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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Brandenburg Concertos, Vol. 2 (Cologne Chamber Orchestra, Muller-Bruhl)
By David Vernier
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Complete Orchestral Works
Originals; Transcriptions; Reconstructions
Volume 7: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 4 and 5; Triple Concerto
It seems that only a relatively small part of Bach's orchestral œuvre 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 Cöthen 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 realization 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 be 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.
The origin and development of the solo concerto is closely tied in with the creative work of Italian composers such as Giuseppe Torelli, Tomaso Albinoni and above all Antonio Vivaldi. These composers and their works were taken up eagerly by German composers from about the second decade of the eighteenth century, but soon underwent modifications corresponding to German traditions and styles of composition.
In addition to solo concertos for one instrument and accompaniment the special form of the ensemble concerto with various instruments or groups of instruments was nurtured particularly in Germany. The use of various tone-colours for purposes of contrast and variation also altered the hierarchy between tutti and solo which was for the most part also clearly established in Italian concertos in favour of a more flexible and differentiated treatment of these formal set pieces. This more individual approach led in Bach's case, particularly in the Brandenburg Concertos, to a realisation of the concerto form which was in every case convincing, novel and unrepeatable. This can already be seen in the simple fact that each concerto is scored for a different group of instruments and experiments with the constantly altered conditions of sound in an original way.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major BWV 1049 is scored for a concertino consisting of a violin and two recorders. The consequence of this for Bach was that the violin could be used not only as a virtuoso solo instrument above the accompaniment of the tutti strings, but also as a continuo instrument for the two recorders. Particularly in the first two movements of this concerto the playful changing-around of formal and thematic hierarchies of the concerto form can be detected. In the last movement Bach concentrates his forces in order to achieve a bold compositional tour de force – the seamless amalgamation of fugue and concerto form. The ritornellos of this movement thus become fugal expositions, the solos become episodes with thematic connections.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major BWV 1050 may well be the first piano concerto in musical history. The virtuoso soloist is here supported by a small concertino consisting of flute and violin which displays an astonishing autonomy from the motivic-thematic point of view. The imposing harpsichord cadenza which almost bursts the boundaries of the movement was added by Bach while he was preparing the definitive score for the dedicatee – presumably in order to remind the Margrave of his own skill as a virtuoso. After the slow movement, an intensively worked-out quartet setting, the work concludes with a cheerful Gigue, which, like the finale of the fourth concerto, is in fugal form – although in a looser formal structure.
The Concerto in F major BWV 1057 for harpsichord and two recorders represents Bach's own transcription of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. In this transcription, which was written around 1738/39, at the same time as the other harpsichord concertos, Bach left the string passages for the most part unchanged and also retained the two recorders which characterize the sound quality of the original version. In contrast he transcribed the virtuoso part of the solo violin for the harpsichord, and in doing so took particular care to re-write the idiomatic violin figurations to make them suitable for the new instrument.
In his transcription Bach retained the finely graded interrelations between the various instruments (not only within the trio of soloists but also between concertino and ripieno), extending the trio sections to a four-part texture by means of a newly composed additional part.
The Concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord in A minor BWV 1044, the so-called Triple Concerto, occupies a special position within Bach's concerto œuvre. As far as its instrumentation is concerned the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 can be regarded as a companion work, but the history of its composition, its gloomy and elegiac character and its extraordinary intensity make it unique; it can be regarded as Bach's most unusual contribution to the concerto genre as a whole. By reason of its mature style it is probable that the work was composed in the 1740s.
As is the case with the other concertos with harpsichord obbligato, the Triple Concerto is based on works of which some were written quite a long time before; unlike the F major Concerto, however, this is not the transcription of a violin or wind concerto from the Cöthen period, but the radical re-writing of pieces for solo harpsichord or organ. The outer movements of the work are based on a Prelude and Fugue (BWV 894) written not later than 1714, whereas the middle movement is an arrangement of the second movement of the Trio Sonata for organ, BWV 527. Unlike the other concerto transcriptions, in which only the relevant solo parts had to be adapted to the new medium, the material of the prelude and fugue was here adapted for the solo sections of the harpsichord, to which Bach then composed new additional parts for the two other solo instruments as well as all the orchestral parts. He ingeniously extended the original trio structure of the charming middle movement to a quartet which – with an exchange of parts in the repeats – is performed by the soloists alone. With this concerto Bach succeeded in creating a coherent whole, the ingeniousness and remarkable originality of which convincingly refute the various doubts expressed about its authenticity.
Translation: Diana Loos
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BACH, J.S.: Brandenburg Concertos, Vol. 2 (Cologne...