Friday, November 18, 2005
JS Bach: Brandenburg Concertos
Brandenburg, in Bach's day, was a political and military powerhouse. It had been part of the Holy Roman Empire since the mid-12th century, and its ruler---Markgraf, or Margrave---was charged with defending and extending the northern imperial border ("mark," or "marche" in Old English and Old French), in return for which he was allowed to be an Elector of the Emperor. The house of Hohenzollern acquired the margraviate of Brandenburg in 1415, and the family embraced the Reformation a century later with such authority that they came to be regarded as the leaders of German Protestantism; Potsdam was chosen as the site of the electoral court in the 17th century. Extensive territorial acquisitions under Frederick William, the "Great Elector," allowed his son Frederick III to secure the title and the rule of Brandenburg's northern neighbor, Prussia in 1701. Frederick, a cultured man and a generous patron, founded academies of science and arts in Berlin, and built the magnificent palace Charlottenburg for his wife, Sophie Charlotte,which became one of the most important musical centers in early-18th-century Germany. When Frederick William I succeeded his father in 1713, however, he turned the court's focus from music to militarism, and dismissed most of the excellent musicians that his father had assembled; several of them found employment at the court of AnhÃ¤lt-CÃ¶then north of Leipzig, where a young prince was just starting to indulge his taste and talents for music. Frederick William did, however allow his uncleChristianin Ludwig, younger brother of the late King Frederick and possessor of the now-lesser title of Margrave of Brandenburg, to remain at the palace and retain his own musical establishment.
Johann Sebastian Bach, now in his thirties, met Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, in 1719, during his tenure as music director at the court of Leopold of AnhÃ¤lt-CÃ¶then from 1717 to 1723, and he and Leopold seem to have gotten along splendidly. The Prince enjoyed travel, fine art and, above all, music, and he respected and encouraged Bach in his own work, even occasionally participating in the court concerts as violinist, gambist, or harpsichordist. Provided by Leopold with an excellent set of instruments and a group of fine players (and the second-highest salary of any of his court employees), Bach enjoyed a fruitful period at CÃ¶then---many of his greatest works for keyboard, chamber ensembles and orchestra date those thos years.
Early in 1719, Leopold sent Bach to Berlin to finalize arrangements for the purchase of a new harpsichord, a large, two manual model made by Michael Mierke, instrument builder to the royal court. While in Berlin, Bach played for Christian Ludwig, who was so taken with his music that he asked him to send some of his compositions for his library. Bach lost an infant son a few months later, however, and in 1720, his wife died and he rejected an offer to become organist at the Jacobkirche in Hamburg, so it was more than two years before he fulfilled Brandenburg's request. By 1721, however, Leopold had become engaged to marry a woman who looked askance at his huge expenditures for musical entertainment. Bach seems to have realized that when she moved in, he would probably be moved out, so he began casting about for a more secure position. He remembered the interest the MargBrandenburgnburg had shown in his music, and thought it a good time to approach him again, so he picked six of the finest concertos he had written at CÃ¶then, copied them out meticulously, had them bound in a sumptuous volume (at no little cost), and sent them to Christian Ludwig in March 1721 with a flowery dedication in French---but to no avail. No job materialized at Brandenburg, and in 1723, Bach moved to Leipzig's Thomaskirche, where he remained for the rest of his life. It is possible that the Margrave never heard any of these magnificent works that immortalized his name, since records indicate that his modest Kapelle might not have been able to negotiate their difficulties and instrumental requirements. The Concertos apparently lay untouched in his library until he died thirteen years after Bach had presented them to him, when the were inventoried at a value of four groschen each---only a few cents. Fortunately they were preserved by the noted theorist and pedagogue Johann Philipp Kirnberger, a pupil of Bach, and came eventually into the collection of the Royal Library in Berlin. They were brought to light during the 19th-century Bach revival, published in 1850, and have since come to be recognized as the supreme examples of Baroque instrumental music.
The Brandenburg Concertos differ from those of later eras in both instrumental disposition and form. These are concerti grossi ("great concertos"), works in which a small group of soloists (concertino) rather than a single instrument is pitted against the ensemble (ripieno). Most of the fast movements of the Brandenburgs use a formal procedure known as "ritornello," which is based on the contrasonorityorirty between concertino and ripieno. First the orchestra presents a collection of thematic kernels from which much of the movement grows. Then the soloists take over for an episode, sometimes borrowing from the opening orchestral introduction, sometimes providing something new. The ensemble then returns (ritornello is Italian for "return"), and is followed by another solo episode, and that by another orchestral ritornello, and so forth. The remaining fast movements are based on dance types, while the slow movements are usually lyrical and through-compassort asort of elaborate worldless aria.
The performers of the Brandenburgs were a stellar cast:
Ranson Wilson, flute
Tara Helen O'Connor, flute
Allan Vogel, oboe
Frack Avril, oboe
Karen Wagner, oboe
David Shifrin, piccolo clarinet
Julie Feves, bassoon
William Purvis, horn
John Cox, horn
Ani Kavafian, violin
Ida Kavafian, violin and viola
Kerry McDermott, violin
Paul Neubauer, viola
Cynthia Phelps, viola
Fred Sherry, cello
Ronald Thomas, cello
Hamilton Cheifetz, cello
Edgar Meyer, double-bass
John Gibbons, harpsichord
The Brandenburg Concerto No.1 originated in the three-movement Sinfonia in F Major, (BWV 1046a) that Bach used to introduce the "Hunting Cantata" he wrote to celebrate the birthday of Prince Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels in 1713--War mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagt ("The Merry Hunt Is My Delight," BWV 208, source of the much-loved pastorale Sheep May Safely Graze). To create the First Brandenburg Concerto several years later, Bach thoroughly revised the Sinfonia, revising its music, augmenting the concertino with a solo violin, expanding the finale with an additional Polacca episode, composing anew the third movement.
The opening movement, whose lusty horn-calls (William Purvis, John Cox) recall the Concerto's origin in a work inspired by the hunt, contains a joyous abundance of notes driven by a muscular rhythmic energy. The Adagio is a poignant lament largely carried on in dialogue between the first oboe (Allan Vogel) and the solo violin (Ani Kavafian). The third movement, in vigorous 6/8 meter, is bright and virtuosic. The finale is a procession of dances. It begins with a Menuetto for the full ensemble which returns, rondo fashion, as the structural support of the movement. Interspersed are a section for two oboes (Allan Vogel, Franck Avril) and bassoon (Julie Feves), a Polacco ("Polonaise") for strings, and a rousing trio for horns and three unsion oboes.
Concerto No.2 in F Major
Composed in 1719, the second concerto is a concerto grosso with the most unorthodox array of solo instruments: a trumpet (replaced by a piccolo clarinet, David Schifrin,) a flute a bec (replaced by modern flute, Ransom Wilson) an oboe (Allan Vogel), and the violin (Ani Kavafian). The outer two movements are resplendent with optimism and joy. The inner movement is a gently introspective andante for three of the soloists---the flute, the oboe, and the violin---accompanied by the continuo. The piccolo clarinet returns with a vengeance in the thrid movement, leading off in a brilliant fugue.
The Concerto No. 3 in G Major, like the others, makes its own rules. It deviates from the customary concerto grosso pattern in that strictly speaking there is no actual solo; the nine stringed instruments---three violins, three violas, three cellos---function sometimes as three solid units, sometimes simply as nine individual voices, engaging in a variety of combinations. The texture is continually shifting as the groupings change, as alliances form and then dissolve. Bach did not write a slow movement---merely two chords to serve as a link between the opening and closing Allegros. The last movement is a kind of study in running 16th notes: they speed headlong, without interruption, from start to finish.
Concerto No.4 in G Major
Concerto No.4 in G Major is the lightest and airiest of the Brandenburgs---the sheer elegance of the pair of flutes (replacing the recorders), in combination with solo violin, achieves a dancing, translucent delicacy. While the flutes often play in parallel thirds---always a comfortable interval---there are surprises in store from the violin. Its role in the first movement grows increasingly elaborate, starting almost imperceptibly, shifting into higher gear with extended passages of 16th notes, and eventually taking flight in billowing waves of 32nd notes. The middle movement, in which the violin sticks close to the flutes, is gentle and pastoral in spirit; the closing Presto (Bach's fastest marking in any of the concertos) opens with a fugue built from the bottom up---viola, second violin, first violin (along with solo violin, and finally the flutes on top. The solo violin proceeds to create some striking effects with minimum accompaniment, and some of the movement's most dramatic moments come when the orchestra drops out entirely, leaving the solo instruments alone in the spotlight.
Concerto No.5 in D Major
The solo instruments in the Brandenburg Concerto No.5 are flute, violin, and harpsichord (John Gibbons) which was included as a featured instrument to show off the new instrument Bach had brought back from Berlin. The first movement begins with a vigorous tutti theme for orchestra, after which the trio of soloists is introduced. It becomes clear as the movement progresses that the harpsichord is primus inter pares (first among parts) of the solo instruments, and its part grows more elaborate with the passing measures, finally erupting in a sparlking ribbon of unaccompanied melody and figuration in the closing pages. The second movement is an expressive trio for the soloists alone. The entire ensemble joins in for the exhilarating finale.
Concerto No.6 in B-Flat Major
The Sixth Brandenburg Concerto is in the three movements traditional for the form and is actually the second to have been written in 1718. If Bach played the harpsichord in the fifth concerto, surely he played the viola in this one. It is a matter of interesting speculation as to who played the second viola part with him, inasmuch as that part is every bit as challening as the first viola part. In all likelihood, Prince Leopold played one of the two viola da gamba parts, which are not very demanding and which are omitted entirely in the middle movement. As Heinrich Bressler suggests, the music of this concerto is "propelled by the dialogue of the two violas which alternate thematically in the manner of the Italian trio-sonata." Thus, actually the ensemble is a sextet for two violas (Ida Kavafian, Paul Neubauer) two viola da gambas (replaced by two cellos Fred Sherry, Hamilton Cheifetz), one cello (Ronald Thomas) and one double bass (instead of the fretted six-stringed violone, Edgar Meyer). This concerto is the most thinly scored of the six and the least like a concerto in concept.
The opening Allegro, athletic and dance-like at the same time, brings the violas to the fore with strict canonic writing above the steady accompaniment, and the occasional comments of the lower instruments. The second movement is one of Bach's richest long-limbed, contrapuntally bedecked melodic flights, informed with an intensity of emotion that borders on the operatic. The finale returns the buoyant mood and dancing rhythmic figurations of the opening movement.
References for this discussion thread included, Dr. Richard E. Rodda, Shirley Fleming, and Johannes Somary; and the performance itself.
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