Six Concerts Avec plusieurs Instruments (1721)
(common English title: Brandenburg Concertos)
composed by Johann Sebastian Bach
performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (1989)
produced by Nicholas Parker (1989)
directed by Monica Huggett with Catherine Mackintosh, Alison Bury and Elizabeth Wallfisch (1989)
violin performed by Monica Hugget, Alison Bury and Elizabeth Wallfisch (1989)
violino piccolo performed by Catherine Mackintosh (1989)
viola performed by Pavlo Beznosiuk (1989)
violone performed by William Hunt (1989)
viola da gamba performed by Sarah Cunningham and Richard Campbell (1989)
cello performed by Richard Tunnicliffe (1989)
oboe performed by Paul Goodwin (1989)
horn performed by Timothy Brown and Susan Dent (1989)
recorder performed by Rachel Beckett and Marion Scott (1989)
trumpet performed by Mark Bennett (1989)
flute performed by Lisa Beznosiuk (1989)
harpsichord performed by Malcolm Proud and John Toll (1989)
In 1721, Johann Sebastian Bach presented six concertos, entitled Six Concerts Avec plusieurs Instruments, to the Duke of Brandenburg, probably hoping for some kind of patronage, as money was leaner than Bach would have liked. Of course, if he could have worn a damn condom he wouldn’t have had over a DOZEN mouths to feed at home. It appears the concertos went unappreciated/unnoticed by the Duke and they languished for years and years before being rediscovered.
Today referred to as the Brandenburg Concertos, the six works form a cohesive body that compares to a contemporary musical album. Each of the concertos consists of 2 to 4 movements, usually about 5 minutes each, similar in length to a pop and rock songs of recent times. Listening to the Brandenburgs straight through from beginning to end is quite similar to listening to an epic, cohesive album like The Beatles (aka “the White Album”) or Pet Sounds or …and Justice For All or (insert your favorite epic, cohesive album here).
By epic I mean ambitious and breathtaking, not gigantic and overblown. Compared to the symphonic monstrosities that later composers are known for, almost all Bach music is relatively intimate and personal, written to be performed in churches or small music halls. The Brandenburgs were written for smallish ensembles of about 12 performers, give or take. Most of the movements are highly melodic and can be powerfully emotional. There is a section in the 1st movement of the 5th concerto that I have designated as my official deathbed music, with the stringed instruments and woodwinds calmly trading off every few notes in a descending melody pattern while the harpsichord chugs away quickly but serenely before everything explodes in a refrain of the movement’s theme. Many of the melodies are joyous, with horns trilling away triumphantly.
The Brandenburgs recording that I chose to purchase is performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. This unfortunately named ensemble performs “historically informed” interpretations of baroque-era music, using historically accurate instruments. This entails use of recorders and currently obscure stringed instruments like violone and viola da gamba. Admittedly, I don’t think I’m well enough educated to distinguish between a cello and a violone upon hearing but still, I appreciate the effort. Despite that, I can say with authority that the performances are awesome and do justice to this sublime collection of concertos.
I would highly recommend the Brandenburg Concertos to fans of ambitious psychedelic pop of the 1960s. I can certainly see why some critics labeled albums like Pet Sounds as “California baroque” as there is certainly a kinship in musical feeling. Fans of Beatles albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, with their sometimes traditional, Euro-style orchestrations and strong, strong melodies will probably find a lot to like in the Brandenburgs as well.