Johann Sebastian Bach was a remarkably prolific composer of some of the greatest classical music (from the Baroque era). Many of his compositions have endured and continue to enjoy great popularity three hundred years after they were written. In one year alone, 1720, Bach composed the six chamber orchestra works known as the Brandenburg Concertos. Each of these miniature symphonies is a masterpiece of composition. Every one features different combinations of instruments. And they are all exceedingly popular and accessible, replete with delightful melodies, great contrapuntal harmonic conceptions, and standout solo parts.
When any of the six are heard, they are usually played as part of larger programs that feature other chamber works by a variety of composers. Rarely will more than one of them be performed on the same program. But the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center recorded all six on a single CD in 2009 (from live performances in New York), and the 20 musicians who comprise the organization played all six earlier this month in a wonderful concert at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis).
The six are markedly similar in structure and feel and yet entirely different in terms of instrumentation. They were not played in order at this month’s concert (although they are recorded in order on the CD). The concert opened with #1 and #2, but then went to #6 to end the first half. The order in the second half was #3, #5, and #4. The first and second feature the most musicians (and the greatest variety of instruments).
In the first, six strings (three violins, a viola, a cello and a bass) are joined by two horns, three oboes, a bassoon, and the harpsichord. It is the only one of the six written with four movements, the last of which is a succession of dances.
In the second, a single trumpet, single bassoon, single clarinet, and single flute join the same six strings and the harpsichord. The flute and trumpet (especially) added to the delight of the second, which features each musician soloing in turn in the first movement. The second movement was a lovely trio of the flute, oboe and lead violin. And the solo trumpet added excitement to the rousing third movement.
Eight musicians are required for the sixth of the concertos. Two violins and a viola are joined by three cellos, a bass, and a harpsichord. The first and third movements are rollicking Allegros that are offered in a festive mood. They sandwich a lament in the slower second movement, which has some of Bach’s traditional church cantatas woven into it.
We have long been fans of the third of the concertos. It is perhaps the most intricately composed of the six, with three sections of string instruments playing a succession of fugues. For this performance, the instrumentations were clearly designated. On the left and right sides were trios consisting of two violins and a viola. In the middle were the three cellos. The harpsichord and bass filled out the complement of musicians. The third Brandenburg is essentially a two-movement work (both Allegros) with a single measure Andante in between. The two Allegro movements are among the most intricate sets of fugues in the Baroque era, with the second including individual solos by some of the nine in the trios as well. But the three trios playing in turn are what set this piece apart, and all three trios of musicians gave the work a perfect rendering.
The fifth of the concertos is also a fascinating work, known mostly for the extended harpsichord solo in the first movement. It also features a charming trio (harpsichord, violin, and flute) that comprises the second movement (marked Affettuoso). The work closes with a rousing Allegro in which a second violin, a viola, a cello and a bass joined the trio.
The fourth concerto, which closed the program, opens with an Allegro and ends in a Presto (with an Andante in between). It was played by three violins, a viola, a cello, a bass, the harpsichord and two flutes that share a lovely fugue in the second movement.
Throughout the performance different members of the twenty member ensemble took the lead (the orchestra performs without a conductor) for each of the concertos. All of these musicians (five of whom are mainstays from the 2009 CD recording) are top professionals, and most, if not all, play with period instruments.
The near capacity audience applauded after many of the movements throughout the concert, and it gave the players of the last performed concerto a sustained standing ovation. The hope was that all twenty musicians would at some point join the nine who had just played the last of the concertos, but, alas, they never did. The failure to give the other eleven musicians a final bow with their colleagues was the only flaw in a rare concert that was a treat for all in attendance.