It’s hard to sit through these six masterpieces and not feel, for the moment, that life is really good.
By Susan Miron
If you ask musicians — and concert audiences — to name their top three favorite pieces by Bach, the Brandenburg Concertos will inevitably be among the winners. These delightful and dazzlingly diverse pieces routinely sell out halls and thrill listeners, whether they are played on period or modern instruments. The Handel and Haydn Society played the Brandenburgs in December at the Gardner Museum. It was impossible to get a ticket. This past weekend the ensemble scheduled two concerts — and added a third. It was still pretty tough to get a ticket.
Friday, I heard the H&H play the first of these concerts at Sanders Theatre (this was their 2,376 concert). The place was packed. The musicians, many of whom I had heard perform in an all-Brahms concert at the Gardner Museum last Sunday, were in top form. These are pieces that challenge all the players in the ensemble at some point; every one of them rose to the occasion.
Bach seemed charmed by the number six. He wrote six suites for solo violin, six sonatas for solo cello. He penned Six English Suites, Six French Suites, and Six Partitas, all for keyboard. The six “Concerts avec plusieurs Instruments” (Concertos with Diverse Instruments) are a compilation of works, some, if not all, of which were composed during the years Bach was in the ducal court in Weimar (1708-1717); they were commissioned by the Margrave of Brandenburg. Unlike the composer’s other sets of six, the Brandenburg Concertos are diverse — by national styles, number of movements, compositional techniques, instrumentation, and length. Some are ensemble concertos, others feature soloists from the orchestra, such as No. 4 and 5.
The renowned Bach scholar Christoph Wolff writes about the piece (in his book Bach, The Learned Musician): “’Several instruments’ actually understates the case, for Bach makes use … of the widest imaginable spectrum of orchestral instruments. The modest title does not begin to suggest the degree of innovation exhibited in the daring combinations, as Bach once again enters uncharted territory. Each one of the six concertos set a precedent in its scoring, and every one was to remain without parallel.”
When all six are performed (which takes a bit over two hours), they are usually not played in chronological order. H&H’s first half included No. 1, No. 5, and No.3, which worked very well. Then, after the intermission (the harpsichord and strings needed re-tuning), came No. 2, No. 6, and No. 4. By the end of the concert, the rapt audience had heard almost all the players perform in a solo capacity and (judging by myself) felt joyfully sated. This was a musical feast that offered listeners an opportunity to hear these excellent players without a chorus behind them.
Conductorless, the ensemble was co-led by harpsichordist Ian Watson and violinist extraordinaire Aisslinn Nosky. I couldn’t help but note how well (to my ears) Bach’s unusually peppy tempi were handled. Brandenburg #1 in F Major featured two excellent horns — Todd Williams (who played the Brahms Horn Trio last Sunday) and Elisabeth Axtell (whose bell inside the horn was a bright red). The other ensemble members included three oboes — Deborah Nagy, David Dickey, and Fiona Last — bassoonist Marilyn Boenau, and Susanna Ogata on a curious instrument known as violin piccolo (a smaller violin tuned a third higher). As in the next five concertos, each of the ensemble’s members got a chance to strut his or her stuff.
Next came the Brandenburg No. 5, with its spectacular, gargantuan cadenza for harpsichord. For me, this movement stands as a highlight among all the Brandenburgs Christopher Krueger (on a Baroque wooden flute) joined Nosky and Watson to provide a spirited performance that, alas, was performed on a rather small harpsichord, so it was considerably less thrilling than when I’ve heard this piece on larger harpsichords. That said, the trio played beautifully and the harpsichord was perfect given the mood and texture called for in the second movement.
Composer John Harrison pithily described this harpsichord “cadenza”:
The wholly disproportionate solo senza stromenti (sometimes called a “cadenza”) concluding the first movement gives us a glimpse of Bach the virtuoso improviser. It has been suggested that this was a test-drive of the new harpsichord he purchased in Berlin; it may also have reminded the Margrave of Bach’s previous performance that fostered his request for additional compositions. Not only is this solo unusual for its 65-measure length but also for the framework of thematic material that bookends an extraordinary improvisatory passage of accumulating intensity. Bach dramatically de-escalates the tension in a rhythmic deceleration just as it reaches the breaking point; 32nd notes lengthen into triplets, which in turn lengthen to become the thematic conclusion of the solo, a decorous recovery after a flight of madness.
Eleven performers performed the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major with gusto and exhilarating tempos. Nosky’s fiery cadenza, which follows the first movement, was one of the evening’s highlights, and the excellent violist Karina Schmitz played her solos elegantly. Throughout the concert, cellist Guy Fishman and bass player Erik Higgins provided beautifully expressive bass lines.
More thrilling moments arrived in the amazing Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, which featured trumpet player John Thiessen, as well as Krueger (now in his 40th year with H&H) on recorder, along with Nosky and Watson. The second movement featured gorgeous playing by Fishman and Nagy. Thiessen negotiated the thrilling trumpet part with panache. The four solo instruments — recorder, trumpet, oboe, and violin — are all high pitched instruments, a rarity in concertos. Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, scored for three sets of strings, supplies lovely parts for the three violas.
The evening ended with an ebullient Brandenburg No. 4 in G Major, which gave the spirited Nosky the chance to all but dance her way through the virtuosic violin part. The musician radiated an infectious joy, as did Nagy and Krueger on a pair of recorders. A wonderful time was had by all, including the performers, to whom Bach gave the unique opportunity in this concerto to perform in all three movements. It’s hard to sit through these six masterpieces and not feel, for the moment, that life is really good.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.