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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Brandenburg Concertos, Vol. 1 (Cologne Chamber Orchestra, Muller-Bruhl)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750): Complete Orchestral Works
Originals / Transcriptions / Reconstructions
Volume 6: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 6
It seems that only a relatively small part of Bach's orchestral oeuvre has been preserved for posterity. Much has been speculated about the reasons for the above-average losses in this particular field, but up till now no really conclusive reasons have been found. The fact that so few works for instrumental ensemble have survived particularly from the Weimar and Cothen periods, during which the composer directed so many excellent ensembles, has led many researchers to the hypothesis that Bach was obliged to leave the majority of his compositions in these places when he moved on to another post - a common custom for which much evidence can be found in many eighteenth century documents; other considerations establish a connection with the distribution of Bach's compositions to his heirs after his death. Whatever the case, only one thing is certain: that at the latest with Bach's death a veil of oblivion began to sink over his orchestral works – partly caused also by a profound change in taste which began in the middle of the eighteenth century .Thus great effort was necessary in the course of the Bach renaissance at the beginning of the nineteenth century to win back these works, which by then were completely unknown even to Bach connoisseurs, into the performance repertoire.
Today Bach's orchestral works enjoy an enduring popularity once more. Intensive study of this repertoire, which in spite of the regrettable gaps is in many ways incomparable, has led to the realisation that only a part of the works can be regarded as original compositions, whereas many of the concertos in the form in which they are known today represent transcriptions of pieces written earlier. Among the works of the first-named category are the Brandenburg Concertos and the three Violin Concertos, among the transcriptions are all the concertos for one to three harpsichords, which are presumed to he based on lost works for various melody instruments. The Concerto for four harpsichords BWV 1065 is a special case in that Bach did not take one of his own works as a basis but, exceptionally, a work by Antonio Vivaldi. Comparative studies on Bach's technique of rearranging works have led again and again to speculations about the possible form and structure of the lost works on which the arrangements are based, and as a consequence to attempts at reconstruction which have resulted in pieces which are stylistically convincing and which have proved their worth in practice; within the context of this recording these works are intended to help fill the gaps mentioned above.
The present complete recording of Bach's orchestral works illustrates graphically the enormous musical variety and compositional quality of this sphere of his creative work. We meet the composer for the first time around 1715 on his first pinnacle of mastery (Brandenburg Concerto No.5) and accompany him for approximately a quarter of a century up to the sublime works of his maturity - the Overture BWV 1067 and the Triple Concerto BWV 1044.
On 2Oth April 1849 Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn, at the time custodian of the music collection in the royal library in Berlin, reported a remarkable discovery. "While compiling my catalogue of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach existing in Berlin I have come across many works of the greatest significance which up till now have remained unknown (unknown even to his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann as well as to Forkel, who is always so exact), among them 6 concerti grossi dedicated to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg." Since Philipp Spitta's monumental Bach biography the name Brandenburg Concertos has established itself for these concertos, which were thus awoken, like the Sleeping Beauty, from over a century of slumber, and under this name they are today among the most well-known works of the composer, in fact of the musical literature of the whole world. But this popularity should not make us blind to the fact that our concrete knowledge about the origin and chronology of these compositions, which are in many ways incomparable, is still slight.
Bach's dedicatory preface provides us with some indications as to the origin of the cycle. According to this dedication the Margrave, who was residing in Berlin, had a few years earlier expressed to Bach the wish for instrumental works for his court orchestra. Possibly Bach and Christian Ludwig had met in May 1718 in Karlsbad, where in the eightennth century many of the crowned heads of Europe came in the warm season together with their court musicians and where something like a festival atmosphere regularly came about. If this was the case, however, it meant that Bach waited three whole years before fulfilling the Margrave's wish. There is no doubt that the Brandenburg Concertos are partly a compilation of works composed earlier. For example, there exists an early version, which cannot be dated with certainty, of the first concerto - without the third movement and without the violino piccolo part – which had perhaps originally served as the introductory Sinfonia for the Hunt Cantata, composed in 1712 or 1713. Other works of the cycle, on the other hand, may date from shortly before 1721, for their style differs greatly from comparable works of the Weimar period and adheres more closely to Italian models.
The first Concerto in F major BWV 1046 contrasts three groups of instruments (horns, oboes, strings) with one another, fusing together in the first movement into a complex texture of motivic layers and in the third movement providing a subtle accompaniment to the virtuoso solo passages of the violino piccolo. The sostenuto second movement uses only the oboe and the string groups, the upper voices of which spin out wide sweeps of filigree melody. The third movement is followed by a colourful series of dance movements divided up by the rondo-style repeats of the minuet.
The second Concerto in F major BWV 1047 presents an intricate solo quartet consisting of trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin, to which the tutti strings take second place as far as independence of texture and thematic significance are concerned. The observation that the orchestra merely takes on the function of an instrumentated basso continuo accompaniment has led to the supposition that the work was originally conceived as a chamber concerto for four soloists. The particular feature of this concerto lies in the way the four instruments, which are so different in sound quality, are given exactly the same melodic treatment.
The third Concerto in G major BWV 1048 is scored for three groups, each consisting of three members of the violin family (three violins, three violas and three cellos). Here Bach ingeniously makes use of the various possibilities of combination: in one place the musical texture is shared between high, middle and low registers, in another place between three string trios, and occasionally individual representatives of each group come into prominence as soloists, A formal peculiarity of this work is the fact that the middle movement is missing; the two fast movements, which differ from each other significantly in their mood and texture, are connected with each other merely by means of a short transitional cadence.
Finally, the sixth Concerto in B flat major BWV 1051, scored for the unusual instrumentation of two violas, two viole da gamba and cello obbligato, represents a daring mixture of elements from the era before and after Vivaldi. Whereas the two gambas take over the function of an accompaniment to a great extent and only participate in the thematic process with short interpolations, the two violas fulfil an extraordinarily virtuoso function which far exceeds that which was usually demanded from this instrument at this time.
In the Brandenburg Concertos Bach enriched the concerto genre in many significant aspects and ran the gamut of possibilities the genre presents, It is not easy to find a comparable cycle of works of this era which manages to combine bold experiment with solid craftsmanship and musical richness with conceptional consistency in such perfection.
Translation: Diana Loos
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