Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sunday Classics: "Brandenburg"s for the holidays, Part 1


The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra gives a now-fashionably lickety-split but still quite nice performance of the final movement (Menuetto and Polacca) of Bach's First Brandenburg Concerto. Listen particularly for the second Trio -- not the first Trio, of the Menuetto, written for, literally, a trio of two oboes and bassoon, at 1:12, but the second Trio, of the Polacca (which begins at 3:14), written for a "trio" of two horns plus a trio of oboes, at 5:17.

by Ken
I expect you're thinking, haven't we had enough music this week with our Christmas specials, Handel's Messiah for Christmas Eve and Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ for Christmas Day? Obviously, you already have my answer.
One pleasant tradition that's developed around the holidays is performing the entire set of Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos. In a sense it's easier now that we think of the concertos as chamber rather than orchestral music, but it really tests the mettle of the presenting chamber music group. The six concertos are so different, and scored for such different instrumental combinations, that just figuring out who's to play what and then managing the logistics of having the correct players available, first for rehearsal (today's musicians racing from job to job to keep their heads above water can hardly be asked to sit through rehearsals in which they have nothing to do, but at the same time you can't rehearse a concerto if you don't have all the necessary performers on hand) and then for onstage at the right time for the right pieces -- the logistics are exhaustive and exhausting, and for obvious reasons it's not easy to get all six pieces prepared to the degree of thoroughness that most of those musicians might wish.

Nevertheless, performing the complete set of Brandenburgs can be an exhilarating experience for both performers and audiences, and the holidays just seem like a natural time to undertake it. I thought that we might join in this particular celebration, only we're not going to do it in all-in-one fashion. We'll get through the first three concertos today, and then the remaining three (probably) next week.

In the only all-Bach post I've written to date, devoted to the unusually personal world of his arias, I wrote:
If I were setting out to "sell" Bach, or even to try to sketch the Bach who most matters to me, I would start with the secular music -- with, say, the Brandenburg Concertos and the solo-cello suites. But the cantatas may be the place where one comes closest to encountering the soul of Bach.


Not quite for the first time, though. Shortly after, I wrote a post built about extraordinary surprises composers may bury in larger works, offering as examples the totally unexpected and totally wonderful methodically galloping rhythmic figure that breaks out suddenly in the cello then works its way up the string-quartet membership in the theme-and-variations slow movement of Mozart's String Quartet No. 18, and the tiny bit -- a mere minute in our performance -- known innocently enough as "Trio II" in the final movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1.

Here's the bit we're talking about, in the best performance I've heard of it, or at any rate the one that really made me sit up and take notice. It still sounds awfully good to me. (Note: You can click to enlarge the score page, but you won't be able to hear the music at the same time. Sorry!)

CBC Vancouver Orchestra, Mario Bernardi, cond. CBC Records, recorded 1983
[I'm sorry not to be able to identify the soloists of this performance, but my copy of the CD booklet has gone missing!]



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At 11:07 AM, Anonymous mediabob said...

Ken, bravo! I'm afraid you may lose me as you lead us through these towering monuments; but it is fun to follow you. Thanks for the challenge.

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Cirze said...



My favorite of all time - for all seasons.

Good for what ails ye.

Love you,



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