performed by the Gewandhausorchester under Riccardo Chailly, or below by the Orchestra Mozart under Claudio Abbado
(cover image by Aaron Burden)
We have made it to only the second of Bach’s six Brandenburg concertos. As you may recall, or else already know, these concertos were presented as a set to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721. They were likely composed earlier, or at least parts of them.
In his wonderful program notes on the piece for the Chicago Symphony (which should be here, but seem to be returning an error at the moment), Phillip Huscher describes one of Bach’s rare journeys outside his hometown (in fact he never in his lifetime would leave Germany) to Berlin to pick up a state-of-the-art harpsichord, and ties this journey in with these compositions.
These concertos generally follow the Italian concerto grosso form, and if you’re not familiar with what that is, it doesn’t much matter, but you can read about it here. It’s essentially a baroque concerto with more than one soloist. In this case, the featured instruments are what Huscher calls the “unprecedented quartet of flute, oboe, violin and trumpet.” The flute is sometimes (and was probably originally) a recorder, but in either case, Huscher says that these pieces are “a demonstration really, of all the imaginable possibilities inherent in a certain musical form,” and what I really want to emphasize is that this music really truly is enjoyable.
Bach is one of those serious musicians, to me, someone who can be a little intimidating to talk about because of the outrageous stature he occupies. This set, however, is not sacred music, nor is it of that somber, almost meditative character of the solo suites for violin, cello or piano. It’s just full of life and energy, really truly meant as entertainment.
The work is in three movements, as follows, with a duration of 11-13 minutes:
- (no tempo marking, but usually) Allegro
- Allegro assai
Bach must have had a magnificent trumpet player on hand, or else was writing for a different instrument, because the writing for that performer in this piece is exceptionally challenging for how stratospherically high it is. Reinhold Friedrich (in the above Abbado video) manages, right? It’s way up there. Along with him, as just mentioned, are oboe, flute (or recorder) and violin.
In the lively, rhythmically exciting first movement, the soloists more or less take turns passing the baton off to one another, although the liveliness perhaps makes it more akin to a game of hot potato. The greatest deal of interaction they have among each other, though, is this handoff, a sort of call-and-answer, or echo, in what is (at least in Chailly’s recording) the longest movement.
Second is the slow movement, andante, in D minor, and as a result of that key change, it excludes the trumpet, which at that time had no valves and was thus excluded from playing in certain keys. That’s okay, he probably needed a rest. We are left with the trio of soloists (two winds and violin), and continuo (harpsichord and bass voice[s]) in what is essentially chamber music, a sudden contrast to the vivacious first movement, and very intimate.
That is shattered, though, when the trumpet returns with a celebratory vengeance to herald the opening of the finale, a very suitable, quick finish to this short concerto, and the shortest movement of the three. Here, we see the instruments interacting with one another dancing among themselves rather than independently of one another, creating additional layers of color and texture in what is clearly still a very small ensemble. It’s exciting, refreshing, and obviously, being from Bach’s pen, a composition of the highest quality.
James Reel at AllMusic says that the fugue in the final movement “clearly intended to show how a learned structure could be incorporated into popular entertainment at the margrave’s court,” but that’s really true of the piece as a whole, and perhaps of the entire set as a whole. This is a side of Bach that the average not-so-avid classical music listener may not generally think of when they hear that name. Go give this a listen!
We’re moving on, now, to other concertos, ones for piano, specifically, mixed in with a handful of sonatas and chamber works from Mozart’s pen, a whole two weeks of Wolfie, before we get back around to a bit of Beethoven, so please stay tuned, and thanks so much for reading.