Bach: the Six Brandenburg Concertos

Dates and Venue
11 March 2009 @ 8pm | Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver

Featured Performers Academy of Ancient Music – Richard Egarr

Elizabeth Paterson

An evening composed entirely of the Brandenburg concertos? Bach offered them as a set to the Margrave of Brandenburg, so why not? Each one is different in scoring, structure and concept while all exemplify the energy of Baroque counterpoint.

The Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) elected to perform the concertos out of numerical order. The concert was book-ended by the processional, in Richard Egarr’s view, No. 1 and closed by the splendid and energetic No. 4. Concerto No. 6, scored for lower-voiced instruments and including the then old-fashioned violas da gamba and played with a delightful and warm timbre, was paired with the higher and brighter No. 2.

Playing one-on-a-part kept the lines clean and clear; however there were some problems with balance. In No. 2, the recorder part was often obscured. Included in the continuo instruments were theorbo and, in Concerto No. 3, a guitar, both lovingly played by William Carter, which complemented the harpsichord well, but again, could not always be heard by all.

Tempi were for the most part brisk, producing a cheerful and youthful vitality overall, though occasionally, as with the adagio movement of No.2, a meditative quality was lacking. This was the more disappointing having been preceded by a very expressive Adagio in Concerto No. 6.

One of the pleasures of attending a concert is seeing the give and take of music at work. The AAM arranged its players differently for each concerto to illuminate its structure and personality as well as accommodate the different solo instruments or groups. Thus, in No. 2, the trumpet soloist (David Blackadder, who gave a showy and very well articulated performance) was stationed opposite the rest of the “Solo” group of recorder, violin and oboe, and in Concerto No. 5 flute, violin and harpsichord were grouped opposite the continuo with the cello steadfast in the middle, dramatically demonstrating the musical conversation.

Superb ensemble work and a high order of virtuosity (despite a few bum notes from the brass) were the order of the day. Among the highlights were the challenging part for violino piccolo in the third movement of Concerto No.1 played with superb technical mastery by Rudolf Richter; two violas (Rudolf Richter again and William Thorp) playing intricate canonic lines as one in Number 6, and the flowing interplay of lines between flute (Rachel Beckett) and violin (Pavlo Beznosiuk) in Number 5. Indeed Beznosiuk’s playing was ravishing throughout. Robert Ehrlich demonstrated just how expressive an instrument a recorder can be in Concerto No.2 and again with Rachel Beckett in Concerto No.4. Richard Egarr on the harpsichord and as conductor was by turns delicate, flowery, forceful, easy, straightforward, humorous, intelligent, imaginative. The continuo players, as skilled as the soloists, provided more than solid support being always engaged, like the soloists, with the group. In particular Joseph Crouch played with great pleasure in the music.

By choosing not to play the concertos in order from 1 to 6, by not being solemn, by adding less common instruments to the continuo section, this exploration of the Brandenburg’s was designed to make one think. The choices won’t please everyone, but they will add to your understanding of this splendid, joyous music.

© 2008 Elizabeth Paterson