Tuesday, June 8, 2010

In review--Will the Real Brandenburg Stand Up?

J.S. Bach
Les Six Concerts Brandebourgeois
Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall
Aliavox Heritage/Harmonia Mundi

I’m certainly not a Bach scholar by any stretch, but I’ve been listening to J.S. Bach’s work during the past few years simply because I find the composer’s music healing. In my research, I have read many references to the perfect architecture of the baroque composer’s sacred and secular compositions. As a freelance music composer living during an era of patrons (church and aristocracy), much of the composer’s work was for hire. Virtuoso musicians, church officials, and members of the elite class would commission works, not just of Bach, but his contemporaries too.

It’s not as if we live in an era void of musicians-for-hire because musical works are still commissioned and composers still make a living off of commissioned work. However, most of us non-classical, (outside of theatrical and film soundtrack work), musicians have a difficult time conceiving of writing music on demand. That’s not to say that composers such as Bach didn’t compose personal music for their enjoyment and the enjoyment of their friends and family members (and JS Bach had a large family). I read in a few places that Bach did in fact compose music for his personal use. And I think even with his commissioned work he strove for intellectually and emotionally-stimulating music, as is definitely the case with the 6 Brandenburg Concertos. And it would be my guess that’s why we still listen to Bach’s repertoire in the 21st century because it is pleasing to the ear and the brain.

If you read the liner notes on Richard Egarr’s interpretation of Brandenburg Concertos and Jordi Savall’s Le Concert des Nations’ Brandenburg Concertos, you will notice a striking difference in reference to the concertos. According to the liner notes on the Egarr recording, the concertos were composed for the Margrave of Brandenburg, but the liner notes from Jordi Savall’s CD mention just the opposite and the origins of the concertos remain a mystery. And does anyone need to solve this mystery in order to find pleasure in the music? I certainly don’t, but I did catch myself comparing the 2 recordings. After almost giving myself a headache (what’s the point of that?), I reached the conclusion that the 2 interpretations are indeed different, but they complement each other.

Les Six Concerts Brandebourgeois features concertos that share little in common with the exception that all the concertos feature virtuoso players and set a mood of one kind or another. The first concerto opens with bright sounding horns and as mentioned in the liner notes and has a pastoral feel. It’s also the longest concerto of the six with four movements, instead of the usual three. The third concerto also departs from the three-part structure in that it features only two allegro movements, though on this recording, a 31 second Adagio has been sandwiched between the 2 Allegros. Did Bach like to break the rules?

The overall recording provides a lush and dense orchestral sound with bright horns and flutes punctuating the overall effect. As you would expect from Jordi Savall, the concertos are performed on period instruments which gives off an exotic appeal. The inclusion of Savall’s viol de gamba contributes a majestic quality. While the musicians and interpreters must have put a lot of thought into how the concertos would be performed, on which instruments and the tempo, the actual performing of the concertos is heartfelt.

As far as physical effects, I feel invigorated listening to this recording, especially the first disc with all of the horns and flutes. Disc two opens with courtly music that brings up visuals of a royal ball. The lively flutes and strings certainly possess invigorating and uplifting qualities, not to mention, that the music is absolutely stunning. The second movement, Andante, features the same instruments, but the feel is now dreamy and somber. In the third movement, Presto, the recorders stand out among the polyphonic arrangement and then the composer slipped in a violin solo into this rich tapestry.

Concerto Five is among my favorites of the concertos because it features a long and dreamy harpsichord solo, among flutes and persistent strings. Actually, the harpsichord solo will certainly stop you in your tracks with its incredible virtuosity. And I recognize the final movement of the sixth concerto as the theme song for National Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion, even if the radio show only uses a small section of the movement.

The Brandenburg Concertos, whether or not they were composed for an elite man of Brandenburg, have captured my heart and put my mind at ease. I enjoy waking up to Jordi Savall’s invigorating interpretation and falling asleep to it too. There are few words in my vocabulary to describe such beautiful music so I’m not even going to try. However, even if you’re not a fan of Bach’s music, even if you associate Bach with church music or stuffy scholars pontificating about the scores, give the Brandenburg Concertos a careful listen. I think these concertos will change your mind about Bach and you might even become a Bach-aholic, if you’re not already.

http://www.harmoniamundi.com/ and http://www.blogger.com/goog_1733384135

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