BACH’S COMPLETE BRANDENBURGS
ERIC WYRICK leader and violin soloist (pictured)
Members of the NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Surrender to the irresistible charm and propulsive energy of the beloved Brandenburgs. By turns exuberant, grave, tender and resolute, each of the six works reveals a different facet of Bach’s genius. As in the composer’s day, concertmaster Eric Wyrick leads with his bow.
BACH Brandenburg Concertos Nos 1–6
Peerless and ornate; each is scored for a different combination of instruments, creating a kaleidoscopic variety of textures and moods. NJSO players shine in solo roles.
Listen to Music Clips:
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Thu, May 17 at 1:30 PM New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark
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Fri, May 18 at 8:00 PM Richardson Auditorium in Princeton
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Sat, May 19 at 8:00 PM Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank
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Sun, May 20 at 3:00 PM State Theatre New Jersey in New Brunswick
Singalong Fun—Thu, May 17, one hour before the concert
Come early and sing along to an entertaining selection of song favorites.
Talkback—Sat, May 19, after the concert
NJSO Behind the Scenes: A lot of activity happens before the first note plays. COO Susan Stucker and Director of Artistic Operations Kristin Orlando describe their work to help make the music happen.
This weekend’s concerts are generously sponsored by Investors Foundation.
BACH: The Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046–1051
Johann Sebastian Bach
Born: March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany
Died: July 28, 1750, in Leipzig, Germany
World Premiere: undocumented; possibly at the Cöthen Court in 1721.
NJSO Premiere: No. 1 and No. 4: 1987–88 season; Hugh Wolff conducted. No. 2: 1996–97 season; Jan Wagner conducted. No. 3: 1969–70 season; Henry Lewis conducted. No. 5: 1978–79 season; Thomas Michalak conducted. No. 6: 1990–91 season; Anthony Newman conducted.
The town of Cöthen is approximately 60 miles north of Weimar and west of Leipzig. During the early 18th century, it was the political center of the wealthy house of Anhalt-Cöthen. Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen was a great music lover who played viola da gamba, violin and harpsichord. Upon reaching his maturity in 1715, he set about building up his court orchestra. When Bach joined Leopold’s musical staff as Kapellmeister in 1717, the prince employed 18 musicians. Cöthen’s orchestra was then one of the largest and finest in Northern Europe.
Early in 1719, Prince Leopold sent Bach to Berlin, probably to negotiate the purchase of a new harpsichord. Bach probably encountered Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg on that journey. The Margrave, uncle to the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I, evidently collected concertos, for there were nearly 200 in his private library at his death. After hearing Bach play, he asked him to compose some concertos.
At this stage, Bach was known primarily as a performer. He had, thus far, composed almost exclusively for solo instruments and small ensembles with voices. The six concertos he sent to Christian Ludwig in 1721 were likely his first orchestral works.
Having little prior experience writing such compositions as the Margrave requested, Bach composed for his court orchestra at Cöthen, experimenting with a different solo group in each concerto. Unfortunately, the Margrave's instrumental resources were more modest than those of Prince Leopold. Although Christian Ludwig earned himself a measure of immortality through Bach's dedication, he never had the works performed in his own court.
The letters BW” stand for Bach Werke Verzeichnis, or “Catalogue of Bach’s Works,” by Wolfgang Schmieder (1901–90), a German music librarian who first undertook an exhaustive bibliographical study of Bach’s compositions and compiled a comprehensive thematic catalogue identifying every known work. Each of the Brandenburg Concertos has a different BWV number. Sometimes these numbers are referred to as a “Schmieder listing,” after the catalogue’s author.
A WORD ON PERFORMANCE PRACTICE
The instruments of Bach’s day were different from modern instruments. Brass instruments did not yet have valves. Trumpeters and horn players used “natural” instruments whose pitches were restricted to the natural overtone series, making performance of chromatic music exceedingly difficult. As for the winds: oboes were fairly close to the modern version, but the newer transverse flutes were only beginning to replace recorders. Even the violins, violas, cellos and basses would have sounded different, because the strings were then made of cat gut. Modern wire strings yield a brighter, louder sound.
Over the past three quarters of a century, musicians and scholars have devoted considerable research and experimentation to the ideas of historically informed performance practice. To what extent do we try to execute what we believe were the composer’s intentions? Is this music to be performed on so-called “original” instruments (or modern replicas of early instruments), or is it acceptable to play the music on modern instruments?
There is room in our world for both approaches, and for areas of compromise between two schools of thought. This weekend’s performances adopt an ecumenical approach. “We are presenting a ‘survey’ of performance practices,” explains Concertmaster Eric Wyrick. “For the Third, First and Second Brandenburgs, we are taking a more symphonic approach. The other three, we are performing in a more historically informed fashion.”
Most of the instruments are modern, but there are nods to the early music movement. In performing the Third Brandenburg for full strings with brief solo episodes (rather than for the nine strings that Bach specified), Wyrick and the Orchestra pay homage to the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who did so much to help popularize Bach’s music in the early decades of the 20th century. Casals’s version for an expanded ensemble is not historically informed, but it still delivers the magic of this immortal music. Ultimately, it is the greatness of Bach’s writing that brings the Brandenburg Concerti vividly alive for performers and audiences alike.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048
Duration: 10 minutes
For the third concerto, Bach specified three players each on violin, viola and cello. These groups allow for fascinating visual as well as musical counterpoint. Sometimes each section plays in unison, other times in three-part harmony. Consequently, at any given moment, from one to nine individual parts may sound. In performance, one can actually see the musical material being passed from one group to another. The NJSO is performing it with full strings, with occasional solo passages peppered throughout.
With its consistent anapest rhythm [short–short–long], the first movement maintains a motoric consistency throughout. Despite the almost unrelieved density of its texture, it is melodic and sometimes even vocal. Structurally, it is like a da capo aria. Bach uses a considerable amount of unison writing.
The most unusual and controversial aspect of the third Brandenburg is the two chords that separate its outer movements. Were they intended to be music’s briefest slow movement? Or was Bach encouraging an opportunity for the first violinist to improvise a cadenza? Modern performances favor the latter approach, providing a transition to the whirlwind rollercoaster ride that closes the concerto. The spirited vigor of Bach’s music still pleases. As beloved and familiar as an old friend, this music is as fresh today as it was nearly 300 years ago.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BWV 1049
Duration: 17 minutes
The Fourth Concerto is the best example of a true concerto grosso. Its small group, the concertante, consists of violin and two recorders. The larger ripieno (accompanying) group comprises strings and basso continuo. A lively dialogue between soloists and ripieno develops the simple motivic material in a most ingenious manner. Bach’s uncanny sense of variation and balance makes all three movements a delight.
Bach used the term “echo flutes” in his autograph. The recorders tend to dominate the solo violin in the first movement, with the exception of one brilliant violin passage in 32nd notes. It is the lovely E-minor Andante, however, that presents us with the best sense of expressive echoes, with the recorders providing intimate asides after each phrase. Listening to this movement, we can understand more easily how Baroque audiences were moved to tears by the affective power of music.
Interestingly, the slow movement concludes on another indecisive cadence, harmonically analogous to the mysterious two chords separating the outer movements of the Third Brandenburg (both cadences are in the ancient Phrygian mode). This time, however, the chords are more clearly transitional and the ensemble proceeds attacca (without pause) to the finale.
A long, imitative tutti (full ensemble) section opens the last movement. Violin is the first member of the concertante group to enter, and indeed takes the lead for most of the movement: this is the solo violin’s opportunity to shine. Bach’s dazzling violin cadenza reminds us what superb players he had available in Cöthen.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major, BWV 1046
Duration: 20 minutes
The First Brandenburg Concerto boasts the most lavish scoring in the set: two horns, three oboes, bassoon, three violins, viola, cello and basso continuo.
One of the violins is designated violino piccolo, a smaller Baroque instrument that was usually tuned a fourth higher than the full size violin; Bach wrote for it tuned a minor third higher. Most modern performances use a full-size violin for this solo part. The NJSO performs it with full strings.
Musical scholars believe that the First Concerto is one of the earlier Brandenburgs, possibly reworked from an earlier composition that did not feature any solo groups. Bach may have been taking a bow to the Margrave of Brandenburg by including the salutary horns in a ceremonial, fanfare-like opening movement. On the other hand, it is clear that he did not think of the Margrave as having exclusive proprietary rights over the music of the six concertos, for he re-used various movements in other guises in later compositions. For example, the opening Allegro of BWV 1046 was metamorphosed into the first movement of his Cantata No.52, “Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht” of 1726, and the concerto’s third movement and second trio resurfaced with altered scoring in the secular Cantata No. 207, “Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten,” also 1726.
Neither concerto grosso nor suite, the First Brandenburg falls somewhere between the two in its structure. The extended finale is unusual: a minuet with three contrasting trio sections, each for different instruments. The first trio is for two oboes plus bassoon, providing the only time in the concerto where the bassoon does not function as a continuo instrument. Next, after the repeat of the minuet, comes a polonaise for two violins, viola and bass. Bach’s second trio takes metric license, switching to duple time in a perky miniature for the two horns plus unison oboes.
Because the minuet repeats after each trio, the movement becomes a lengthy sectional structure with a refrain. While the first oboe is a designated solo part, the three oboes together tend to function as a triadic family. Similarly, the strings sound as a responsive group except when the solo violin is playing.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050
Duration: 21 minutes
Bach’s score for the Fifth Brandenburg specifies three soloists: transverse flute (as opposed to recorder), solo violin and cembalo concertato (harpsichord in the manner of a concerto, rather than a continuo style). All three have prominent roles, but solo keyboard has the edge.
Bach himself likely played the new double-manual harpsichord that Prince Leopold had sent him to Berlin to purchase. Whereas the other five Brandenburg concertos limit harpsichord to a continuo function, this one specifies a prominent and aggressive role for the keyboard. It has a dramatic, dazzling cadenza in the first movement and another, briefer cadenza in the finale.
Only in the lovely, expressive slow movement do violin and flute seem on an equal footing with harpsichord. The balance of the orchestra is silent for this movement, rejoining with gusto for the spirited closing Allegro, which skillfully combines aspects of several national styles.
Partly because of its large scale and unprecedented emphasis on harpsichord, the Fifth Brandenburg is believed to be the last of the six to be composed, probably dating from early 1721. It is the first work in which Bach specified transverse flute, and it has traditionally been regarded as the first solo keyboard concerto.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major, BWV 1051
Duration: 18 minutes
The Sixth Brandenburg, for two solo violas and strings, may have been the first one written. Some scholars believe that it dates from 1708-1710, when Bach was in service to Duke Ernst August of Weimar. Its instrumentation, which matches that of some very early cantatas, is for two viole da braccio, two viole de gamba, cello and basso continuo, making it the only one of the six Brandenburgs without violin. The NJSO plays it with full sections of modern violas, cellos and basses.
Gamba means leg in Italian; the gamba family of instruments are so named because they were held on or between the legs (unlike the modern cello, which has a peg). Gambas are fretted instruments, generally with six strings, as opposed to four in the modern violin family. Braccio means arm, indicating the instrument was played on the arm, under the player’s chin. The gamba family has a softer, less piercing sound than modern string instruments.
Most performances today use violas, cellos and double bass. The emphasis on lower strings gives this concerto a warm, mellow quality. Less brilliant than its companion pieces, it is no less compelling in the richness of its contrapuntal fabric or the gentle persuasion of its structure.
The viola soloists in the Sixth Brandenburg echo one another in strict canon at the temporal distance of an eighth note. Solo cello introduces a second theme that Bach develops, at least briefly, through each of the other instruments. This concerto hovers between chamber music and orchestral music. It is like a miniature concerto for a group of soloists, reminding us that in Bach’s day, the distinctions we observe between large and small ensembles—and appropriate music for each—did not exist.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047
Duration: 13 minutes
The Second Brandenburg is indisputably the trumpeter’s domain. Scored for solo trumpet, flute, oboe and violin, plus strings and continuo, this concerto leaves us with an indelible impression of majestic, triumphant brass, despite the fact that the trumpet is completely silent in the middle movement.
The instruments of Bach’s time differed in many ways from those of a modern orchestra. The 18th-century trumpet, for example, lacked the valves of the modern trumpet, which permit the instrument to play a complete chromatic scale. Bach’s orchestra at Cöthen had Baroque natural trumpets. These predecessors of the modern instrument were limited as to what pitches they could produce. Their capability was restricted to what physicists and musicians call the harmonic overtone series
Even on a modern trumpet, the solo part in the Second Brandenburg is exceedingly difficult. We must admire the technical proficiency of Bach’s 18th-century musicians, who performed it without advantage of valves.