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In one of the many bitter ironies of music history, Johann Sebastian Bach's six

Brandenburg Concertos are now his most popular work and an ideal entre to
his vital and variegated art, especially for those who mistakenly
dismiss his 300-year old music as boring and irrelevant, yet Bach
himself may never have heard them nor did anyone else for
over a century after his death.

must speculate to fill
the many lapses in our knowledge of so much of Bach's music. Nearly half his
output is deemed lost and many of his concertos exist only in later arrangements
or spurious copies. But his so-called Brandenburg Concertos survive in his
original manuscript, which he had sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg in late
March 1721. Bach's own title was Six Concerts Avec plusieurs Instruments ("Six
Concertos With several Instruments"); the familiar label adhered after first being
applied by Philipp Spitta in an 1880 biography. Bach left a brief but telling
account of their origin in his dedication to the presentation copy of the score,
handwritten in awkward, obsequious French (which I've tried to reflect in

Comme j'eus il y a une couple Since I had a few years ago, the
d'annes, le bonheur de me faire good luck of being heard by Your
entendre a Votre Altesse Royalle, Royal Highness, by virtue of his
en vertu de ses orders, & que je command, & that I observed
remarquai alors, qu'Elle prennoit then, that He took some pleasure
qeulque plaisir aux petits talents in the small talents that Heaven
que le Ciel m' a donns pour la gave me for Music, & that in
Musique, & qu' en prennant taking leave of Your Royal
Conge de Votre Altesse Royalle, Highness, He wished to make me
Elle voulut bien me faire the honor of ordering to send
l'honneur de me commander de Him some pieces of my
Lui envoyer quelques pieces de Composition: I therefore

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ma Composition: j'ai donc selon according to his very gracious
ses tres gracious orders, pris la orders, took the liberty of giving
libert de render mes tres- my very-humble respects to Your
humbles devoirs Votre Altesse Royal Highness, by the present
Royalle, par les presents Concertos, which I have arranged
Concerts, que j'ai accommods for several Instruments; praying
plusieurs Instruments; La priant Him very-humbly to not want to
tres-humblement de ne vouloir judge their imperfection,
pas juger leur imperfection, la according to the severity of fine
rigeur de gout fin et delicat, que and delicate taste, that everyone
tout le monde sait qu'Elle a pour knows that He has for musical
les pices musicales pieces

Scholars understand Bach to refer

either to a trip he made to Berlin in
March 1719 to approve and bring
home a fabulous new harpsichord for
his employer, Prince Christian Leopold
of Cthen, or possibly to an excursion
they made the following year to the
Carlsbad spa. Apparently, Bach played
for the Margrave, who requested a
The Castle and Park of Cthen
score to add to his extensive music 1650 engraving by Matthias Merven
library. A persistent question, though,
is why Bach took so long to respond, and then finally did.

Bach seemed happy at Cthen. His patron not only loved music but was a
proficient musician and spent a substantial portion of his income to maintain a
private band of 18 and to engage traveling artists. As a Calvinist, Leopold used
no music in religious observances, and freed Bach's energies for secular
instrumental work and performances. Yet, the relationship may have begun to
sour, as Bach applied for an organ post in Hamburg in late 1720 but was
rejected. Bach's dedication continues:

Je supplie tres humblement Votre I very humbly beg Your Royal

Altesse Royalle, d'avoir la bont Highness, to have the goodness
de continuer des bonnes graces to maintain his kind favour
envers moi, et d'tre persuade toward me, and to be persuaded
que je n'ai rien tant coeur, que that I have nothing more at heart,
de pouvoir tre employ en des than to be able to be employed in

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occasions plus dignes d'Elle et de some opportunities more worthy
son service of Him and of his service

In other words, Bach intended the Brandenburgs as his resum for a new job.
The attempt was unsuccessful. Indeed, it's unclear what, if anything, the
Margrave did with the presentation score once he received it.

Common wisdom is that the Margrave never bothered to perform these fabulous
works, and perhaps never even examined the score. The three-fold basis for this
notion is that the manuscript, which passed through private hands into a library,
is in such fine condition as to suggest that it never was used, that Bach never
received an acknowledgement (much less any reward), and that the works were
considered so worthless that they were sold for a pittance upon the Margrave's
death. Yet, Malcolm Boyd deflates these myths,
pointing out that a performance would not have used
the full score, but rather copies of the individual parts,
that the mere absence of any record of a response
could evidence nothing more than the typically sparse
documentation of the time, and that the score wasn't
sold, but rather assigned a nominal value solely to
assure that the Margrave's estate was divided equitably
among his heirs.

Yet, the fact remains that the estate inventory neither

The Margrave of Brandenburg
cataloged the Brandenburgs nor even mentioned Bach,
but rather included the scores in a bulk lot of 177 concertos while individually
listing presumably more important works by Valentini, Venturini and
Brescianello. In his Baroque Concerto Arthur Hutchings explains that this is
hardly peculiar despite subsequent acclaim, during his lifetime Bach was
valued far more as a performer than as a composer, and his instrumental music
was promptly forgotten once he attained his next (and final) post at Leipzig,
where he focused again on religious music (although he did perform some
concertos and orchestral Suites in the 1730s with the Collegium musicum, a
fellowship of local amateurs and students).
Joshua Rifkin offers a sadder but more practical
explanation: "As would happen so often in his
life, Bach's genius shot so far above the
capabilities of ordinary musicians that his
greatness was veiled in silence." Indeed, the
Brandenburgs remained unknown for a half-

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dozen generations until they were finally
published in 1850 in commemoration of the
centenary of Bach's death and then were more
widely circulated in 1869 as part of an
authoritative Bach Gesellschaft edition. Even
so, their popularity would have to wait nearly
another century for the phonograph.

Since then, the Brandenburgs have been widely

praised. On the most basic level, Christopher
Bach, around 1720
Hogwood claims that, beyond wanting to
impress the Margrave with his versatility, Bach used them to codify and
organize his miscellaneous output and so they represent an endeavor to imitate
the wealth of nature with all the means at his disposal. Similarly, Abraham
Veinus regards them as the exemplification of Bach's creative thinking,
comprising the full range of his thought, variety of instrumentation and inner
structure not a mere summary of the styles,
forms and techniques of his predecessors but a
realization and expansion of their full
possibilities. Others view the Brandenburgs as an
inextricable facet of Bach's overall religious bent.
Thus, Karl Richter stresses that Bach's
universality can only be understood in terms of
the theological, mystical and philosophical
foundations that infused all of his art, and Fred
Hamel asserts
that Bach was able to develop all the resources
of his craft only after years of work in the
devotional sphere and that Bach never
distinguished religious and secular music, as his
entire body of work was aimed for the glory of
God. From that perspective, Bach's magnificent
interplay of diverse musical elements can be
seen as a reflection of his pervasive belief in the
Divine harmony of the universe. Thus, Wilhelm
Furtwngler sees Bach's music as symbolizing divinity by exuding supreme
serenity, assurance, self-sufficiency and inner tranquility that transcends any
personal qualities to achieve a perfect balance of its individual melodic,
rhythmic and harmonic elements. Albert Schweitzer, too, views the
Brandenburgs in metaphysical terms, unfolding with an incomprehensible
artistic inevitability in which the development of ideas transverses the whole of

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existence and displays the fundamental mystery of all things. Yet, despite the
philosophical depth of such analyses and the extraordinary density and logic of
Bach's conception that leads academics to fruitfully dissect his scores,
commentators constantly remind us that the Brandenburgs were not intended to
dazzle theorists or challenge intellectuals, but rather for sheer enjoyment by
musicians and listeners.

In his introduction to the Eulenburg

edition of the scores, Arnold Schering
notes that the concerto was not only the most popular form of instrumental
music in the late Baroque era, but also the primary vehicle of expression for
grand, sublime feeling, a role later to be assumed by the symphony.

Boyd notes that with the exception of the First, each Brandenburg follows the
convention of a concerto grosso, in which two or more solo instruments are
contrasted with a full ensemble, and where a slow movement in the relative
minor is bracketed by two fast movements, mostly structured as a ritornello
(Italian for "return") in which the opening tutti
(played by the full ensemble) reappears as a
formal marker between episodes of display by
the concertino (solo instruments) and again as a
conclusion, thus producing a psychologically
satisfying structure. (After all, it's only human
nature to seek the comfort of returning to and
dwelling in the familiar.) Wilhelm Fischer
further divides a traditional ritornello into a
motivic opening that establishes the key and
character of the work, a continuation of sequential repetition, and a cadential

Vivaldi and others who established the concerto grosso model used nuances of
texture, tone coloration and novel figurations to contrast the ensemble's
ritornello and the solo episodes. Bach, though, tends to fluently blend and
integrate them. Indeed, in his treatise on orchestration, Adam Carse notes that
Bach conceived his parts generically rather than in terms of specific instruments,
and distributed them impartially and largely interchangeably, such that all sink
into a common contrapuntal net without consideration of balance in the modern
sense of orchestration. Even so, some scholars assume that Bach customized the
Brandenburgs according to the forces the Margrave had available (after all, why
would he present a lavish gift that the Margrave couldn't use?). Hans Gnter-
Klein, though, correlated Prince Leopold's account books with the

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instrumentation of the Brandenburgs and
asserted that the scores reflect the salaried
musicians available at Cthen, and therefore
preserve a document of the musical practices
there. He concluded that the Brandenburgs
were written for performance there. Indeed,
Rifkin claims that the Margrave had a small
orchestra that lacked both the instruments and
sufficiently skilled players to cope with the
demands of the Brandenburgs' diverse and
difficult parts.

Thurston Dart calls Bach's presentation copy of the Brandenburgs a masterpiece

of calligraphy but of far less value as a musical source due to the many errors
that suggested haste. Fortunately, secondary sources exist to remedy such lapses,
notably copies made in 1760 by Frederich Penzel of earlier versions (now all
lost). It is generally assumed that all the Brandenburgs were selected from a
large body of Bach's existing concertos, some of which we know from admirers'
copies and Bach's own later arrangements for other instruments, although none
of the originals survives.

While Veinus traces the individual concertos to models by Telemann, Fasch,

Molter, Gaupner, Heinichen and others, Hutchings notes that the Brandenburgs
did not simply sum up his predecessors' work, as he did with chorales and
fugues, but rather comprise an extraordinary exploration of different
relationships of solo and tutti. Since the Brandenburg Concertos were never
meant to be played as a continuous set (which would have sidelined most of the
players and exhausted the listeners), their order is of little import, although there
was a certain logic for Bach's presentation copy to have led off with the most
elaborate and to have ended each half of the set with the comfort of strings. Yet
it seems apt to consider them in the approximate order of their composition.

in B-flat major for 2 violas de braccio, 2 violas da gamba,

violincello + continuo (violone and cembalo)

The last of the Brandenburg Concertos is often considered the

oldest, as its instrumentation conjures a 17th century English
consort of viols, similar scoring had been used by Bach in his earlier Weimar
cantatas, and its structure relies heavily upon both the ancient canon form and
the conservative Baroque gesture of a chugging bass of persistent quarter-notes.
Yet, typically, Bach combines a knowing salute to the past with
a bold leap into the future, raising the violas, customarily

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embedded in the continuo accompaniment, to solo status. The
unprecedented gesture was triply suitable the viola was Bach's
own favorite orchestral instrument (as he once put it, placing
him "in the middle of the harmony"), it was also the instrument
played by his patron Prince Leopold, and the Margrave's
orchestra was known to have employed two especially
accomplished violists.

Scholars assume that Bach only had enough forces at Cthen

for one player per part. Indeed, performances with full string
sections, or even large chamber ensembles, no matter how well
rehearsed, tend to blur the precisely articulated interplay of
buoyant rhythms and swamp the harpsichord, whose bright A viola da gamba
plucked overtones need to emerge from the depth of the strings.
Moreover, the nasal sound of violas da gamba (six-string bass viols held
between the legs) and a single violone are needed for bright, transparent middle
and bass lines that complement rather than thicken the tone of the featured
violas de braccio (hand-held violas comparable to current ones) and solo cello.
Similarly, modern substitutions of deeper and more powerful modern
instruments, including a double bass, unduly deepen the sonority and fuse the

In one sense, the work seems a concerto for two violas to display Bach's love of
his instrument and its full range of expressive possibilities. Yet, it is their
interplay, both with each other and with the cello and continuo, that
characterizes each of the three movements, thus exemplifying the claim of
Johann Nicolaus Forkel, Bach's first biographer, that Bach considered the
essence of a polyphonic composition to be a symbolic tonal discussion among
instruments, each presenting arguments and counterpoints, variously talking and
lapsing into silence to listen to the others.

Shorn of the violins' customary brilliance, the dark timbre suggests a harbinger
of the mystery and somber thoughts of the Romantic era to come. Indeed, Boyd
sees the instrumentation as an allegory of progress, as Bach elevates the then-
newest member of the string family to prominent status while relegating the
older viols to the background. Yet Bach ingeniously creates a compelling and
complex aural image of irresistible gaiety that arises out of and is enriched by its
seemingly melancholy components.

The sections of the first movement are closely integrated into a continuous flow
of vigorous thrust, led by the two violas in tight canon a mere eighth-note apart
during each of the six ritornellos, blending into a lively dialogue with the

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gambas during the five episodes, all over a persistent quarter-note continuo
rhythm. The second is a lovely, if somewhat quaint, meditation for violas and
cello. The finale is an irresistibly propulsive dance in 12/8 time with
astoundingly catchy primary and counter-melodies, in which Bach seems to
tease us as the violas constantly begin, abandon and resume canonic imitation.
Indeed, while Bach is reputed to lack humor, he manages to play an unintended
joke on those of us relegated to listening on record the violas constantly switch
parts but the difference is inaudible and thus impreceptible without the visual
clues in a concert. Perhaps out of respect for the limited stamina of his royal
soloist, after sitting out the adagio, the gamba parts of the finale are easy
accompaniment, leaving all the work to the violas and occasional fits of activity
from the cello.

in G major for 3 violins, 3 violas and 3 celli + continuo

(violone and cembalo)

Here, too, Bach explores string sonority, but with a richer

palette than in the Sixth. There are no solo instruments as such,
and Veinus considers the work more symphonic than a true concerto. Yet
Hutchings calls the Third the greatest stroke of originality in any concerto
grosso, due to Bach's handling of the same players in constantly evolving
groupings and solo flights to imply concertino and tutti by spreading, opposing,
unifying, concentrating and balancing their registers.

Rifkin aptly describes the first movement as a framework of homogenous

sonority which Bach varies through perpetual juxtaposition of different
sudivisions of the ensemble. The inventiveness of this approach emerges by
comparing the first movement of the Brandenburg version with Bach's rescoring
of it as the opening of a 1729 cantata augmented with horns, oboes, tailles (tenor
oboes) and a bassoon. The strings still dominate but the added instruments
emphasize cadences, add inner voices and underscore the harmony with long
held chords, thus making explicit what the original implies with far greater
impact. The third movement is in binary dance form, with its two
complementary sections each repeated.

Between them lies a puzzle that has perplexed scholars and challenged
performers. The second movement, labeled adagio, consists of two chords
forming a bare Phrygian cadence of the type that often links a slow middle
movement in the relative minor to a vivid major-key finale, but with an
intriguing sense of open expectancy. Here, the chords occur in the middle of a
page, so clearly no music was lost. Yet the remainder of the score is fully
detailed and presumably was intended as complete guidance to the Margrave's

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forces, as Bach had no realistic expectation of preparing a performance. What to

Several scholars note that Corelli and

other contemporaries inserted similar
bare cadences in their scores, and
Reiner, Casals, Klemperer and others
schooled in Romantic interpretation Violin staff of the Third Concerto autograph
the two-note adagio
play it unadorned in their recordings.
Yet when played literally it sounds far too short to serve as a needed respite
between two rollicking neighboring movements. Other scholars assume that it
must have been a conventional shorthand instruction that all performers of the
time would have understood to require embellishment or an improvised
interlude (even though the meaning has since been lost). Yet the question
remains as to which instruments would do this. In several recordings (Cortot,
Goberman, Horenstein, Ristenpart, Karajan, I Musici) the harpsichordist
ornaments the first or both chords with arpeggiated runs. Others (Sacher,
Richter, Paillard) go further, with the harpsichordist providing brief fantasies
recalling thematic material from the preceding movement. Yet the soft tinkling
of that instrument seems dwarfed by the sonority and at odds with the string
texture of the surrounding movements. (Sacher's and Paillard's engineers avoid
the former problem by cranking up the harpsichord volume for the passage to
unnatural levels.) Busch, Harnoncourt, Hogwood and Britten avoid both issues
by having their violinists embroider the chords.

Other recordings (Pommer and Pinnock) attempt to restore the usual formal
balance of three entire movements by having their violinists extemporize at
greater length. Still others extend the effect by inserting a slow movement from
one of Bach's other, and often more obscure, works. Thus, Dart uses the adagio
from a Sonata in G for violin and continuo, Munchinger the ruminative, delicate
Concerto # 15 for solo harpsichord (itself possibly an arrangement of a
Telemann piece), Koussevitzky the tragic sinfonia from the Cantata # 4, the
Brandenburg Consort the adagio from Bach's Violin Sonata in G, and Menuhin
an arrangement by Britten for violin, viola and continuo of the gracious,
mournful lento of Bach's organ Trio Sonata # 6 (although curiously Britten
omits all the embellishments found in the three-part organ score and didn't use
this movement in his own recording). While none of these seems wholly
satisfactory, they all present intriguing attempts to surmount the vexing snag
posed by Bach.

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in F major for 2 horns, 3 oboes, violino piccolo, first and
second violins, violas + continuo (bassoon, cello, violone
grosso and cembalo)

The only Brandenburg Concerto in four movements, the First

may appear to be the conventional fast-slow-fast form to which a final dance
section was added, but scholars trace a more complex origin, in which the first,
second and fourth movements comprised a "sinfonia" to introduce a 1713
Hunting Cantata and thus was more like a standard suite of the time. Boyd goes
further to speculate that to create the character of a concerto, Bach later added
the present third movement with its prominent violin solo, the short phrasing of
which suggests separate origin as a now-lost choral piece. (Bach later adapted
the third movement back to a choral setting to open a 1726 cantata.)

The overall orchestration is unusual. The sheer number of instruments gives the
work more of an orchestral than chamber character. Karl Geiringer calls it a
"concerto symphony." To expand the range of the sonority, Bach specifies in lieu
of his standard violone a "violone grosso" played an octave below the bass staff
(corresponding to the modern double bass) and in lieu of a solo violin a "violono
piccolo," an obsolete small violin with scordaturo tuning a major third above
notation and whose lighter bow, less resonant body and tighter string tension
yield a sweeter, lighter tone. Harnoncourt asserts that the instrument was chosen
purely for its tone color, rather than any technical reason. Indeed, Boyd notes
that Bach didn't exploit its higher range and that its reduced volume is
overwhelmed by the large ensemble. Bach himself used a regular violin in his
earlier sinfonia version.

Perhaps Bach led with this work to give his offering a strong start for a lazy
patron who might judge the set only by its opening. Yet, despite its immediate
appeal to conservative ears, each movement has a remarkable feature typical of
Bach's irrepressible sense of invention.

The first movement is four minutes of pure jaunty swaggering infectious elation,
yet there's an subtext of discomfort. The two natural horns appear to be making
their first solo appearance in a concerto. Yet, their
raucous sound (more strident than our more mellow
valved modern horns) disturbs the otherwise carefully-
balanced texture and their insistent bellowing hunting
calls disrupt the overall rhythm. Harnoncourt suggests
symbolic significance in that the horn players were not
part of the regular court orchestra. If so, their strident
sound suggests an unwanted guest.

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The second movement, slow and soft, is scored for the
full ensemble (sans horns) rather than the usual
reduced forces. The mournful melody is not only
traded in canon between the oboe and violino piccolo
but descends all the way down into the bass to
augment its standard role as pure accompaniment. The
early version (without the violono piccolo) balances
the solo oboe against all the violins for an earthier
tone, but Smith, for one, cites the complex
ornamentation in the score as suited for a single
performer. The melancholy mood is tinged with A natural horn

bitterness, as the harmony is flecked with dissonant

minor seconds. The most astounding touch is saved for the very end as each note
of a conventional descending bass is first supported by the oboes but then
cancelled by unexpected chords in the strings, resulting in Boyd's citation of a
"frozen harmony" with a remarkably dry 20th century sound.

The third movement is the closest approach to a standard concerto format,

although the violino piccolo, amid its florid solos, is given many emphatic
slashing triple-stopped figures, perhaps struggling to assert itself. As if to avoid
fatigue, the insistent 6/8 rhythm is broken by a two-bar adagio at measure 82 (of
120) and then resumes to the rollicking end.

Although the concerto proper appears to conclude at that point, Bach adds a set
of four dances in which all members of the ensemble are displayed a minuet
for the full band is heard four times, enfolding a trio for oboes and bassoon, a
Polacca for strings (absent from the 1713 sinfonia version) and a second trio for
horns and oboes. The overall structure, alternating the full minuet with the softer
interludes, evokes the ritornello form, yet there are a few surprises here, too in
the first trio the bassoon emerges from its role buried in the continuo, the polka
erupts into a jaunty triplet sprint and the second trio is in 2/4 time, although the
shift is barely apparent as the horns and oboes preserve the overall rustic mood.

in F major for "tromba," flute, oboe, violin + ripieno (first

and second violins, viola and violone) + continuo (cello,

Of the Brandenburgs, the Second is considered the closest to

the standard concerto grosso model, although more in the sense of its sound than
its structure. Hans-Joachim Schulz felt that it arose from Bach's love of
experimentation and the challenge of writing for a solo contingent of four

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similarly pitched instruments differentiated by their dissimilar means of tone
production. William Mann felt that Bach's intent was to explore their different
sonic coloration. Yet, as many have pointed out, Bach rarely writes idiomatic,
individualized parts that would exploit the unique capabilities of each
instrument, but rather tends to write abstractly while respecting their limitations.

Thus, the first movement, as analyzed by Boyd, is built not

upon schematic alteration of orchestral and solo sections but
rather upon a broad tonal structure with cadential landmarks.
Yet, the coloration is intense within the first minute alone we
hear sections of violin solo, violin and oboe, oboe and flute, and
flute and tromba, all separated by brief interjections of the
string ripieno.

The instrumentation, though, does present a fundamental

problem. Despite intensive research, scholars remain unsure
what Bach meant when he designated one of the solo
instruments a "tromba." While often taken to mean a trumpet in
F played a major fourth above its score notation, others point
out that Bach never wrote any other part for such an instrument,
that F is the natural key for horns rather than trumpets, and that A Baroque oboe

an authentic copy of the score and parts by Penzel specifies use

of either a trumpet or a hunting horn. Nor can any hint be gleaned from the
personnel available to Bach, as musicians routinely played several brass, wind
or string instruments. Indeed, while a trumpet overwhelms the other soloists
(especially the soft recorder), a horn (played a major fifth below the score) is
better balanced.

While most recordings use a modern trumpet, others take a variety of

approaches. Menuhin uses a softer piccolo trumpet, Harnoncourt a more mellow
natural trumpet, Enesco and Casals a soprano saxophone, and Dart a hunting
horn. All achieve a more natural balance among the solo instruments, especially
the gentle breathy recorder. Harnoncourt considers this a prime illustration of the
difference between the sounds Bach heard (and wrote for) and those of today,
which can distort his intentions.

Yet, however it sounds, the tromba aptly resides on the top staff, as it enjoys a
commanding position in the score. Its interjections provide shape and emphasis
to the first movement, in which the soloists jostle for control by progressively
appropriating the tutti theme. While the trumpet rests during the andante, a
lovely contemplation in which the other soloists constantly evolve a short,
simple theme over a walking bass, it launches the third movement with a fugue

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theme that it grudgingly shares with the others while reducing the orchestra to a
purely subsidiary (and often silent) supporting role. The role of the tromba
exemplifies Karl Geiringer's observation that Bach often likes to single out one
of the concertino members as its leader and protagonist and makes its part more
brilliant and technically exacting.

in G major for violin, 2 "flauti d'echo" + ripieno (first and

second violins, viola, cello, violine and cembalo)

The Fourth, too, presents a mystery of instrumentation for

performance. No one knows what Bach meant when he
specified "flauti d'echo" as two of the three solo instruments. Harnoncourt posits
that the term merely refers to echo effects in the second movement where the
flutes imitate violin figures and indeed most performances use standard flutes. In
his introduction to the authoritative Eulenburg score, Roger
Fiske notes that when Bach later transcribed the entire piece as
a harpsichord concerto in Leipzig, he designated the parts as
"flauti bec" (recorders) and indeed their softer timbre melds
well with the solo violin. (Ristenpart, Menuhin and Pearlman all
opt for recorders in their recordings.) Dart, though, asserted that
the intent was a flageolet, a type of shrill tin-whistle that was a
popular novelty of the time used to teach birds to sing and
which sounds an octave above the score, thereby keeping its
line consistently above the violin and clarifying the texture.
Smith, though, notes that there was no tradition of playing the
flageolet professionally and opts for soprano recorders (also
sounding an octave higher) which Marriner uses in his
recording; either way, the result is piercing, shrill and somewhat
tiring to hear through an entire piece. Baroque recorder

The prominence of the violin in the outer movements, and the extreme difficulty
of its part (more so than in Bach's three actual violin concertos), including
delirious extended sequences of extremely rapid notes, has led some to consider
the Fourth a violin concerto, although in the central andante it mostly plays with
the ripieno violins to support the flutes. Indeed, Mann notes that the first
movement looks forward to the structure of the classical and even romantic
concerto, as the opening tutti is an unusually long 82 measures (well over a
minute) and is not heard in its entirety again until the close, yielding to a central
section of intensive development ordered by repetitions of the opening G-A-B
three-note motif.

The lovely andante atypically employs the full ensemble, providing a richer

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foundation than the continuo that customarily accompanies the soloists in
middle movements. But it's the finale that has attracted the most attention. Boyd
hails it as a genuinely successful fusion, rather than a mere amalgam, of two
radically different forms the contrapuntal rigor of the fugue and the virtuoso
display of the concerto, a combination of gravitas and high spirits that shifts the
focus from the first to the last movement. Rifkin agrees and salutes it as the
most complex movement in the Brandenburgs and a stunning monument to
Bach's virtuosity, as the fugal exposition and episodes align with the concerto's
tutti and solo runs even as the contrasts among instruments reflect distinctions
between free and subject-derived thematic material. But technical classifications
aside, the finale simply brims with invention and high spirits and is utterly
thrilling to hear. Indeed, it creates so much rousing momentum that Bach slams
on the breaks with sudden rests three times before the final surge in an effort to
interrupt the flow and prepare for the finish.

in D major for flute, violin, cembalo + ripieno (violin, viola,

cello and violone)

The fifth Brandenburg is thought to have been the last written,

intended as a vehicle to show off the new Cthen harpsichord.
Bach presumably played the solo part himself; Philipp Spitta considered the part
to have demanded finger dexterity that no one else possessed at the time. The
Fifth is the most historically important of the Brandenburgs, as it is the earliest
known instance in which the harpsichord is elevated out of the role of continuo
accompaniment to solo status. Harnoncourt praises it as
employing "all the technical and tonal possibilities of this
instrument in such a masterly fashion that this work becomes at
the same time the beginning and climax of its category." Boyd,
though, views it as a prophetic combination of thematic
references and brilliant passagework in an improvisatory style
that paved the way to Mozart's perfection of the genre. In any
event, while the other Brandenburgs held little interest for the
following generations, the Fifth is the only one to have
circulated after Bach's death (in copies by others) as it spoke to
their interest in the emerging solo keyboard concerto.

The unusually lengthy first movement literally breaks the mold

of the old ritornello form, as the opening melody returns only in
Baroque bassoon
fragments and cedes to a long serene central section far more
developed and of greater emotional contrast than a normal episode. Throughout,
the harpsichord not only holds its own but keeps escaping its role as

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accompanist to override and grab the spotlight from the solo flute and violin.
But most remarkable of all is the cadenza. As if to emphasize its import, the
other instruments don't boldly lead up to the lengthy solo display as they would
in later concertos, but rather slow down and drop off, as if respectfully bowing,
turning away and receding before the royal presence of the majestic harpsichord.
An earlier version of the cadenza (known only in posthumous copies by others)
was 18 measures long and seems more suited to the scope of the surrounding
movement. The final version is 65 measures (about 3 minutes, to which could be
added the prior 16 bars in which the solo thoroughly dominates the texture) and
runs an astounding gamut of frantically forceful and concentrated figurations in
rapid 16th-, triplet 16th- and 32nd-notes, ending in a hugely suspenseful
chromatic sequence that leads to the final orchestral statement of the principal
melody which has gone unheard since the opening.

The reflective second movement (marked "affettuoso") displays a more subtle

formal daring by suggesting the solo and tutti divisions of the outer movements
through changes in intensity as the harpsichord overflows the bounds of
accompaniment with rapid figures that thicken the texture and imply shifts in
dynamics beyond those marked in the score. The canonic basis of the second
movement emerges more fully in the fugal finale, in which the harpsichord not
only is a full participant an gigue begun by the violin and flute, but soon
dominates the entire ensemble with dense 16th-note passages and trilled held

There had been recordings of

individual Brandenburg Concertos
(the earliest seem to have been by Goosens and the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra
in 1923 and Hberg and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra in 1925, both,
curiously, of the Third). Yet it was with an integral
1935 recording of all six that the Brandenburgs
came into prominence. Adolph Busch was one of
Germany's most prominent violinists and its busiest
soloist and chamber musician. Although Aryan and
thus not personally at risk, he was sickened over the
rising tide of repression and emigrated, not quietly
but with strident denunciations of the fascist regime,
vowing to return only once all the Nazi leaders had
been hanged. As expressed by Andr Tubeuf in a
deeply moving tribute, Busch left everything
material behind, even his prized Stradivarius violin, yet took with him into exile
something far more precious. In Italy, England and finally America, along with

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his son-in-law Rudolf Serkin, he became a fervent missionary for the eternal
truths of German culture and planted and nurtured the spirit of Bach throughout
the free world. As one
of his first steps, he
formed the Busch
Chamber Players
(comprised nearly half
of women an
extreme rarity at the
time and including
such famous soloists as Aubrey Brain on horn, Marcel and Louis Moyse on
flutes and, of course, Busch on violin and Serkin onpiano). In October 1935 they
recorded the complete Brandenburgs (as well as all four Suites for Orchestra). A
hugely successful best-seller, this was one of the most important recordings ever
made, as it brought Bach to the attention of a world that had been content to
relegate him to the dry bins of history and academic theory. Infused with
humanity and spirituality, yet purged of romantic sentimentality, the Busch
readings present the music in all its integrity and genius. While using modern
instruments and a piano rather than a harpsichord, the Busch Brandenburgs are
no mere relics. They remain vastly gratifying in their own right as well as a
timeless touchstone of selfless devotion to the essential soul of Bach's immortal

Despite its renown, the Busch series was not the first full set of Brandenburgs to
be recorded by a single ensemble. That honor goes to Alfred Cortot and his
Orchestre de lcole Normale de Musique, Paris, waxed in May (the Fifth)
and June (the rest) 1932 (Koch or EMI CDs). If the Busch set was a labor of
affection and respect, then Cortots
was one of heartfelt passion and
adventure. His orchestra was a group
of advanced students (possibly
augmented by faculty) at a
conservatory he had founded in 1919
and the grooves of his records fairly
burst with their ardent sense of
exploration. The cohesion tends to be
quite coarse and the horn and trumpet
playing wildly inaccurate, but the players raw enthusiasm, far removed from the
polished professional presentations of the next three decades, heralds the
unruly (and authentic) sounds recaptured in more recent, historically-informed
outings, as do the overall tempos (ten minutes faster than Buschs). Famed

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primarily as a deeply poetic, if technically insecure, pianist, Cortot also was a
pioneering conductor, responsible for the French premieres of Wagner operas
and many contemporary works. His Brandenburg readings are heavily
romanticized, with emphatic pauses and slowdowns to signal cadences and other
structural markers, bold dynamic swells to shape phrasing, minimal trills and
other ornamentation, and occasional rescoring (notably string pizzicato). In his
notes to the Koch edition, Teri Noel Towe attributes these "unforgiveable ...
interpretive shenanigans" to a Wagnerian sense of a partnership of equals
between a (then-) eclipsed composer in desperate need of modern presentation
and a headstrong interpreter demanding to impose his own personality. Perhaps
most remarkable is Cortot's Fifth, in which his colleague Jacques Thibaud gives
such a strongly-underlined and assertive yet ineffably sweet reading of his part
as to shift the perspective into a de facto violin concerto at least until the
cadenza, played by Cortot on the piano (rather than the harpsichord he used for
all the other concertos) with deeply human feeling. While Cortots highly
personal touches diverge further from our modern notions of authentic Baroque
performance style than any other recording, the overall impression is one of
constant vitality and discovery that still resonates through the many years.

Also of considerable interest is the post-World War II set by Serge

Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Pearl CDs), performed
not by a chamber-sized pickup group but by an
established full symphonic orchestra. Taking advantage
of the richer complement of musicians, the First and
Third sound like they were played by far larger string
sections than Busch or Cortot used, with solo parts
doubled (or more), although the forces are pared back
to customary size in the other concertos (and all the
slow movements). The result of the more massive
sonority is a blurring of textures and ornamentation,
with keyboard continuo omitted altogether (except, of
course, for the Fifth, featuring a wonderfully expressive piano solo by a young
Lukas Foss). The pacing can push the boundaries of convention, as when the
third movement of the First sprints only to contrast with an exceptionally
relaxed minuet finale. Once set, though, tempos are held steadfast, reflecting
both Koussevitzkys view of music as a disciplined rite (an approach fully
compatible with Bachs religious inspiration) and Christopher Howells cogent
observation that the old style of Bach playing featured an unforced swinging
motion that over a long span gives a sense of timeless inevitability. Indeed,
theres a pervasive sense of natural, artless momentum here, even without
particular touches (although the calm middle movements are especially earnest,

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with the Sixth downright ravishing). The only curious feature is Koussevitzkys
use of the brief but mournful sinfonia from Bachs Cantata # 4 (Christ lag in
Todesbanden) ("Christ lay by death enshrouded") for the adagio interlude of the
Third, which seems a bit out of character as it brings the bouncy work to an utter
halt rather than a thoughtful pause. Koussevitzky's reading of Bach is of the old
school straightforward, persistent and smooth yet modern, as he avoids
romantic clichs with minimal vibrato, steady pacing and constant dynamics. In
a sense, he melds Buschs fundamentally respectful discretion with tantalizing
hints of Cortots tangible spirit of outgoing commitment.

A 1949 set led by Fritz Reiner gave a final push toward

the explosion of modern interest by populating the
nameless "Chamber Group" of his Brandenburgs
(Columbia LPs) with American superstars, including
Julius Baker on flute, Robert Bloom on oboe, William
Lincer on viola, Leonard Rose on cello. Egos were
minimized by spreading the solo turns Sylvia Marlowe
and Fernando Valente traded harpsichord roles and the
movements of the Fourth feature different flautists. In
keeping with Reiner's reputation as a precisionist, the playing throughout is
meticulous and refined, without ever becoming fussy or precious. Nor is it
boringly uniform or self-consciously rigid, amply projecting the personality of
each movement, with an ear-splitting trumpet in the Second and unabashedly
moving from a heartfelt middle movement to a rollicking conclusion of the
Sixth. The only seeming romantic indulgence an extreme slowdown at the end
of the first movement of the Third is logically convincing, as it leads smoothly
into the two lingering transitional chords that comprise the entirety of Reiner's
andante. Marlowe's measured harpsichord cadenza in the Fifth is enlivened with
a striking change in register for the middle portion. But beyond the details,
Reiner's readings point the way to restoring a sense of sheer musicianship
which, more than any other element, is all that is needed to convey the glory of

Aside from these full sets, we have several individual Brandenburgs of

historical significance.

Although Arturo Toscanini recorded only a single slice of Bach in the studio,
we have a 1938 NBC Symphony concert of the Brandenburg # 2 that's crude,
brusque and with no pretense of style. Treating the polyphony as if it were a
straggler from the classical era, all solos stand out from the fabric with raised
volume, although the trumpet generally overwhelms the texture (and sounds if it

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adds a mute for some, but not all, of its accompanying
figures) and the poor bassoon is mostly lost altogether. The
andante survives largely intact, possibly because Toscanini
leaves his three soloists and a cello on their own. A
significant contrast is found in a far more pliant broadcast of
the Brandenburg # 5 by the same orchestra only three years
earlier under Frank Black with pianist Harold Samuel (Koch
CD), thus attesting that Toscanini's only Brandenburg wasn't
a rare lapse in preparation or taste but a conscious approach and an unexpected
disappointment, in strong contrast to his meltingly beautiful 1946 studio Air on
the G String in which the lines blend exquisitely and each phrase swells with
subtle dynamic inflection.

Wilhelm Furtwngler, too, recorded the Air on the G

String (in 1929) with a style equally removed from
accepted Baroque practice, yet with a clear difference his
is far slower and more spiritual, a deeply moving
meditation rather than a perfunctory abstraction. His 1930
Berlin Philharmonic recording of the Brandenburg # 3
follows suit with a rich, full string section in which
balances and dynamics constantly underscore the logical
unfolding of the first movement. Furtwngler considered
Bach as subjective as any Romantic composer, but self-contained with all
emotion embedded deeply within his work. With subtle variations of tempo and
volume, including an entire pianissimo section and two gradual buildups,
Furtwngler eschews Bach's sudden shifts by enhancing the constant sequencing
of repeated short figures and creating tangible and meaningful suspense, all
without disrupting the fundamental uniformity of the texture. It's an
interpretation, to be sure, but one that fully respects the spirit of the original. Far
different are his 1950 Vienna Philharmonic concerts of the Third and Fifth
Brandenburgs (Recital Records LP) measured, solemn, richly romanticized
and as far from idiomatic as can be imagined, seemingly closer to Wagner than
anything Baroque. Yet on their own terms they are magnificent, infused with
deeply personal feeling every phrase is individually shaped amid vast shifts of
tempos and dynamics, with exquisitely tender lyrical passages bracketed by
emphatic transitions underscored with imposing piano chords. At the keyboard
in the Fifth is Furtwngler himself, who provides a somewhat crude but
profoundly moving cadenza. While disquieting to those who crave historical
authenticity, these fascinating interpretations typify Furtwnglers irrepressible
urge to internalize and reconceive all music on his own highly personal terms
an extreme example, perhaps, yet a compelling souvenir of the manner in which

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later generations tended to mold Bach to conform with their own artistic

Leopold Stokowski led the Philadelphia

Orchestra and harpsichordist Fernando
Valenti in what could be the most
unabashedly romantic Fifth on record, full of
emphatic slowdowns to mark transition points
and endings and a very slow (but undeniably
moving) middle movement that distends
Bach's affettuoso to a lethargic extreme.
Taken on its own terms it's a lovely and
heartfelt performance in which the rich
instrumentation becomes seductive, the
committed playing of the violin and flute solos are sincere and the harpsichord
lurks teasingly in the deep background until it emerges to assert itself in the
cadenza. While hardly authentic, it's refreshingly chaste when compared to
Stokowski's syrupy orchestral arrangements of other Bach works, including
three organ Chorale Preludes, which filled out the original LP.

Like Furtwngler, Pablo Casals approached Bach philosophically, yet more

personally. His daily routine began by playing two of Bach's preludes and
fugues and a cello suite, from which he took constant inspiration. He felt that
Bach's music expressed all the feelings of the
human soul, and considered the St. Matthew
Passion to be the most sublime masterpiece in
all of music. Casals was one of the very few
conductors, and certainly the first, to record
the complete Brandenburgs twice in 1950
with his Prades Festival Orchestra
(Columbia LPs) and in 1964-6 with the
Marlboro Festival Orchestra (Sony CDs).
Incidentally, don't be fooled by their names
into assuming that these were amateur ensembles both were extraordinary
groups of top-flight professionals who would come together to study and play
over the summer the cello section of the Marlboro Festival Orchestra included
Mischa Schneider (of the Budapest Quartet), Hermann Busch (Busch Quartet)
and David Soyer (Guarneri Quartet). As recalled by Bernard Meillat, while
Casals appreciated research into Baroque playing, he viewed Bach as timeless
and universal, and insisted that an interpreter's intuition was far more important
than strict observance of esthetic tradition. Thus, he shunned old instruments

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and used a piano rather than the harpsichord
heard on every other stereo Brandenburg simply
because he found the resources of the piano to
be far more expressive. He was also practical,
substituting a soprano saxophone in the 1950
Second, not for any artistic reason but simply
because the specified trumpet couldn't keep up
with his breakneck pace, the fastest on record.
While his tempos can be extreme, Casals'
precise phrasing and subtle inflection constantly
enliven his work, which emerges as warm, rich and intensely human not
surprisingly, the very qualities that distinguished his celebrated performances as
the most influential of all cellists.

Among many complete sets of the Brandenburgs using modern instruments, I've
enjoyed those by Jascha Horenstein and the
Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Vox, 1954),
Paul Sacher and the Chamber Orchestra of
Basel (Epic, 1956), Hermann Scherchen and
the Vienna Symphony Orchestra
(Westminster, 1957), Yehudi Menuhin and
the Bath Festival Chamber Orchestra (EMI,
1959), Karl Munchinger and the Stuttgart
Chamber Orchestra (London, 196X), Otto
Klemperer and the Philharmonia (EMI,
1962), Karl Ristenpart and the Chamber
Orchestra of the Saar (Nonesuch, 1966), Benjamin Britten and the English
Chamber Orchestra (London, 1968), Jean Franois Paillard and the Paillard
Chamber Orchestra (RCA, 1972) and Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin
Philharmonic (DG). Among them, a few
highlights. Scherchen leads a particularly
leisurely First that seems somewhat emasculated,
with beautiful balances, tamed horns, smooth
layering of sound and dances that seamlessly
glide into one another quite surprising for a
conductor so thoroughly versed in modern music,
but perhaps an entirely appropriate attempt to
restore the original intent of appealing to the most
admiring instincts in a potential patron whose
mores were saturated in the leisurely courtly pleasures of nobility. Menuhin is
the most leisurely of the lot (110 minutes total, compared to a standard 100 or so

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for the older crowd and 90+ for the moderns), but enlivened with heartfelt
expression, in keeping with his style as a famed solo violinist. Klemperer seems
as straight-forward as could be imagined, yet his trademark sobriety serves to
demonstrate that these works are so filled with intrinsic merit as to need no extra
interpretive help to communicate their message to modern listeners. So, too,
with Britten, Munchinger and Karajan, who adds his trademark gloss and
precision to a richer, massed sonority that breathes ease and serenity, especially
in the string concertos (#s 3 and 6). To complement his lovely pacing and sweet
tone, Sacher's harpsichord is especially prominent, as if to emphasize the then-
unfamiliar period feel. My favorite among them is the Ristenpart, for three
reasons it was the first set of Brandenburgs I ever bought (probably for its
budget price $4 meant a lot to me back then), it had wonderfully witty gatefold
cover art by Roger
Hane that helped
deflate the prevalent
image of a bewigged,
prehistoric relic with
nothing to say to the
rock generation, and
because in retrospect
its lean textures and
vivid recording
heralded the genuine Baroque style and sonority that had only begun to emerge.
(The somewhat crude Horenstein set, from a decade earlier, featured a similarly
spare sonority before any of the authentic instrument versions and thus was way
ahead of its time. A clear beneficiary of the developing trend, Paillard takes his
cue, if not his instruments, from the historically-informed fashion with a bright,
thin sound.)

The notes to the Menuhin set (which boast of such recording "tricks" as miking
the harpsichord from below in order to mask its characteristic extraneous noises)
conclude with the absurd "hope that we have presented a definitive recording
that will outlast all the rest." Fortunately, that didn't happen, as the next decade
brought a fabulous bounty that has immeasurably enriched our understanding of
the Brandenburgs.

While standing
on their own
musical merit, a credible rationale for performances of the Brandenburg
Concertos with full orchestras and/or modern instruments is that Bach had fully
exploited the forces available in his time and would gladly have embraced the

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greater resources of the modern era. Yet, the fact remains that Bach lived when
he did, heard sounds far different from ours, and conceived his work on that
basis. The vast majority of stereo Brandenburgs attempt to varying degrees to
evoke the aesthetics of Bach's time to replicate the way he intended his work to
be presented.

A 1964 set by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus Wein

(Telefunken) claimed to be the first on authentic instruments. Perhaps as a
function of its historical importance, in his accompanying notes, Harnoncourt
took great pains to justify his efforts to recreate an authentic Baroque sound. His
foundation is composer Paul Hindemith,
whose 1922-27 Kammermusik was a set of
seven concertos intended to invoke the spirit
of the Brandenburgs, and who insisted that
Bach delighted in balancing the weight and
sound of the stylistic media at his disposal
rather than regarding the limited resources of
his era as a hindrance. Harnoncourt goes on
to reject the then-prevalent traditional view
that old instruments were merely an imperfect
preliminary stage in the development of modern ones, insisting instead that their
essence lies in a completely different (but equally valid) relationship of sound
and balance. He notes that every "improvement" has to be paid for with a
deterioration, and that the evolution of instruments suits composers' changing
demands and audiences' changing taste. He catalogues the different sonorities of
the instruments Bach composed for overall, they were quieter, sharper, more
colorful, with richer overtones and more distinctive sonorities; in particular, the
harpsichord was louder, more intense and occupied the central place in
ensembles. He also notes that Baroque concert venues were of stone and marble
with high ceilings, contributing far more resonance and blending of sound than
modern settings of absorbent wood and carpet. The recordings themselves have
a reedy, thinner sound than most others strings (using only one player per part)
are far less prominent and the winds and brass have a strong midrange presence
that tends to meld their sounds.

A 1967 set by Karl Richter and the Mnchener Bach-Orchester (Archiv)

followed suit with a larger ensemble, richer sound and somewhat quicker
pacing. Richter, too, felt compelled to defend his historically-informed practices
in companion notes, in which he emphasized the importance of phrasing in the
sense of shaping and accentuating a theme and its counterpoint; as an example,
he cites a sequence of four sixteenth notes that must be given sinew to prevent

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the notes from becoming mechanical and
meaningless. He further insisted that even
though Bach set everything out precisely, a valid
performance demands tonal and poetic
imagination. He characterized his approach as
both academic and romantic. Even so, his
recordings seem relatively straight-forward with
few touches that seem in any way odd or
iconoclastic, but perhaps this impression is a
tribute to the success of the retro pioneers' work
in making us accustomed to a genuine Baroque sound and stripping their
recordings of the novelty they once had.

Several sets of original instrument recordings continued the trend by combining

formidable scholarship with captivating performance.

One of the first was by Max Goberman and the

New York Sinfonietta. Although played on
modern instruments (aside from a harpsichord),
the standard Brandenburgs are supplemented with
several additional tracks of earlier versions the
original adagio of the First without the violino
piccolo and abrasive harmonies; a second trio of
the First with a different accompanying part for
violins instead of oboes; and the shorter original
harpsichord cadenza of the Fifth. While the performance is somewhat routine,
the occasional rough playing contributes to the spirit of adventure and there are
a few especially nice touches, including a soft, sweet trumpet that blends well
into the Second.

Goberman's approach was taken a significant step further in a 1984 set by Max
Pommer and the Neues Bachisches Collegium Musicum Leipzig (Capriccio),
who devoted an entire extra LP to alternate versions of four concertos the
three-movement Sinfonia of # 1, the hunting-horn variant of # 2, the later full-
orchestra sinfonia version of the first movement of # 3 and the predecessor to #
5 with the short harpsichord cadenza together with notes that detail the
differences and their significance.

Thurston Dart was famed both as a harpsichordist and musicologist. His

seminal 1954 Interpretation of Music combined searching scholarship and
fervent advocacy to urge both performers and listeners to understand the
sonorities and styles of the past. He concluded:

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Above all, the written text must never be
regarded as a dead laboratory specimen;
it is only sleeping, though both love and
time will be needed to awaken it. But
love and time will be wasted without a
sense of tradition and of historical
continuity, and these are not to be
inherited nor are they easily acquired.
Music is both an art and a science; like
every art and every science it has no enemy save ignorance.

Dart followed his own counsel by preparing a new edition of the Brandenburgs
for a 1971 recording with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in
the Fields (Philips), which became his legacy Dart died during the recording
sessions. The performances are all based on the Penzel copies of earlier versions
of the concertos rather than the presentation score. While some differences are
slight, others are quite striking (such as omission of the third movement and
polonaise from the First and the use of the screechy soprano recorders
throughout the Fourth), but all are based on thorough knowledge of the
conventions of Bach's time and are supported by detailed notes that explain and
justify the sources and rationales. Wonderfully stylish, the set perpetuates the
full force of Dart's love and understanding of these works.

All these sets paved the way for those that predominate nowadays, boasting
those, I can

wholeheartedly recommend the English Concert led by Trevor Pinnock

(Archiv, 1982), I Musici (Philips, 1984), The Academy of Ancient Music led
by Christopher Hogwood (Oiseau-Lyre, 1984), the Brandenburg Consort led
by Roy Goodman (Hyperion, 1991), and the Boston Baroque led by Martin
Pearlman (Telarc, 1993). Each is fabulous, and to cite one as definitive or even
preferable is impossible my own favorite among them invariably is the one

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I've heard most recently. All are crisp, brisk, perky and vividly recorded to
highlight the fascinating sonority of the Baroque instruments and the tangible
energy of the players. The Pinnock tends to dominate lists of critical favorites,
but along with the Pearlman seems the most generic, although wholly idiomatic.
I Musici has a rather traditional, sweet, string-based, blended sonority that falls
easily on ears accustomed to modern orchestras, and informs the overall
buoyancy and verve of its playing with a special balletic grace. For the more

adventurous, Goodman thrills with especially expressive phrasing and

kaleidoscopic highlighting of lean textures. Hogwood (like Marriner/Dart) plays
the earlier versions and opts for especially edgy, and at times strident, textures.
The most radical account comes from Musica Antiqua Kln led by Reinhard
Goebel (Archiv, 1986-7), with aggressive inflections and, tearing through the
entire set in 86 minutes, his tempos are often reckless, with the finale of their
Third and the opening of their Sixth insanely so; while undoubtedly intended as
idiomatic, their haste seems idiosyncratic, or perhaps just idiotic. In a sense,
though, despite abundant scholarship, prodigious talent and compelling vigor,
none of these is truly authentic Bach often complained about the quality of his
musicians, and so it's doubtful that he ever heard any performances as
accomplished as these except, perhaps, in his dreams.

And speaking of dreams, like all great music

the Brandenburgs have the remarkable power
to conjure different imagery in the mind of
each listener. Although album art tends to be
generic and "safe," surely the most bizarre
association of all the Brandenburg recordings
emerges from the CD by the Concerto
Italiano led by Rinaldo Alessandrini (Naive
CD), which pairs their fine, zesty
performance with a shot of a deer peering out
the window of parking garage ramp. What

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could that possibly be intended to mean?

One more oddity the 'Sixties bestowed not only authenticity but its opposite
jazz arrangements of Bach from the Loussier
Trio, the Swingle Singers and a Brandenburg
Third by Walter Carlos as the final selection
on his Switched-On Bach LP (Columbia,
1968). The album notes assert a rightful place
in a tradition begun by Mozart, who had
arranged Bach fugues for string trio. They
further claim the suitability of the textural
clarity inherent in synthesized electronic
sounds to enhance the Baroque traits of crisp
sonority, terraced dynamics and the high
relief of different voices. Yet, the Third is built upon subtle interplay within the
deliberately restricted range of string sound, here discarded in favor of sharp
contrasts among brash plinks, squawks and clarion outbursts of various strident
waveforms, underpinned by overwhelming bass. The second movement,
described as "an improvisation of virtuoso electronic effects" is a manic cartoon
soundtrack that invokes an intensely private trippy hallucination rather than
anything to do with the nominal subject. While aspiring to be "musicologically
faithful to Bach" and "a respectful amalgam of old and new that leads into a
hopeful and interesting musical future," I'm not sure Bach really is in need of
such radical help to prove his timeless universality to future generations.

There are many, many other performances of the Brandenburgs, with the
promise of yet more to come. I can truthfully say that I've never heard one that
fails to convey Bach's dazzling invention and a sense of sheer delight. So even
those not mentioned here should be just fine. Indeed, their sheer number attests
to the prescience of Albert Schweitzer's prediction years before the
Brandenburgs first appeared on record that they "should become popular
possessions in the same sense as Beethoven's symphonies."

When all is said and done, the Brandenburg Concertos are so intrinsically
resourceful, inspired and vibrant that any moderately competent performance is
bound to impart their essence. Even though Bach toiled as a humble servant who
saw his music treated as a trivial passing relic, his brilliantly ingenious
Brandenburg Concertos continue to enthrall countless performers and listeners
nearly three centuries after he hopefully sent them off to the Margrave and then
returned to his duties.

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Primary sources for this article were Malcolm Boyd's monograph entitled,
simply enough, Bach
- The Brandenburg
University Press,
1993) and the
extensive notes to
the original LP
editions of the
recordings of Richter (by Richter and Fred Hamel DG Archiv LP 2708 013),
Harnoncourt (by Harnoncourt Telefunken LP SHWT 9459/60-A) and
Marriner/Dart (by Dart and Erik Smith Philips LP 6700 045). Also insightful
were Abraham Veinus' The Concerto (Doubleday, 1945), Arthur Hutchings' The
Baroque Concerto (Norton, 1965), Adam Carse's The History of Orchestration
(Dover, 1964), Ronald Taylor's Furtwngler on Music (Scolar Press, 1991), and
notes to the recordings of Busch (by Andr Tubeuf, EMI References LP 2C 151-
43067/8), Sacher (by Karl Geiringer, Epic LP SC-6008), Pommer (by Hans-
Joachim Schulze Capriccio LP C 75058/1-3), Ristenpart (by Joshua Rifkin
Nonesuch LP HB-73006), Klemperer (by William Mann Angel LP 3627B),
Goberman (by Joseph Braunstein Odyssey LP 32 26 0013), Hogwood (by
Hogwood Oiseau-Lyre CD 414 187) and Pinnock (by Hans Gnter-Klein
DG Archiv CD 423 492-2), and the introductions to the individual Eulenburg
scores (by Roger Fiske and Arnold Schering).

Copyright 2008 by Peter Gutmann

For a note about the illustrations, please click here.

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copyright 1998-2008 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.

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