Bach - Brandenburg Concerto No.2 - Recording - Bachwoche Ansbach 2019

As I played the final phrase of my tenth performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.2 in F major [BWV 1047] (which took place last Saturday at Castle Ashby) I felt as I often do after playing that piece - that it would be great to play it again very soon. Playing Brandenburg 2 is a definite adrenaline rush and there’s something in the thrill of its survival that makes you want to play it again. This feeling comes just before another feeling - relief - as you walk off stage relatively unscathed. Last Saturday, the short-term reaction to that initial feeling of Brandenburg-induced euphoria was to give an impromptu encore, reprising the joyful third movement. After that, I lamented the fact that playing the second Brandenburg Concerto would now be on hold for an indeterminable amount of time. I hoped that next opportunity to play this miraculous piece would not be too far off.

After the Bach and Purcell concerts in the Ryedale festival last week, and the Brandenburg 2 performance at Castle Ashby on Saturday, I was catching up on life and having a few relatively quiet days at home - or at least I was until I woke up to a remarkable message. A group urgently needed a trumpet player to play Brandenburg 2 and I was asked whether I was free on Saturday and Sunday to participate in a recording in Germany.

I usually try to remain as calm as possible when it comes to receiving and accepting gig offers, but on this occasion I was particularly excited by the prospect of recording Brandenburg 2; recording this piece would be the fulfilment of one of my long-held ambitions. My heart initially leaped until I looked at my diary and then my heart sank. Saturday was the wedding of one my close friends from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. My wife and I had agreed to attend and we were both looking forward to it. I was also going to play John Stanley’s Trumpet Voluntary as she walked down the aisle. After a few minutes to calm down and think more rationally, I decided that there was simply no use in being a freelancer if you are always ‘lancing’ and are never ‘free’. I confirmed to myself that I could not and would not let the happy couple down, so going to my friend’s wedding was to remain as my priority.

Me being me, I found it easier and much more constructive to reply to say what I might be able to do, rather than sending a blanket no - a sort of “I’m sorry I’m not free, but thanks for asking” kind of message. Instead, I sent a message that explained that I had an important wedding to go to (and play at) on Saturday, but if they could reshuffle the recording schedule I would be willing to do whatever it took to fly out early on Sunday morning and record it on Sunday afternoon.

I understood that reshuffling the orchestral schedule would be a tall order so I did not get my hopes up. The day ended as it had begun, with my phone buzzing on the floor at my bedside. A message with permission to book flights arrived, and I would record Brandenburg 2 with the group on Sunday afternoon. Upon receiving this message, I went back downstairs and booked myself on Sunday’s 07:40am British Airways flight to Stuttgart and I paid for a hotel at a Premier Inn at Heathrow Airport. I did not sleep very well after frenziedly booking the flight, booking the hotel and hastily (but meticulously) repacking for the next few days. I did eventually nod off, and I was up early the following day to travel into Cambridge with my wife.

When we arrived in Cambridge, my wife parked outside her office and I departed for a leisurely breakfast. Just after eating breakfast I decided to message one of my former teachers for some advice and tactics on recording, as opposed to performing, Brandenburg 2. Michael Laird recorded it with the English Concert and Trevor Pinnock (in 1982, I believe) and I knew that he would have excellent advice to give. As I walked from Bridge Street to Jesus Green, I received a message that said “Please call me. Lots to discuss. Very important stuff!”. I sat on a bench overlooking the River Cam by the Jesus Green Tennis Courts and gave him a call. As he answered one of the first things he said was “this is very exciting news”. As I expected, he did have truly excellent advice to give which he shared very willingly. After the telephone call I noted down ten or so bullet points of his simple ideas, which were absolute gold dust.

In the afternoon I rehearsed with Solomon’s Knot and in the evening we performed the Purcell Pageant programme. After this my wife drove us to Suffolk and we stayed with David Staff. Staffy is another of my former teachers who has recorded the second Brandenburg (a remarkable six times) so I felt very lucky to be able to listen to the advice of two illustrious legends of the natural trumpet in the same day.

Before the invitation to record the Brandenburg had come in, Staffy and I had planned and booked a trip to Nuremberg together to purchase sheet brass for our workshops. That trip miraculously fitted around the Brandenburg recording; Staffy was happy to drive out solo and meet me in Germany. Unbelievably there would only be about 60km between us on Monday morning! So, I left a packed suitcase in Staffy’s car on Saturday morning and my wife and I departed to attend our friend’s wedding in Beccles. We enjoyed the ceremony and it was a great honour to play as she walked down the aisle.

After the ceremony we retired to the nearby Sotterley Hall and enjoyed their magnificent reception in this beautiful venue. I kept it quiet that we would need to leave the wedding reception a few hours before it finished. After convivial chatting, sparkling elderflower juice (instead of champagne, as I had to drive), the wedding breakfast, the speeches and the first dance, I made my way to say thanks, congratulations and goodbye to the happy couple at around 21:00. I confessed that I had to leave a little earlier than I would like to, in order to get to Heathrow for an early flight to Germany to record Brandenburg 2. I told them that the orchestra had shifted the recording from Saturday to Sunday so that I would still be able to come to the wedding, and both bride and groom were clearly very touched.

I drove my wife and I to Heathrow and we parked in the underground car park at the Premier Inn in Terminal 4 at about 00:00. We woke at 05:30am the following morning. Jo drove home and I took the bus to Terminal 5 to catch the British Airways flight to Stuttgart. I realised that I had narrowly avoided strike action (which would begin the following day) at Heathrow Airport.

Upon my arrival in Stuttgart I was met by the treasurer of the orchestra who had kindly agreed to drive me from Stuttgart to Ansbach. It was a really enjoyable car journey through many beautiful German landscapes. We had a great conversation for the duration of the 152km trip, which took about 2 hours. He also told me about the history of the Bachwoche Ansbach. Since 1947, Bach's music has been celebrated in (or near) Ansbach around the anniversary of the composer's death.



We arrived at the Orangerie of the Margrave’s Palace on the final day of Bachwoche Ansbach 2019 and the orchestra, Il Gusto Barocco, had just begun to record Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major [BWV 1048]. I was glad that there was time for a traditional Franconian lunch in the restaurant at the Orangerie and I relaxed alongside this beautiful baroque garden while drinking an apfelschorle and eating schweinebraten with kartoffelknödel. I soon felt refreshed after my early morning travels. 

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Next, there was a break with plenty of time for the players to have lunch before we started the final afternoon session. The rest of the orchestra had been in Ansbach for two weeks as the ensemble in residence for the festival. Although they were undoubtedly tired, they were firing on all cylinders. The players were so friendly and welcoming, and one of the harpsichord players asked if I had any requests for the temperament before he tuned both instruments. After I had finished lunch, the director Jörg Halubek came over and introduced himself. His calm manner and level-headed approach put me at ease and I knew immediately that I was in safe hands.

The hall inside the Orangerie was immaculate and crisp. It was 18th Century in style with chandeliers, columns and ornate plasterwork. Bright light poured into the duck egg blue hall through the large, south-facing windows overlooking the Hofgarten. This gently air conditioned and stylishly refurbished baroque hall was a suitably splendid environment in which to record Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. 

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It was clear from the outset that the tonmeister, Markus Heiland, was trustworthy and excellent at his job. He was friendly, clear and precise, had an excellent ear, knew what he did and did not yet have, and he gave the recording session a great sense of direction throughout. The red light was on from the beginning of the session, which suited me, and we worked through the second concerto methodically. I was very lucky to have this truly excellent tonmeister listening attentively in the booth. Though I’ve never before given credence to the idea of nominative determinism, Heiland - as his name suggests - was something of a saviour.

Playing with the other soloists: Georg Fritz (oboe), Janine Jonker (recorder) and Anaïs Chen (violin) was a great pleasure and they each played impeccably. The baroque orchestra also sounded amazing: the product of excellent players, good leadership, great musicianship, teamwork, and from spending the past two intensive weeks playing together.

The recording session was professional and very efficient, while maintaining a light-hearted and fun atmosphere. Jörg Halubek directed the orchestra from the harpsichord and he began each take after checking the speed on his metronome. I was pleased to see that this was already their de facto approach as it had been one of Michael Laird’s suggestions too.

I had initially contacted Michael because I was wondering whether recording Brandenburg 2 would feel any different to performing it, and I must say it did feel quite different. In a recording situation it is more difficult to become immersed in the flow of the music as you would do in a live performance, and I find that kind of immersion in the musical flow (and therefore taking integral rhythmical breaths) helps me, generally, to put technical difficulties aside. When performing Brandenburg 2 in concert I know more or less how it feels physically to play a particular passage when I have played everything that preceded it just once. In a recording situation it felt different as I had already played some of the earlier passages a few times. Anyway, I adjusted and regulated my energy levels and learned as I went along. I had complete trust in the tonmeister’s judgment, I was happy with the recording process, Jörg was very accommodating, and I felt in pretty good physical shape.

In hindsight, I could probably have asked for a few more seconds between the end of one take and the start of the next for my breathing to return to normal. This would probably have saved some time overall - but you live and learn, and it's only something I thought of in retrospect. Playing the Brandenburg requires an efficient and effective supply of air, and I must have learnt the piece with a certain amount of habitual, integral or timed breathing. Resultantly, there were times (particularly in the third movement which has short bars) when I felt like I needed a bit more of a ‘run up’ before some passages so that I could gather enough air and play in the way that I normally would in a concert performance. In a concert situation I obviously listen to the music and (subconsciously) take a well-timed breath to suit the next entry as part of a practised reflex. It's a skill in itself to speed up from BWV 0 to BWV 1047 in just a few seconds.

I think the recording generally went very well and I am looking forward to hearing the resulting CD. There was one passage (though I can’t quite remember what it was) that I messed up two or three times in a row. It began to feel a bit like saying “pardon” to somebody rather too many times and I began to feel a bit of pressure to get it right. I decided to light-heartedly acknowledge this by saying “I’m sorry everybody, I promise I’ll get it right next time.” I usually respond positively to a bit of self-imposed pressure and, after a silence, positive affirmation came back over the feedback speaker from the tonmeister! I said “Well, I told you I promised!”, and we had a good laugh!

I had a break while Georg, Janine and Anaïs recorded the second movement with the continuo. After a general pause and brief tuning check of the keyboard instruments, we returned to record the final movement of the second concerto and indeed the final item on the orchestra’s overall recording agenda. As we approached the end of the third movement, a trolley was wheeled silently into the back of the hall. When the recording was declared ‘wrapped’ the players embraced each other, and sparkling wine from the local region materialised in glass flutes on top of the trolley. We opened the glass doors out into the Hofgarten and drank cool sparkling wine in the warm sunshine. It was a fantastic way to finish my first Brandenburg 2 recording and it was clear that I was surrounded by lovely people. I had thoroughly enjoyed recording the second Brandenburg concerto, I learned a lot and I made quite a few friends in a very short space of time. Only a few of us would be staying in the hotel that night as it was early enough for most people to travel home that evening. I enjoyed a few glasses of Kellerbier (from Titting) with a few of the violinists and the harpsichord player, Alexsander and we all got along famously! Four of us returned to the hotel for dinner in nearby Neuendettelsau and we had a relaxing evening.

The following morning I received a telephone call from Staffy to say that he had already arrived in Iphofen. He was at least two hours earlier than planned as he had been upgraded onto a ferry two hours earlier than the one he was originally booked on. Staffy very kindly offered to come and pick me up from Neuendettelsau and we began our trip with the mission of buying sheet brass from a specialist supplier in Nuremberg, and the subsidiary mission to find the best bratwurst (we succeeded in the Bratwursthäusle in Nuremberg). We explored the region in a square area between Ansbach and Nuremberg in the south and Bamberg and Iphofen to the north. This area has always had an amazing output when it comes to musical instrument manufacturing. Nuremberg's legacy is well-known within the baroque brass playing world, but I had no idea that small towns like Neustadt an der Aisch were home to the modern-day mouthpiece makers Bruno & Josef Tilz, and also Josef Böhm - makers of specialist tools for brass and wind instrument makers. Unfortunately the two museums we had hoped to visit - the musical instrument collection of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg and the Römisches Museum in Köln - were closed for refurbishment while we were there but I look forward to visiting on another occasion. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t visit the J L Ehe III trumpets in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, but I reminded myself that luck had very much been on my side recently. 

I had recently enjoyed an almost impossibly lucky set of circumstances. I was very fortunate to be asked to record Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto in the first place, the recording invitation came within a week of a previous performance of Brandenburg 2, I was able to ask two legends of the natural trumpet for their advice on recording this piece, I was still - crucially - able to attend my friend's wedding, I narrowly avoided strike action at Heathrow, the people in the orchestra were fantastic, the tonmeister was superb, the venue was ideal and the recording schedule worked in perfect harmony with my pre-booked trip to neighbouring Nuremberg - what unbelievable luck!
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