Throughout his life Bach liked to make collections, always with intent of demonstrating variety and invention in a certain kind of music. Some of these “collections” were completed in the most definitive way: the Goldberg Variations and the B Minor Mass are his keyboard and choral-orchestral summations. Some remained incomplete – many blank pages with the title of an intended chorale setting are part of the manuscript of his Orgelbüchleinand the Art of the Fugue breaks off during what seems to be its final, all-combining weave.
The Brandenburg Concertos are a collection, from 1711-1721, of a crazily diverse group of instrumental pieces. Each one requires a distinctive, never revisited, combination of instruments. In fact, outside of this set, his concerto writing behaves more ‘normally’ –pieces for one or two violins, one or two keyboard players, with small string orchestra – none of Vivaldi’s interest in writing concerti for piccolo, bassoon, guitar, viola d’amore, lute and so on. The Brandenburg Concertos are Bach’s great chamber music colorfest, and have been long beloved by players and listeners – so beloved that it is possible to lose track of their novelty, their one-of-a-kind nature.
Our performance goes in reverse of the numbered order, so that each piece adds to our musician complement. The sixth concerto requires only seven players, from two musical worlds. The “modern” players, two violas and ‘cello, are the soloists, backed by an “ancient” complement, two gambas, keyboard and violone (probably the smaller contrabass of Bach’s early Weimar period, playing an octave higher than the register in which we’ve usually heard it). Those first sounds! Two violas playing a gentle catch (or chase), such close imitation that they form an out-of-focus double image, supported by pulsing chords which progress so slowly we seem to be floating on a dark silvery cloud. Bach, the colorist, proposes another of his unique landscapes. The second movement consists of two eloquent phrases, the second extending the first. This pair, with a sinuous countermelody, occurs five times, followed by a mysterious closing entrusted to the ‘cello. The finale brings a rugged contrast. The violists in unison proclaim a rambunctious gigue pattern, cut to various lengths in its reappearances. Then they engage in what jazz musicians call a cutting session, a kind of one-upmanship, trading phrases in varied lengths and rhythmic pulsations, showier, more extrovert than anything in this composer’s famous concerto for two violins.
The fifth concerto is the closest in the set to being an actual solo concerto, but the genteel, benevolent presence of the flute and violin at every point but one modifies this impression. That one point, the immense cadenza, remains startling every time. In a review a few decades ago one critic criticized the performer for inserting a “tasteless, self-indulgent” cadenza into Bach’s balanced proportions! Well, the performer in this case turns out to be Bach, who has left us, here, a generous record of his improvisatory gifts (parallels Beethoven’s Fantasy, Op. 77, or Mozart’s cadenzas for his concerto, K. 451). The “performer” begins to reveal his wayward temperament well before the others drop out, causing a possible final tutti to disassemble. Then, the first section of the cadenza proper is sober and thematic (although the basic motive, a scale descending or rising through the interval of a fourth, is so generic that almost any moment can be made “thematic”). Upon reaching the final pedal point the Performer truly loses it, this time in a gigantic peroration so disproportionate that we are reminded of the typical flamboyance of the young composer genius type. The re-entry recognizes a need to return to a world of order and decorum, as do the ensuing movements. Flute, violin, and keyboard were already at this early moment (Weimar in 1715) the primary chamber combination, and the slow movement, full of contained, galant feeling, prepares us for a gigue in which the occasional keyboard whirls are absorbed as high spirits.
Another trio concerto, No. 4, is the only one in the series that prescribes the same instrumentation for all of its movements. In the outer movements the violin has the larger role, occasionally flaring up with much faster notes than we have expected. In the middle movement the recorders are to the fore, the violin modestly providing their bass line. This concerto has the most serious contrapuntal workmanship in the set, but at the same time an effortless grace and buoyancy.
Effortless is not the adjective for No. 3, the most viscerally exciting of this series. It consists of two dynamic, heavily pulsed movements with nine solo string players each getting athletic solo turns (the celli less prominent due to the acoustical necessity of keeping the bass register uncluttered). Between these two hyperventilating rousers Bach places just two chords, meaning: do some thing here as a buffer – improvise, or play a short Adagio (our choice: a deleted movement from the Violin Sonata, BWV 1019).
The choice of four oddly assorted treble soloists for No. 2 is Vivaldian, as is the music: bluff, driving, square-cut, muscular. The brass instrument part exists in two forms: for tromba and for corno. The former has long been puzzling, since trumpet parts that high simply don’t appear elsewhere (even in that high trumpet epoch) and won’t until the Big Band era (this writer remembers playing in quite successful versions of this piece with the part taken by clarinet or soprano sax). The horn version brings fewer balance problems, a more equitable impression among the soloists. The most unusual moment in this concerto occurs near the end of the middle movement, in which the trumpet and orchestral strings are absent. The melody disappears, and a bare pattern continues on, abandoned by the melody. Could this be an image of depression, resignation? In any case its return, signaled by the violin, feels like a reprieve.
Concerto 1 is the only truly orchestral piece here. The soloists are the principal violinist (originally playing a violino piccolo, occasionally used by Bach for its penetrating – to put it kindly – timbre), two horns and three oboes. All participate generously in the rumbustious opening movement, which is peppered by marvelously modern cross-rhythms in the horn parts. The Adagio which follows is the single greatest movement in the whole collection. Here we breathe the rarefied air of the great mystical Weimar cantatas (63, 12). Every moment is invested with the deepest expressiveness, not least the stark, abstract, daring ending. The next movement sounds like a perfect, rollicking Rondo finale, but Bach adds a surprise: a contrapuntal Minuet which elegantly enfolds a mini-Suite woodwind trio, string trio, brass scherzo – a summation of the color fields of the Baroque orchestra.
Bach sent all this off to the Elector of Brandenburg with an unusually obsequious and hopeful dedication, but he was wisely not putting all his marbles in that basket. He kept a copy, re-used at least two of the movements in cantatas, and must have marked off the collection, in his mind, at the age of 35, as the true indication of his control and his invention in what he had shown to be the most flexible and colorful of media, the chamber concerto.