Holiday Concerts: Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos
- December 12-14
Bach’s scores elaborated on the template developed a generation earlier by Corelli, who pioneered these “grand concertos” for groups of soloists working within an accompanying ensemble of strings and basso continuo. Each of Bach’s examples tests a different configuration of soloists, including the radical example of the Third Brandenburg Concerto, in which every instrumental part functions as an independent solo voice, apart from the shared basso continuo foundation.
The Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 uses three violins, three violas, and three cellos, and the first movement sends a three-note motive cascading through all the voices. (The spiritual significance of the number three in Christian theology was surely not lost on Bach, a devout Lutheran.) Instead of a full slow movement, Bach only notated two linking chords, leaving the performers the option of inserting an improvised cadenza. The concerto closes with a barreling Allegro finale, its tempo and character matching the reeling gigues that conclude most of Bach’s dance suites.
Aaron Grad ©2019
The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto features flute, violin and harpsichord as soloists. Such a trio was a common chamber music ensemble at the time, but usually the harpsichord would only have been an accompanist. Here it is a co-equal soloist, with the added responsibility of playing a monster of a cadenza at the end of the first movement.
The middle movement, labeled Affettuoso (“with feeling”), presents the soloists without the accompanying strings. In the finale, a fugue reinforces the equal footing of the voices: The violin and flute take the first two entrances, and the harpsichord jumps in with the third and fourth voices of the fugue.
Aaron Grad ©2019
For the Second Brandenburg Concerto, the distinctive solo group consists of trumpet, flute, oboe and violin. The jubilant opening movement makes up for the mismatched strength of the solo instruments by separating the voices out for individual statements and contrapuntal sparring.
The trumpet sits out the central Andante movement to clear space for polyphonic weavings of flute, oboe and violin, supported by a walking bass line. A heralding call from the trumpet announces the Allegro assai third movement, initiating a rowdy finale that serves as a bookend to the unbridled joy of the opening movement.
Aaron Grad ©2018
Along with a solo violin in the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, Bach wrote two solo parts that he identified as “echo flutes.” In the Allegro first movement, the solo violin takes the flashiest material, including long strings of arpeggios, a series of double-stops (the technique of playing two notes at once) and a wickedly fast passage of slurred 32nd notes. The characteristic tone of the flutes becomes more prominent in the middle movement, when the soloists contribute airy echoes to the ensemble’s phrases, with the violin dropping into the role of the bass instrument to support the higher voices. The movement ends on an unresolved chord that wants to settle on E minor, the slow movement’s home key, but instead the violas launch the Presto finale in G major, where the concerto began. Their robust phrase marks the start of a fugue, which intersperses virtuosic solo episodes among the passages of formal counterpoint.
Aaron Grad ©2019
The First Brandenburg Concerto features the largest ensemble, including a pair of corni da caccia, or “hunting horns,” in the group of soloists. Three oboes, a bassoon and a violino piccolo — a slightly smaller cousin of the violin tuned a minor third higher — round out the solo group, while a full complement of strings and basso continuo contribute supporting music.
Bach adapted this concerto from the opening Sinfonia of a secular cantata from 1713, Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (“The lively hunt is all my heart’s desire”). The first movement retains the jovial, outdoor ambience of music inspired by the hunt, with the horns issuing calls to action, sometimes in triplets that contradict the orchestra’s pulse, as if they have already moved ahead in the hunt at their own pace. After this spirited opening, the Adagio movement is a poignant departure, with the oboe, solo violin and bass group elaborating a plaintive melody. An oboe cadenza and a series of mysterious chords lead into the third movement, a sprightly romp that shows off the solo violin’s bright figurations.
The First Brandenburg Concerto is the only one with a fourth movement, in this case a regal Minuet that pauses for two contrasting trio sections as well as a Polacca, a dance with Polish origins. The alternate sections each feature subsets of the ensemble, including the novel sound in the final trio section of three unison oboes honking a breathless accompaniment under hunting calls from the horns.
Aaron Grad ©2019