performed by the Gewandhausorchester under Riccardo Chailly, or below by the Orchestra Mozart under Claudio Abbado in a performance very worth watching
(cover image by Annie Gray)
Now that we’re back to Bach, it’s a good time to discuss the third in his series of six Brandenburg concertos, what have been referred to by someone I referenced previously as the greatest unsuccessful job application in history. The pieces were (probably not written for but) presented to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721, but nothing came of the gesture.
This third of the set of six is written for strings only, three each of violins, violas, cellos, as well as bass and continuo. It is quite short, owing to an odd middle movement, of three total, as follows:
- [no tempo indication] (usually performed at Allegro or Allegro moderato)
- Adagio in E minor
The outer movements are in ritornello form, a common thing in Baroque music that we’ve talked about before. The Italian word ‘ritornello,’ as you may guess, is connected with the idea of ‘returning.’ Hence, Brittanica calls the ritornello “a recurrent musical section that alternates with different episodes of contrasting material.” If you wanted to be really pop-culture about it, you could say it’s like the Baroque version of the modern chorus we hear in pop songs, with different material thrown in for variety.
The central movement, though, is notated as a single bar with two chords, a “Phrygian half cadence,” that is usually embellished in some way so it’s not just a weird pause between the two outer movements. In many cases, as with Chailly’s reading, it’s a violin cadenza that for an entire movement is rather short, but for a standalone solo, is quite lengthy. More on that momentarily.
You may think of, like, Masterpiece Theater or something with the stately, elegant opening of this piece, if it is indeed played at a stately, slower pace. Some more ‘authentic’ style performances really give this music some oomph, though, and the smiles and visible enjoyment from the performers in the video above show that they’re enjoying this music not as stuffy, pretentious elitists, but in the same way as you’d have, like, some friends together for a jam session.
See if you can notice the ritornello portion that forms the backbone of the work, in contrast with the solo passages of extra material. While there isn’t just one soloist like with a violin or piano concerto, the focus is indeed on the individual instruments, and at moments like the below, you can see how each of them contributes to the conversation:
The video should begin at about 4:08. Watch how one phrase begins with one violin, and gets passed like a baton all the way down to the cellos, and there’s actually a surprising amount of tension created with this swell before being released right on time. It’s brilliant. It may sound highbrow and fancy to our ears now, but this was just good, fun entertaining music back then and clearly still is.
The second movement is a wildcard. In Chailly’s recording with the Gewandhaus, it’s a beautiful violin soliloquy by Sebastian Breuninger. In Abbado’s performance above, it’s a little aside from harpsichord. It makes sense to me that this was intended to be improvised, but in some cases, apparently, it’s been swapped out for actual movements from other works that match the style and/or key. I’ll stick with the little solo aside.
The finale also is in ritornello form, an exhilarating whirlwind of layered, ornate beauty, contrapuntal and joyous. In a performance like Abbado’s above (faster than Chailly), it blows the dust off the stodgy, stilted, powdered-wig Baroque idea and gives us a better impression of what this music was designed to accomplish. It’s eloquent and rich and exciting. There’s a marvelous balance between the orchestra-like sounds of the ritornello passages, and the transparency and clarity that maintain the chamber-like sound, while still also giving the spotlight to soloists.
Of course this is due in part to the beautiful interpretations of Chailly, Abbado and others. The choice of period instruments and all the rest is one we’re not going to have here. The Gewandhaus uses modern instruments in Chailly’s recording, but they manage to have a sound that’s meaty and bold but not chuggy or torpid like some others. To my ear, that kills the spirit these pieces were meant to evoke.
That’ll be all for now, though, so go enjoy some Baroque tunes, and do indeed stay tuned for someone we’ve seen quite a bit of lately! Thanks so much for reading.