Six concerts à plusieurs instruments
29 June 2009
The Brandenburg Concertos live!
As part of the Oregon Bach Festival, the Portland Baroque Orchestra performed all six of the Brandenburg Concertos, originally known as Six concerts à plusieurs instruments. I just returned from the performance. There will be another performance in Eugene, but tonight’s was the only performance in Portland.
The Brandenburg Concertos occupy a special place within the history of baroque music. They are paradigmatic works that enjoy the currency typical of popular music, by which I mean that even those who have no idea who the composer is or have no idea what they are hearing, will have some passing familiarity with the famous melodies of the Brandenburgs.
I have heard recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos throughout my life. I feel a great sense of familiarity with the music, as though it were an integral part of my life. But years of listening to the crystalline purity and perfection of recorded performances leaves one a little unprepared for a live performance. Also, my very familiarity with the music made me judge the performance differently. Usually when I hear art music in live performance it is not something with which I am so familiar. But the Brandenburg Concertos I have listened to in traditional performances, historically-informed performances (among my favorites being that of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), and even the Walter Carlos Switched-On Bach rendition of Brandenburg Concerto Number 3.
The venue for the performance, the First United Methodist Church, was a large space that wonderfully reverberated with the sound of the cello and the double bass, but it was not as friendly to the violins. (Part of this is perhaps due to the use of original instruments with gut strings, which is central to historically-informed performances but lacks the penetrating timbre of later innovations in stringed instruments.) As a result, some passages sounded a little unclear. Yet the harpsichord improvisation in the second Brandenburg, though quiet, was clear, as was the recorder soloist and Monica Huggett’s improvisations in the fifth and sixth Brandenburgs. The exciting improvisations captured the true spirit of baroque music at least as well as the historically-informed material aspects of the performance.
Recently I wrote (on Twitter, no less) that if one listens to Bach in the morning, in all likelihood you will still be humming or whistling Bach that night when you go to bed. Despite its complexity and its studied, rigorous character, the Brandenburg Concertos are infectiously accessible, with the kind of tunes that might get stuck in one’s head and rhythms that spontaneously set feet tapping. But to have Bach stuck in one’s head is a pleasure.
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