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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Johann Sebastian Bach, "The Brandenburg Concertos"

Johann Sebastian Bach
"The Brandenburg Concertos"
Opus 111 (2005)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

Mankind has historically embarked on grandiose projects in the name of two things: either A) God or B) Self. For every cathedral and enormous Buddha, there is a Taj Mahal; a monolith built for self-glorification (technically the Taj was built for Shah Jahan's wife, but he had plans to build a mirror of the monument in black for his own tomb). During the Baroque era, the grandest of the grand classical periods, much of the grandeur was dedicated to religious purpose. Johann Sebastian Bach and others wrote music (although funded by wealthy nobles) as a tribute to the divine. The Brandenburg Concertos were an exception. Bach wrote the six concertos for a potential patron, and unlike classics such as "Mass in B Minor," God wasn't part of the mix.

So to my second point, man creating to praise himself. This statement isn't entirely accurate when describing the Brandenburg Concertos, but it is entirely accurate in describing Brandenburg No. 5. One important element to consider is that each one of these concertos involve a different instrumental lineup, somewhere between 10 and 20 musicians, each tending to focus on different instruments. No. 5 is notable for featuring the harpsichord at the forefront, an instrument Bach played at the virtuosic level. Listening to the piece is evidence that Bach was writing to, if not toot his own horn, at least have a little fun.

No. 5 seems like a thrill ride for anyone well-practiced in harpsichord. The opening Allegro movement stretches for nine minutes, most of it featuring rapid harpsichord, and climaxing with a three minute solo cadenza from the instrument. The solo's density is reminiscent of the guitar hammer-on crescendo during the solo of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" and of John Coltrane's "wall of sound" technique on saxophone. Even for listeners easily lulled by classical music, this moment is enthralling.

Although No. 5 is certainly written primarily for Bach himself, it'd be wrong to label him as a narcissist. No. 5, along with Nos. 2 and 4, are concerto grossos, or multi-virtuoso concertos. The typical concerto was drafted for a single virtuoso, but the best of the Brandenburgs are the grossos. Each grosso has a different lineup of virtuoso instruments (the instrumentation is split into two categories: Concertino, or the virtuoso instruments, and Ripieno, the rest). No. 5 was the only concerto to feature the harpsichord.

No. 2's unique instrument is the natural trumpet, a valveless predecessor to the modern trumpet, which dominates its fellow Concertino instruments (a recorder, oboe and violin) as the harpsichord dominates No. 5. It's believed that No. 2 was written for Johann Ludwig Schreiber, the who's-who of trumpeters in the day, based on the complexity of the part. Concerto No. 4 is another excellent grosso, highlighting a pair of recorder virtuosos. Those who played the instrument in grade school may find it difficult to believe that such an instrument could involve virtuosity, but the the part is impressive.

The single-virtuoso concertos are worth a listen, but are rarely as enjoyable as their grosso brethren. One interesting point about No. 6 is its emphasis on the viola da braccio, taking a higher role over the viola da gamba. In Bach's day, the viola da gamba (or viol) was a higher class instrument than the viola da braccio (viola), which was played by musicians of a lower class. Bach may have been tweaking his nose at the system when composing No. 6.

The Brandenburg Concertos are one of the more popular series and as such have had hundreds of versions recorded. Moon recommends the recording by the acclaimed Concerto Italiano because he claims it sticks closer to the original tempos and structures set by Bach. I can't comment because I haven't listened to many versions to compare with, but I'd take Moon's word for it. If you really don't think you're game for classical, at least give Bach's harpsichord theatrics a shot.

INTERESTING FACT: The Brandenburg Concertos were never actually performed during Bach's lifetime. He gave them to Christian Ludwig, a margrave in Brandenburg, in the hopes that he would score patronage. It never got used because Ludwig lacked the musicians necessary, and was later sold for the equivalent of $24.00 worth of silver. They were finally discovered and published for the first time in 1849.

Brandenburg Concerto #5 in D - Allegro

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