the Orchestral Suites recording. "The rewards are glorious," writes Stephen Pritchard in The Observer, "with Egarr at the harpsichord driving the delightfully clean and springy rhythms, every detail sharply defined, each separate timbre there for us to enjoy."
• Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major
• Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor
• Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major
• Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major
Academy of Ancient Music
Richard Egarr, conductor and harpsichord