With such an intriguing title, here’s a recording which is going to attract a lot of attention. The mere mention of ‘Brandenburg’ has a strong Pavlovian effect, conjuring up complex textures, colourful instrumentation and Bachian genius. It’s going to be a great disappointment then. That’s the trouble with raising expectations too high.
Yet behind the crafty marketing it’s a different story. The music here is well worth our attention, as long as we approach it in the right way with a proper sense of its original context. The 12 concertos of Torelli’s Concerti musicali were published in 1698 and so belong to the earliest stage in the development of the concerto. It was an historically important publication, pre-dating both Vivaldi’s Op 3 L’estro armonico of 1711 (which effectively defined the solo, ritornello concerto) and Corelli’s influential Op 6, published in 1714 (which effectively defined the concerto grosso). Compared with Vivaldi’s and Corelli’s publications the concertos of Torelli’s Op 6 were ultimately less influential and individual in style. However, now that we’ve actually got the chance to hear these early works, their subtle charms are quite persuasive. Short-breathed they may be—Concerto No 5 in G minor lasts just over three minutes — but they speak a different language from either Corelli or Vivaldi, which is most refreshing. The novelties have yet to turn to clichés, and it seems very daring when (for the first time in the history of the concerto) Torelli indicates that certain passages in three of the concertos should be played by a solo violin (and a pair of them in No 10). Heavens, where could such sensuous innovations lead?
So what does the director of Charivari Agréable—Kah-Ming Ng—mean when he calls these ‘The Original Brandenburg Concertos’? Well, they were the first set of concertos dedicated to the powerful Brandenburg dynasty—in this case, Sophie Charlotte, the Electress of Brandenburg, grandmother of Frederick the Great and the sister-in-law of Bach’s dedicatee, Christian Ludwig. She was a formidable but cultivated lady whose attention was also courted by Corelli (who dedicated his celebrated Op 5 Violin Sonatas to her), and she could count on no less an intellectual than Gottfried Leibniz as a close friend.
Compared with Bach, Torelli made much more of an effort. Johann Sebastian merely revised six earlier works which were selected for their musical quality, not their practicality. Christian Ludwig’s modest musical establishment could never have been expected either to have the variety of instruments nor the players with the virtuoso abilities to tackle Bach’s offerings. Torelli’s works, though, were ideal for Sophie Charlotte’s musical Kapelle. Scored simply for strings and continuo they made demands on neither technique nor concentration. Perhaps these really should be thought of as the true Brandenburgs after all. In the end, of course, both sets of concertos failed to net their composers employment at the court of Brandenburg-Prussia, which was probably just as well, since by all accounts it was a rather stifling environment … servants (and that included musicians) were expected to know their place.
There’s a pleasing sparkle to these performances; it’s as if the members of Charivari Agréable have pretended not to know anything about music after 1700 and have therefore been able to capture something of the original freshness of these works. There’s intimacy too: this definitely sounds like a chamber ensemble writ large rather than a chamber orchestra downsizing. Ng also has a little bit of unexpected colour up his sleeve. He argues convincingly for the addition of wind instruments ad libitum—such practices were widespread at the time—and so oboes, bassoon and recorders enrich the textures from time to time.
In summary, this is a rewarding glimpse of the early history of the concerto, explained in wonderfully Baroque booklet notes by Ng. No masterpieces, but bags of potential.