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Hyperion Records

CKD430 - Bach: Brandenburg  Concertos
The Kermesse (c1638/8) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Louvre, Paris / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: May 2012
Perth Concert Hall, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: September 2013
Total duration: 92 minutes 27 seconds

'Notwithstanding the distinguished Brandenburg discography, this set is nothing short of sensational' (Gramophone) » More

'These period instruments performances are refreshingly free from dogma and naturally embrace criteria believed to serve Bach's music best. Melodic ideas are beautifully punctuated and phrased, vibrato is used strictly ornamentally, and tempos strike my sensibilities as pretty well ideal. Perhaps what I like most of all, though, is an all-pervading atmosphere of intimate and convivial dialogue in which all the strands and multifarious colours emerge effortlessly from the full texture' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'Certainly, the sixth is one of the revelations in this set … transformed into a profoundly expressive study in texture and articulation, with the string lines effortlessly and naturally interlaced … this set is exceptional' (The Guardian) » More

'Even at the first hearing, it is remarkable to find that this over-familiar music often sounds so different as to immediately captivate and engross the listener in a myriad different and unexpected ways, all of them refreshing and illuminating … no matter how many times you've heard the Brandenburg Concertos before, these readings have that rare capacity to make you feel you're hearing them afresh for the very first time' (International Record Review) » More

Brandenburg Concertos
[Allegro]  [4'02]
Adagio  [3'44]
Allegro  [4'11]
[Allegro]  [4'51]
Andante  [3'18]
Allegro assai  [2'44]
[Allegro]  [5'30]
Adagio  [0'25]
Allegro  [4'46]
Allegro  [6'45]
Andante  [3'20]
Presto  [4'30]
Allegro  [9'00]
Affettuoso  [5'06]
Allegro  [5'01]
[Allegro]  [6'01]
Allegro  [5'34]

Bach's Six Brandenburg Concertos are essential and enduringly popular works in the Baroque orchestral repertory, full of interesting instrumentation choices and dancing melodies. Under the direction of prize-winning Bach specialist John Butt OBE, the ensemble has become particularly acclaimed for its inquisitive approach, shining new light into some of the best known pieces of the Baroque repertoire.

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Introduction  EnglishPerformance note
While we know that Bach finished a sumptuous manuscript of six concertos (for ‘plusieurs instruments’, as he titled it) in March 1721 for presentation to the Margrave of Brandenburg, it is not certain when Bach actually composed these works. The survival of early versions of some pieces suggests that Bach adapted these from a pool of existing works but others might have been freshly written. His aims in revision and compilation seem to have been to present six entirely disparate examples of the instrumental concerto, a genre which was by no means fixed and which could imply many instrumental combinations. Bach’s tendency to produce encyclopaedic surveys of multiple musical genres was becoming a major compositional habit and his Brandenburg collection was closely followed by the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

The term ‘concerto’ was rather widely used in Bach’s day; he employed it most frequently on the title pages to most of the works we now call ‘cantatas’, as a way of denoting those sacred works in which instruments and voices participated (‘concerted’) together. Early definitions of the concerto genre alternatively (and ambiguously) translated the term as ‘agreement’ and ‘disputation’. Nevertheless this contradiction does give a useful sense of the dynamics of concerto writing: the very differentiation of forces into ‘tutti’ and ‘solo’ groups generates an immediate sense of opposition, but the composer’s task is to render this opposition productive and ‘agreeable’. Thus, although some concertos veer towards the ‘agreement’ model (e.g. Nos 3 and 6) and others towards the ‘disputation’ model (Nos 4 and, especially 5), it is perhaps most useful to see both concepts working simultaneously. What gives these concertos their particular fascination is the sense that they are highly structured but, paradoxically, also among the most carefree, joyous and spontaneous works that Bach ever produced. Somehow he manages to evoke a ‘norm’ for each movement – as if the modern Italian concerto genre were more standardized than it actually was – and immediately subverts any expectations that the norm was meant to bring. In all, the genres of Bach’s oeuvre show a fluidity and subtlety that we are still only just appreciating as we come to realise that the textbook is not necessarily the best route to musical appreciation.

Concerto 1
The first concerto is immediately prominent for its use of the two ‘hunting’ horns, those instruments most associated with the privilege of royal courts. Hunting was a particular metaphor in German states, which were basically a multiplicity of small courts (such as that at Cöthen where Bach worked: a small town, castle and – even today – lots of cows). Only the largest states such as Saxony and Prussia had real military pretensions, so the activity of hunting stood in for military might. The horn players (who were normally also the trumpeters) were the highest paid musicians and the more – and the better – a prince could afford, the more sumptuous his court appeared. Having said that, this concerto would still work were they to be omitted and this has sometimes been interpreted as a sign of Bach’s critique of social hierarchy (see the work of Michael Marissen, in particular). On the other hand, the horns contribute immensely to the style and ethos of the piece with their unabashed hunting calls. Indeed, Bach seems to have gone out of his way to make the horns clash against the rest of the texture.

An oddity about this concerto is the way the balance of the solo instruments seems to change in the course of the piece – perhaps a sign of the diverse origins of the work (an early version survives which lacks the third movement and part of the last). But it might equally represent Bach’s way of demonstrating the diversity and malleability of the genre at the outset of the collection. The piccolo violin (tuned a third higher than the standard string pitch for these concertos) first comes to prominence in the second movement, a beautiful, affecting lament that – with its piquant cross-relations – seems to all but follow a text which lies just beyond our ears. In the third movement the high violin appears in a more virtuosic light, but after this point it disappears again. This movement is also known as the opening chorus of the secular Cantata 207, ‘Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten’, in which vocal parts seem to have been added to the instrumental texture. However, if Malcolm Boyd’s guess is right, both this and the Brandenburg version might go back to an earlier vocal model. Thus what we hear as the third movement of the first concerto might actually be the instrumental arrangement of a chorus – something which points to the wider concept of ‘concerto’, embracing vocal, as well as instrumental, music. This suggests that we should not think of these concertos purely as abstract, absolute music: their gestures, moods and rhetorical structure should perhaps be seen in a similar light to texted music.

The first concerto, uniquely, presents a fourth movement, a set of dances interspersed with repetitions of a French-style minuet. Just as vocal and instrumental genres were closer to one another than we might think, so too were the genres of ‘Italian’ concerto and ‘French’ suite. Not only does the return structure of the minuet parallel the ritornello form of an Italian concerto movement, dances sometimes form the basis of the longer concerto movements (the third movement of this concerto has many of the characteristics of a passepied, that of the sixth concerto is like a gigue).

Concerto 2
The second concerto seems to explore the utmost diversity of solo instruments but with the greatest amount of ‘agreement’ between them. The solo group might initially appear an almost irresponsible choice: trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin. Not only is this representative of each instrumental family but it would also have challenged the hierarchy of the musicians in the court Kapelle at Cöthen. For instance, the trumpeter would probably have been the most highly paid and respected musician while the recorder would usually have been played by the most lowly of court musicians (although he could also have been an oboist, and thus of higher status). Moreover, each player must continually make compromises to match the other instruments in tone, style or dynamic. Bach is quite relentless in insisting that each solo instrument play in turn the same melodic material, regardless of the techniques employed or the status of the player. For instance, both oboe and recorder have to play the ‘string crossing’ passages that first appear on the violin, the trumpet has to play the same agile melodic figuration as all the other instruments. In all, there is a sense in which all the players have to go through the same ‘eye of the needle’.

The first movement follows the ubiquitous ritornello style, in which the opening, tutti section is restated in various keys and environments, like the pillars of a building or the central point of a speech. But this skeleton is fleshed out in a highly individual way: the ‘subsidiary’ material is often central to the solo episodes and much of this returns at later junctures – so it is thus of equal importance to the ritornello theme (interestingly the final iteration of one of these passages reveals a prominent B-A-C-H pattern in the bass). In other words, Bach shows the same subtlety in the pacing out the events of the movement as he does in his ability to combine themes simultaneously; he produces a much weightier level of musical discourse than the age would normally require.

The central movement is a rare example of a quartet by Bach (virtually all his chamber music presents a trio texture) in which the melodic line is shared among the upper three instruments. Their work rather resembles a mosaic in presenting a picture that would more usually be created by much simpler means. Should the trumpeter feel peeved at being excluded from the slow movement, the final movement provides ample compensation since here the trumpet takes the lead with the fugal subject. Of all Bach’s fast movements, this one most belies the belief that the fugue is a dry, academic process; it works more like a sparkling conversation or a spirited chase in which we always expect the next entry of the subject but are somehow surprised when it arrives. Here the accompanying string parts are more or less cosmetic; while they provide some shading and emphasis, much of the time they could be omitted without major damage to the musical argument.

Concerto 3
The third concerto comes closest to fulfilling the ‘agreement’ definition of the concerto, with the opening movement comprising the interplay of the three choirs of three violins, violas and cellos and the last retaining the format of three violins and violas but with the cellos consolidated with the continuo. What is sacrificed in terms of solo virtuosity is amply compensated by the fleet interplay of forces, a kaleidoscopic celebration of the entire violin family.

The first movement is loosely based on the type of da capo form associated with sonatas. But here there is also an overall sense of dramatic intensification during the course of the movement, and the return of the opening section is modified with new gestures and some unexpected turns of event. The two cadential chords constituting the second movement (‘Adagio’) certainly do not refer to a piece that has since been lost since they come on the middle of a page in the presentation autograph. Perhaps, given the complexity and intensity of the movements on either side, they should be played precisely as they stand, as if the slow movement has simply vaporised. Or perhaps, in the manner of Handel’s later organ concertos, they signify a solo improvisation. There is certainly a sense throughout the collection that Bach played on the expectations and conventions of concerto writing, and here is an opportunity to render this movement in a number of different ways.

The third movement is, unusually for Bach’s finales, a piece in binary form with each of the two halves repeated. Here there is a definite element of virtuosity, but transferred from the customary soloist to the entire ensemble. Never again in the history of the concerto has there been such a piece that maintains the dazzle of the concerto idiom without profiling a single soloist.

Concerto 4
The fourth concerto opens with an extensive section which not only introduces the basic material for the movement but also reveals the instrumental argument: a solo group is contrasted with the rest of the orchestra and within this solo group there is a dialogue between the two recorders and the violin. This functions as a microcosm of the work as a whole, containing its own contrasts, departures and returns; only at the end of the movement do we hear it again complete. Rather than simply confining the solos to the episodes, Bach dislocates the solo argument from the ritornello structure: we simply cannot predict when the soloists will be strongly profiled, they are continually weaving in and out of the larger orchestral texture.

The second movement introduces a new concept in Bach’s concertos: here there is a close dialogue between the solo group and the tutti in which the contrast is highlighted by dynamics rather than melodic material. The piece thus plays on the concepts of repetition, together with light and shade. With the final movement we hear yet another interpretation of the concerto style: the opening ritornello is essentially a fugue, the subject of which can subsequently be used in a variety of ways. Indeed there are only a few places where it is entirely absent. Thus the expected contrast of ritornello and episode is replaced by frequent contrasts of instrumentation, the fuller expositions of the subject providing the tutti sonority usually associated with the ritornello. Furthermore another traditional feature of the concerto – virtuosity – is provided by the violin part, something which by its very nature turns a fugue – brilliant enough on its own terms – into a dazzling concerto movement.

Concerto 5
The fifth concerto presents a more complex hierarchy of players than most – the three soloists must establish their own mutual relationships in addition to their relation to the ensemble as a whole. These three are a somewhat unlikely group: while the violin is usual enough, the transverse flute was a very new instrument in German orchestras in 1721, an import from the trendsetting court of France. Most peculiar of all, though, is the appearance of the harpsichord in the solo group: the keyboard was perfectly familiar as a solo instrument, or as a continuo ‘chord-filler’ within an orchestral texture, but was quite new as a concerto soloist. The comparatively thin tone of the instrument doubtlessly rendered it unsuitable to carry a solo line, but the construction of larger instruments, and, particularly the court’s well-documented acquisition of a large harpsichord from Michael Mietke of Berlin in 1719, might well have accounted for Bach’s ground-breaking experiment (and Dunedin are exceptionally fortunate in having acquired a modern copy of a large Mietke instrument, built by Bruce Kennedy).

The keyboard is hardly coy in its first appearance within a concerted context; it is accorded the most virtuosic writing, quite often dominating the texture of the other two instruments. Nevertheless, it does not, initially, have significantly more thematic material, so its exuberance barely affects the fairly standard course of the piece. However, in the closing minutes of the first movement, the harpsichord takes over entirely, presenting a frenzied cadenza that all but forsakes the principal motives and melodies. Only at the last minute does the opening ritornello return to restore order. Several interpretations of this state of affairs are possible: one theory (from Susan McClary) suggests that the keyboard, as normally the ‘servant’ of the other, solo instruments, overthrows the existing hierarchy. Michael Marissen suggests that this might rather reflect Bach’s belief that all humans are created equal under God and that even established earthly orders are only temporary. In terms of the experience of this movement, it might stir up a fevered desire for closure, something which has been continually frustrated throughout the course of the movement. There is also the obvious historical fact that, by the early eighteenth century, the keyboard had been established as the instrument of the composer, the one through which one would normally learn the principles of harmony, and the only one capable of comfortably presenting the entire musical texture.

The second movement is a trio for the three solo instruments alone – the point at which the concerto genre comes closest to the sonata. This scoring does not seem so unusual when it is considered that the majority of Bach’s concertos were almost certainly originally performed with only a single instrument on each line: in other words, every instrument is, in a sense, a soloist. The final movement is an exceedingly vivacious gigue, which, like the opening movement of the fourth concerto, presents both a ritornello form and a large-scale da capo of the opening section. The keyboard is considerably better behaved than in the first movement, sharing out the solo sections with the other instruments. Nevertheless, it still has the fastest note-values.

Concerto 6
Many scholars have speculated as to the origins and age of each concerto: there is a case for dating the sixth concerto to the earliest stage of the composition since it seems to be a ‘group concerto’ employing supposedly archaic instruments, the two violas da gamba. Nevertheless Bach may purposely have been mixing ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ elements to create a work that was as unique in its form as in its musical ideas. The parts for viola da gamba may have been designed with Bach’s employer, Prince Leopold I of Anhalt-Köthen, in mind; he was, after all, an enthusiastic amateur of the instrument and the parts are relatively simple. This would also suggest a more recent composition.

The opening movement employs the ritornello form of the modern Vivaldi concerto and it contains several textural contrasts to give the illusion of solo-tutti forces. The ritornello technique here is one of Bach’s most ingenious: virtually everything counts as ritornello since so much is reused during the course of the movement. Another interesting device is the canonic writing for violas at the outset, by which the two chase one another directly at a very close distance, something which provides an extremely dramatic atmosphere that infects the entire movement. As is so often the case in these concertos, Bach employs the most ‘learned’ of compositional devices to tremendous aural and dramatic effect – perhaps it is this combination of skill and insight that places him so extraordinarily high in the western tradition.

The second movement is essentially a sonata trio, another example of the close relation between concerto and sonata genres, by which the concerto becomes more intimate without losing its ‘public’ perspective. The intensity of the melody with its downward leap of a seventh also immediately evokes the human voice. While the da capo form of the final movement originated in the aria genre and the gigue-like idiom came from dance, the elaborated repetitions of the opening phrases recall some of the oldest instrumental idioms, in which players traditionally improvised embellishments over a given melody. But here again Bach mixes the conventions: the violas da gamba, traditionally associated with the performance of divisions, have comparatively simple parts, while the most virtuosic writing is assigned to those most shy – and derided – of stringed instruments, the violas.

John Butt © 2013

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