The Birth of the Virtuoso

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Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos (Complete)

The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra / Karl Munchinger

London, 2xLP box set, LL 1457/8

Bach’s Brandenburg’s have at least one thing in common with New Orleans jazz (besides being awesome): they are essentially ensembles wherein each solo instrument has its 5 minutes of fame to play with and against the rest of the group. It’s like a republic of sound, or a democratic socialism, if you like, where every one is given a voice to riff with, but no one veers too far from the overarching structure.

Bach was more esteemed as a performer than a composer in his day, mainly because, as Joshua Rifkin says, his “genius shot so far above the capabilities of ordinary musicians that his greatness was veiled in silence”. For that reason, it’s doubtful whether the complete Brandenburg Concertos were ever performed in his day. Initially composed in 1711-20 for the Margrave of Brandenburg, they later sold off for about twenty bucks. The 1st Brandenburg goes beyond the bounds of the typical concerto grossi, with a size nearly equal to a chamber symphony, which was a big turn-off to 18th century music-makers (it was too large for Brandenburg’s personal ensemble), and so the rest of the Brandenburgs, including the gorgeous first movement of the 2nd (it would, however, find its way as the opening piece on one of the Voyager albums) fell along the wayside of musical history.

The 5th Brandeburg Concerto, as far as anyone knows, was the only one to be contemporaneously performed. Bach supposedly composed the concerto to show off his brand spanking new Cothen harpsichord, and it’s the 5th that stands out today, historically and stylistically. It’s the first ever work to showcase the keyboard in more than continuo fashion, elevating the harpsichord to a major solo player.

Hitherto unheard virtuosity leads to a 1st movement cadenza that is truly dazzling. Nikolaus Harnoncourt says that it fulfills the “technical and tonal possibilities” of the instrument, adding that it “becomes at the same time the beginning and the climax of its category”. A run of 16th-, triple-16th- and 32nd-notes configure one of the most suspenseful 65 measures of any music ever performed. (Give a listen to Mozart’s cadenzas and the entirety of Gorecki’s Harpsichord Concerto to see where Bach’s innovation would lead.) And throughout the 2nd and 3rd movements, the harpsichord keeps emerging with colorful pirouettes and trills. To echo Harnoncourt, the instrument sounds fully formed at birth.

Lots of recordings of the entire Brandenburg Concertos have appeared since they were discovered in an archive in 1849. Adolf Busch was the first to record all six concertos, and that was quickly followed by a complete set by Alfred Cortot. In many cases, the Brandenburgs are like big musical Rorschach blots, illuminating the whims of conductors and players more than the intention of J.S. Bach. Furtwangler’s and Klemperer’s versions are pretty bleak, sounding more like incidental music to Lohengrin than anything from the late Baroque period. Toscanini’s Brandenburg No. 2 is excessively classical and metronymic, while Casals and Stokowski both conjure a Romantic Bach. Not until Harnoncourt in 1964 did anyone attempt historically apt performances on period instruments, which was followed by a slew of similar recordings.

Karl Munchinger’s performance, reissued here on an early London ffrr double LP from a Decca pressing, is a capable perusal of the Brandenburgs in a more or less Romantically-inclined gradient.

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