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Bach’s Brandenburg Delights at Alice Tully Hall

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Dec 17th, 2018

All J.S. Bach fans have often wondered if the evolutionary course of music history might have accelerated faster, if Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto manuscripts had been discovered earlier (having been published in 1850 but composed about 1720). There is such a wealth of sophisticated advancement in these six concertos that they continue to amaze theorists and listeners. I sat next to a charming elderly lady with a cane at Alice Tully Hall last Sunday afternoon; she has never played an instrument, yet she has come to hear the Brandenburg Concertos every year for the past forty years. To hear all six concertos at one sitting remains an exalted experience that resonates in one’s cortex long after the hearing.

Bach absorbed the Corelli and Vivaldi concerto format and went beyond previous formula, investigating more harmonic and melodic lines, as well as creating new sound combinations that are nearly orchestral. Each opens with a ritornello, then moves in varied directions and combinations of instruments.

I like to think of these concertos as essays in music. Michel Montaigne invented the essay (an attempt to explore a subject) with his 1580 collection, exploring different lines of possible thought. Likewise, Bach explores varied musical conundrums, arriving at unexpected yet happy results. While Montaigne revels in doubt, Bach revels in joy, yet each arrive at new perceptions as they work their way through intellectual problems with confident reflection, both elegantly aware of their historical topics; both explore “out loud” the course of their journey with a distinctive personal voice.

In the Fifth concerto in D major, the cello and violin at the opening Allegro appear to indicate a dancing motif, as if a dancing lesson was described. Their dialogue with Paolo Bordignon on harpsichord offers rhythmic seduction. The following slow Affettuoso sounds consoling, as if Bach recalled the memory of a deceased dancing master from his youth. The joyous concluding Allegro where Adam Walker’s solo on flute contributed to celebrate what Bach had learned from his past mentor—going beyond what he had learned and what the Italian tradition offered. Ani Kavafian on violin and Anthony Manzo on double bass captured aptly the lively rhythmic quality of the piece.

Concerto Six in B-flat major offered nuanced and unified tonal color of the string ensemble. Here the violas of Matthew Lipman and Paul Neubauer dominated, which resulted in usual inversion. There is an orchestral wholeness to this work which obliterates the distinction between ritornello and episodic digression. The cellos of Timothy Eddy and Inbal Segev subscribe to lyrical fugue. After the gigue, there occurs an expansive ending that invites general participation to dance.

The first half concluded with the Second concerto in F major. What struck me most forcefully was the furious Vivaldi-like cadenzas by Alexander Sitkovetsy on violin. The ensemble playing, enlivened by Peter Kolkay on bassoon, elicited that extra, undefinable wow that signals an excellent concert. The trumpet of David Washburn, playing only natural notes imprints the form of the work for other instruments to elaborate, which creates jovial access by the other instruments.  

After the break, flutes, oboe, and violins join the lead of the harpsichord played with delicate, consummate energy by Bordignon in the First concerto in F major. Rustic horns dialogue with courtly strings. The opening Allegro offers admirable, taut density with bravura horn roles by Stewart Rose and David Byrd-Marrow. The middle Andante without horns remains impressively contemplative and questioning. The harpsichord initiates dialogue with flute and strings. The concluding Allegro unites all instruments in agreement as the flute agrees with strings: the continuo amiably agrees with all, as the horns hold the forward tension and dynamics, then step down, allowing the strings to affirm harmony. The compact concluding fugue becomes a prophecy of the sonata form.

The rather slow opening Allegro in the Fourth concerto in G major plays a central role appears in challenging the usual fast openings of the Italian concerto. The following Adagio tempo with the ritornello sounds quite Italian, yet it carries further exploration than what one usually finds in Italian music. The commanding solos were in the hands of Sitkovetsy’s virtuosity. The pensive, concluding Allegro supplies more harmony and melody than one finds in any Italian concerto, and the soft, sensitive flute by O’Connor enhances a fragile, contemplative ending. Here Bach has reformulated the Italian concerto into slow-fast-slow by turning it inside out.

The Third concerto in G major features eleven players, held for last. This sounds more Germanic as the large string ensemble welds together to deliver an orchestral timbre beyond mere ensemble in the second movement. Three violins lead with reply conversation from the harpsichord. There is great contrast between the upper register of the violins and the three cellos in sync played by Timothy Eddy, Mihai Marica, and Segev. The propulsive rhythms of the violins played by Kavafian, Sitkovetsy, and Yura Lee (who made forceful contributions here) with some outstanding lower contrasting notes on the double bass by Manzo, allow Bach’s peculiar, intoxicating resonance to flourish. Everyone presents a short solo in this chamber-music style work, and thus it becomes a fitting way to conclude a concert, especially considering that these concertos were never meant to be a cyclic set.

To catalog the dazzling virtues of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos produces the opposite of what the music intends: enjoyment through variety that the average listener can appreciate with intense delight. Bach wrote on a multiplicity of levels, both for the average listener and the theoretician; Bach combined general access with innovative development, yet the final product must be judged by Bach’s universality, which articulated an immanent joy amid life’s obstacles. The reasons for multiple hearings by both average appreciators and hypnotized intellectuals remain: to participate in the immediacy of that joy and discovery.