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Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051

Emmanuel Music

Emmanuel Church, 15 Newbury St., Boston

Thursday, Sept. 18

Things must have seemed bleak to the thirty-five year old Johann Sebastian Bach in the spring of 1721. He had composed six pieces, delivered for a commission to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig, each one an exposition of the new and old instruments that were available to the young composer, each one a re-thinking of the concerto form — still relatively young in the early eighteenth century and certainly still very Italian in its conception and tradition. In short, each of these orchestral pieces were a thoughtful exposition of the musical world that Bach inhabited.

The results were not pleasant: Ludwig omitted these pieces from his personal collection of compositions and, after his death, the six concerti were sold for roughly one dollar apiece. It’s unclear exactly how much more Bach could have failed in his attempt.

To be sure, Ludwig’s indifference to Bach’s work is understandable. In some sense, the Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046-1051) are difficult pieces even to our ears, nearly three hundred years afterward. The grouping of six concerti are experiments, and how: Bach incorporates avant garde combinations of instruments — in one, two recorders and a violin, in another, two horns and a harpsichord (the other combinations are almost equally absurd) — producing novel and often mercurial forms and extended harmonies that must have been as shocking and impenetrable to the eighteenth-century baroque ear, as John Cage or Eliot Carter is for us.

It’s this sense of curiosity on Bach’s part, his exploration of what combinations are successful and — more importantly — how they manage it, that has kept audiences returning to hear this music and has made the Brandenburg Concertos a mainstay of Bach’s secular orchestral output.

Fitting, then, that Bach’s nearly three hundred year-old work should find its home under the direction of both John Harbison and Michael Beattie at the opening gala for Emmanuel Music’s 2008-2009 music season this past Thursday, 18 September at the Emmanuel Church in Boston. Emmanuel Music is unique in its ambitious move to perform one Bach cantata every Sunday morning during service, in the style that Bach was accustomed to at Emmanuel Church. The effect, of course is astonishing: to hear Bach’s cantatas in a space for which they were written, with instruments they were written for, gives a sense of the world Bach inhabited. This is not the veneered stereophonic chambers produced on recordings, but a spare world with shrill, whiny instruments where tonality is relative and even-temperament is a blessing. Bach’s cantatas find a unique home in the cavernous Gothic architecture of Emmanuel Church.

The six Brandenberg concertos, in contrast, were originally composed for a small saloon-type setting and modifications were necessary for Emmanuel Music’s concert to accommodate the significantly different tenor of the church. Indeed, space seems to have been the greatest impedance to Thursday night’s performance.

The first and second concerti, which feature trumpets, replaced the baroque trumpet with modern French horns (expertly performed by Richard Sebring, and Richard Menaul and Whitacre Hill, respectively). It was, of course, a wise decision; Emmanuel Church could not have tolerated the pungent timbre of the baroque horn to blend with the muted Baroque orchestra (one of the many concerns plaguing early orchestral composers attempting to incorporate brass instruments into their works) and the French horns were more accommodating in this respect.

The space of Emmanuel Church again colored the performance of the sixth concerto, a grosso concerto scored for two violas, one viola da gamba, one cello, a violone and harpsichord; it seemed to lose some of the grace and precision of the imitative coloratura of the violas amid this displacement. Of course, replacing the violone with a double bass afforded more stability to accommodate the live space of Emmanuel Church. However, it was disappointing not to hear Bach’s crisp counterpoint in the solo violas as clearly, as it is featured so prominently in this piece.

This was especially true for the fifth concerto, a ripieno concerto scored for flute, violin, viola, cello, violone and harpsichord. This performance utilized not only the double bass, as before, but replaced the harpsichord with a piano. This modification was particularly striking as the fifth concerto features an extended solo and fortspinnung on the harpsichord at the end of the first movement. Beattie, on the piano, was second to none in performing this portion of the piece. His expertise on the piano and familiarity with Bach’s intentions in this movement became obvious as the movement ended in a thrilling cadenza. But a piano is no harpsichord: the brashness of the modern piano disfavored and often overcame the subtler period instruments utilized in this performance and the virtuosic runs lost some of their crispness in the church (Bach himself famously denigrated the precursors to the modern piano, criticizing the instrument as too loud and difficult to play).

This is not to say, however, that the performance was not well-conceived and executed. The six pieces were performed in reverse order, starting with the smallest ensemble in the sixth, concluding with the largest and most grandly conceived of the pieces, the first concerto. Of particular note was the endearingly shaggy third concerto. Set in a particularly jovial portrayal of G major, Bach features three principal violin parts (elegantly rendered by Rose Drucker, Jodi Hagen and Lena Wong in Emmanuel Music’s performance) in engrossing dialogue throughout the first and third movements.

Particularly interesting was the second movement. Here, Bach scores only two chords, a Phrygian cadence, often interpreted to be a moment of pause between the exhausting first and third movements. It speaks to Harbison and Beattie’s understanding of the implicit motives in Bach’s music that they chose impose a successful break from tradition at this point. This moment was incredibly extended and explicated upon in a somber, yet poignantly beautiful, cannon based on this cadence, a deleted movement from the Bach Violin Sonata, BWV 1019.

Anywhere else, two hours of Bach would have appeared taxing; this is a lot of Bach, and not the Bach of the St. Matthew Passion, English Suites or b minor Mass. This is a weird and eccentric Bach, one that is experimenting, gleefully riffing on his newfound combinations and discoveries. The particular composition of academic integrity and virtuosic performance in Emmanuel Music’s opening gala was a moving reminder that Bach is not simply a great composer, but, foremost, an experimentalist and innovator. Certainly, this opening gala foretells an excellent season to come.