German baroque music orchestra Freiburger Barockorchester performs Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046–1051, original title: Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments), a collection of six instrumental works. These concerti are widely considered as some of the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque era. Recorded at the Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Köthen, 23-26 March 2000. Published by the EuroArts channel.
Directed by Hans Hadulla, Produced by Isabel Iturriagagoitia
Executive Producers: Paul Smaczny & Bernd Hellthaler
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046
Soloist: Daniela Helm, violino piccolo
- 00:35 Allegro
- 04:40 Adagio
- 08:24 Allegro
- 12:31 Menuet – Trio I – Menuet da capo – Polacca – Menuet da capo – Trio II – Menuet da capo
Instrumentation: two corni da caccia (natural horns), three oboes, bassoon, violino piccolo, two violins, viola, cello, basso continuo.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047
- Friedemann Immer: trumpet
- Isabel Crijnen: recorder
- Katharina Arfken: oboe
- Gottfried von der Goltz: violin
- 0:15 Allegro
- 5:12 Andante
- 8:52 Allegro assai
Concertino: clarino (natural trumpet) in F, recorder, oboe, violin
Ripieno: two violins, viola, violone, and basso continuo (including harpsichord)
The trumpet part is still considered one of the most difficult in the entire repertoire and was originally written for a clarino specialist, almost certainly the court trumpeter in Köthen, Johann Ludwig Schreiber. After clarino skills were lost in the eighteenth century and before the rise of the historically informed performance movement of the late twentieth century, the part was usually played on the valved trumpet.
The clarino does not play in the second movement, as is common practice in baroque era concerti. This is due to its construction, which allows it to play only in major keys. Because concerti often move to a minor key in the second movement, concerti that include the instrument in their first movement and are from the period before the valved trumpet was commonly used usually exclude the trumpet from the second movement.
The first movement of this concerto was chosen as the first musical piece to be played on the Voyager Golden Record, a phonograph record containing a broad sample of Earth’s common sounds, languages, and music sent into outer space with the two Voyager probes (two robotic probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, launched in 1977 to study the outer Solar System).
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048
- 0:06 Allegro moderato
- 5:40 Adagio
- 5:53 Allegro
Instrumentation: three violins, three violas, three cellos, and basso continuo (including harpsichord)
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049
- Gottfried von der Goltz: violin
- Isabel Crijnen & Thera de Clerck: recorder
- 0:10 Allegro
- 7:11 Andante
- 11:08 Presto
Concertino: violin and two recorders (described in the original score as “flauti d’echo”).
Ripieno: two violins, viola, cello, violone and basso continuo
The violin part in this concerto is extremely virtuosic in the first and third movements. In the second movement, the violin provides a bass when the concertino group plays unaccompanied.
It has been debated what instrument Bach had in mind for the “flauti d’echo” parts. Nowadays these are usually played on recorders.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050
- Karl Kaiser: transverse flute
- Gottfried von der Goltz: violin
- Michael Behringer: harpsichord
- 0:13 Allegro
- 9:11 Affettuoso
- 14:59 Allegro
Concertino: harpsichord, violin, flute
Ripieno: violin, viola, cello, violone, (harpsichord)
This concerto makes use of a popular chamber music ensemble of the time (flute, violin, and harpsichord), which Bach used on its own for the middle movement. It is believed that it was written in 1719, to show off a new harpsichord by Michael Mietke which Bach had brought back from Berlin for the Köthen court
The concerto is well suited throughout to showing off the qualities of a fine harpsichord and the virtuosity of its player, but especially in the lengthy solo cadenza to the first movement. It seems almost certain that Bach, considered a great organ and harpsichord virtuoso, was the harpsichord soloist at the premiere. Scholars have seen in this work the origins of the solo keyboard concerto as it is the first example of a concerto with a solo keyboard part.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat major, BWV 1051
- Christian Goosses – 1st Viola
- Annette Schmidt – 2nd Viola
- 0:13 Allegro
- 5:40 Adagio ma non tanto
- 10:07 Allegro
Instrumentation: two viole da braccio, two viole da gamba, cello, violone, and harpsichord
The absence of violins is unusual. Viola da braccio means the normal viola, and is used here to distinguish it from the “viola da gamba“. When the work was written in 1721, the viola da gamba was already an old-fashioned instrument: the strong supposition that one viola da gamba part was taken by Bach’s employer, Prince Leopold, also points to a likely reason for the concerto’s composition – Leopold wished to join his Kapellmeister playing music.
Other theories speculate that, since the viola da braccio was typically played by a lower socioeconomic class (servants, for example), the work sought to upend the musical status quo by giving an important role to a “lesser” instrument. This is supported by the knowledge that Bach wished to end his tenure under Prince Leopold. By upsetting the balance of the musical roles, he would be released from his servitude as Kapellmeister and allowed to seek employment elsewhere.
The two violas start the first movement with a vigorous subject in close canon, and as the movement progresses, the other instruments are gradually drawn into the seemingly uninterrupted steady flow of melodic invention which shows the composer’s mastery of polyphony. The two violas da gamba are silent in the second movement, leaving the texture of a trio sonata for two violas and continuo, although the cello has a decorated version of the continuo bass line. In the last movement, the spirit of the gigue underlies everything, as it did in the finale of the fifth concerto.
History of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos
The Brandenburg Concertos are a highlight of one of the happiest and most productive periods in Bach’s life. At the time he wrote them, Bach was the Kapellmeister -the music director- in the small town of Coethen, where he was composing music for the court. Since the Margrave of Brandenburg seems to have ignored Bach’s gift of concertos, it’s likely that Bach himself presided over the first performances at home in Coethen. They didn’t have a name then; that didn’t come until 150 years later, when Bach’s biographer Philipp Spitta called them “Brandenburg” Concertos for the very first time, and the name stuck.
Even though he didn’t call them the “Brandenburgs,” Bach still thought of them as a set. What he did was compile them from short instrumental sinfonias and concerto movements he had already written. Then he re-worked the old music, often re-writing and elaborating where he saw fit. In doing so, Bach created something of a dramatic arc from the brilliant first concerto to the last, which evokes a spirited chase.
Each of the six concertos requires a different combination of instruments as well as some highly skilled soloists. The Margrave had his own small court orchestra in Berlin, but it was a group of mostly mediocre players. All the evidence suggests that these virtuosic Brandenburg concertos perfectly matched the talents of the musicians on hand in Coethen.
So how did a provincial town get so many excellent musicians?
Just before Johann Sebastian arrived in Coethen in 1717, a new king inherited the throne in Prussia. Friedrich Wilhelm I became known as the “Soldier King” because he was interested in the military strength of his kingdom, not in refined artistic pursuits. One of his first royal acts was to disband the prestigious Berlin court orchestra. That threw many musicians out of work, and as luck would have it, seven of the best ones were snatched up to work in Coethen by its music-loving Prince Leopold.
That’s why Bach found such a rich music scene when he started to work there. It gave him the luxury of writing for virtuosos and they let him push the boundraries of his creativity. Concerto No. 2, for example, has the trumpeter play high flourishes. No. 4 allows the solo violin to soar.
When Bach played chamber music, he usually took the viola part so he could sit–as he wrote in a letter–”in the middle of the harmony.” But for Concerto No. 5, he had a real inspiration. He switched to harpsichord, gave it a knock-out part, and, in the process, invented the modern keyboard concerto. The writing is so advanced and so intricate for its time that scholars assume the Fifth Concerto is actually the last Brandenburg Concerto Bach wrote.
If the dazzling writing style of the Fifth Concerto points to a late composition date, the Sixth Concerto probably came first in chronological order. It’s got a simple part for the viola da gamba, a forerunner of the cello, which Bach probably put there for his employer, Prince Leopold, to play. The Prince was wealthy man and a serious music lover but probably a performer of only modest talent. The Sixth is also unique in the set because Bach omitted the violins from the ensemble; the violas take the highest string part. All six Brandenburg Concertos reveal the ebullient side of Bach, and they’re one of the most welcome gifts he left us.
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