With the exception of the First, each Brandenburg follows the convention of a concerto grosso, in which two or more solo instruments are contrasted with a full ensemble, and where a slow movement in the relative minor is bracketed by two fast movements, mostly structured as a ritornello (Italian for “return”) in which the opening tutti (played by the full ensemble) reappears as a formal marker between episodes of display by the concertino (solo instruments) and again as a conclusion, thus producing a psychologically satisfying structure.
Vivaldi and others who established the concerto grosso model used nuances of texture, tone coloration and novel figurations to contrast the ensemble’s ritornello and the solo episodes. Bach, though, tends to fluently blend and integrate them. Indeed, in his treatise on orchestration, Adam Carse notes that Bach conceived his parts generically rather than in terms of specific instruments, and distributed them impartially and largely
interchangeably, such that all sink into a common contrapuntal net without consideration of balance in the modern sense of orchestration.
So generally, each concerto has a group of soloists, a ripieno (the bulk of instrumental parts of a musical ensemble who do not play as soloists) and a continuo. The continuo usually plays the bass line, while a keyboard ‘fills in’ the harmonies, often omprovised.
Tonight, we will listen to three of the concertos.
#5 in D major for flute, violin, cembalo + ripieno (violin, viola, cello and violone)
The fifth Brandenburg is thought to have been the last written, intended as a vehicle to show off the new Cöthen harpsichord. Bach presumably played the solo part himself; Philipp Spitta considered the part to have demanded finger dexterity that no one else possessed at the time. The Fifth is the most historically important of the Brandenburgs, as it is the earliest known instance in which the harpsichord is elevated out of the role of continuo accompaniment to solo status.
While the other Brandenburgs held little interest for the following generations, theFifth is the only one to have circulated after Bach’s death (in copies by others) as it spoke to their interest in the emerging solo keyboard concerto.
The unusually lengthy first movement literally breaks the mold of the old ritornello form, as the opening melody returns only in fragments and cedes to a long serene central section far more developed and of greater emotional contrast than a normal episode. Throughout, the harpsichord not only holds its own but keeps escaping its role as accompanist to override and grab the spotlight from the solo flute and violin. But most remarkable of all is the cadenza. As if to emphasize its import, the other instruments don’t boldly lead up to the lengthy solo display as they would in later concertos, but rather slow down and drop off, as if respectfully bowing, turning away and receding before the royal presence of the majestic harpsichord. An earlier version of the cadenza (known only in posthumous copies by others) was 18 measures long and seems more suited to the scope of the surrounding movement. The final version is 65 measures (about 3 minutes, to which could be added the prior 16 bars in which the solo thoroughly dominates the texture) and runs an astounding gamut of frantically forceful and concentrated figurations in rapid 16th-, triplet 16th- and 32nd-notes, ending in a hugely suspenseful chromatic sequence that leads to the final orchestral statement of the principal melody which has gone unheard since the opening.
The reflective second movement (marked “affettuoso”) displays a more subtle formal daring by suggesting the solo and tutti divisions of the outer movements through changes in intensity as the harpsichord overflows the bounds of accompaniment with rapid figures that thicken the texture and imply shifts in dynamics beyond those marked in the score. The canonic basis of the second movement emerges more fully in the fugal finale, in which the harpsichord not only is a full participant an gigue begun by the violin and flute, but soon dominates the entire ensemble with dense 16th-note passages and trilled held notes.
#4 in G major for violin, 2 “flauti d’echo” + ripieno (first and second violins, viola, cello, violine and cembalo)
The Fourth presents a mystery of instrumentation for performance. No one knows what Bach meant when he specified “flauti d’echo” as two of the three solo instruments. Some believe that the term merely refers to echo effects in the second movement where the flutes imitate violin figures and indeed most performances use standard flutes. Others think that recorders, with their softer timbre, melds well with the solo violin.
The prominence of the violin in the outer movements, and the extreme difficulty of its part (more so than in Bach’s three actual violin concertos), including delirious extended sequences of extremely rapid notes, has led some to consider the Fourth a violin concerto, although in the central andante it mostly plays with the ripieno violins to support the flutes.
The lovely andante atypically employs the full ensemble, providing a richer foundation than the continuo that customarily accompanies the soloists in middle movements. But it’s the finale that has attracted the most attention. The finale simply brims with invention and high spirits and is utterly thrilling to hear. Indeed, it creates so much rousing momentum that Bach slams on the breaks with sudden rests three times before the final surge in an effort to interrupt the flow and prepare for the finish.
#2 in F major for “tromba,” flute, oboe, violin + ripieno (first and second violins, viola and violone) + continuo (cello, cembalo)
The most famous of the Brandenburgs, the Second is considered the closest to the standard concerto grosso model, although more in the sense of its sound than its structure. Hans-Joachim Schulz felt that it arose from Bach’s love of experimentation and the challenge of writing for a solo contingent of four similarly pitched instruments differentiated by their dissimilar means of tone production.
The instrumentation, though, does present a fundamental problem. Despite intensive research, scholars remain unsure what Bach meant when he designated one of the solo instruments a “tromba.” While often taken to mean a trumpet in F played a major fourth above its score notation, others point out that Bach never wrote any other part for such an instrument, that F is the natural key for horns rather than trumpets, and that an authentic copy of the score and parts by Penzel specifies use of either a trumpet or a hunting horn. Nor can any hint be gleaned from the personnel available to Bach, as musicians routinely played several brass, wind or string instruments. Indeed, while a trumpet overwhelms the other soloists (especially the soft recorder), a horn (played a major fifth below the score) is better balanced.
While most recordings use a modern trumpet, others take a variety of approaches. Menuhin uses a softer piccolo trumpet, Harnoncourt a more mellow natural trumpet, Enesco and Casals a soprano saxophone, and Dart a hunting horn. All achieve a more natural balance among the solo instruments, especially the gentle breathy recorder. Harnoncourt considers this a prime illustration of the difference between the sounds Bach heard (and wrote for) and those of today, which can distort his intentions.
Yet, however it sounds, the tromba aptly resides on the top staff, as it enjoys a commanding position in the score. Its interjections provide shape and emphasis to the first movement, in which the soloists jostle for control by progressively appropriating the tutti theme. While the trumpet rests during the andante, a lovely contemplation in which the other soloists constantly evolve a short, simple theme over a walking bass, it launches the third movement with a fugue theme that it grudgingly shares with the others while reducing the orchestra to a purely subsidiary (and often silent) supporting role.