The Brandenburg Concertos

J. S. Bach

Concerto Italiano (Rinaldo Alessandrini, cond.)

album cover

A Starting Point for Bach

These six lively pieces for small orchestra are regarded as key to the puzzle that is baroque superstar Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). In his day, however, these and other instrumental works were almost afterthoughts, less significant than the cantatas (see p. 372) and other religious-themed music he wrote. What has changed over the past 250 years is the appreciation for Bach's range and imagination. While indisputably beautiful, the religious works are accompaniments to ceremony, and so usually follow prescribed paths. When he's free of those liturgical obligations, Bach's renegade streak emerges. He cuts loose a bit, makes up his own rules, experiments with structure and texture.

The Brandenburgs were written over two years, from 1719 to 1720, to fulfill a commission from an aristocrat in the German principality Brandenburg-Schwedt, and no two utilize the same instrumentation—the orchestra shrinks and expands to fit the requirements of each piece. The transfixingly logical Concerto No. 4 is built around solo recorder (don't laugh, it's a magical sound!), while several others feature clusters of three or four soloists interacting with each other in what came to be called "concerto grosso" form.

One thrill of the Brandenburgs is following Bach as he scurries around trying to resolve chords in perfect (and often stupendously elaborate) ways. Never content to go straight from point A to point B when there's a chance to take a fifteen-city detour, Bach loads up the Brandenburgs with harmonic deviousness, and drawn-out chordal inventions that take forever to unravel. (To hear one typically elongated chord sequence, check out the opening movement of the fifth concerto.)

There are hundreds of Brandenburg recordings. This one, by one of Europe's premier chamber orchestras, is notable for its warm acoustics (it was recorded live in Rome's Salone d'Ercole at the Palazzo Farnese) and for the ensemble's adherence to Bach's indications of tempo and mood. Some modern conductors slow things down in interpreting the cycle, transforming sprightly minuets into more ponderous music. Here, the dances move the way Bach intended them to—vividly. It's Bach having fun on a rare day off from church.

Genre: Classical
Released: 2005, Opus 111
Key Tracks: No. 3: second movement. No. 4. No. 5: cadenza
Another Interpretation: Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5, 6, Musica Antiqua Köln (Reinhard Goebel, cond.)
Catalog Choice: Bach Cantatas, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; The Art of the Fugue, Glenn Gould
Next Stop: Georg P. Telemann: Water Music, Musica Antiqua Köln (Reinhard Goebel, cond.)
After That: Wolfgang A. Mozart: Eine kleine nachtmusik, Berlin Philharmonic (Herbert von Karajan, cond.)
Book Page: 33

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