ABO: The Brandenburg Concertos

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Published: 12th March, 2019

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra celebrated its 30th anniversary by performing the set of concertos from which the orchestra takes their name, and they did so in fine style.

Before the concert commenced, Paul Dyer, the orchestra’s artistic director and co-founder, came on stage for a chat with the audience. He brought with him two of the orchestra’s younger members, partly to illustrate how young he was when he stepped on Stage at the Sydney Opera House for that first concert. At that time in Australia, terms such as “authentic”, “original” and “period” were commonly used for one-off performances using Baroque instruments or reproductions. But here was Paul Dyer and Bruce Applebaum attempting to form an orchestra at a time before the currently accepted term, HIP (Historically Informed Performance), was even hip. The triumphant results were on full display at Saturday’s concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre featuring five of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

Concerto No. 4 opened the concert with solo parts for two recorders and violin, and it quickly became apparent how comfortable the performers were with the way Bach plays with conventions and Baroque affects in these concertos. The first movement is often treated as having three equal solo parts playing in the same style to a metronomic beat. However, Melissa Farrow and Mikaela Olberg (recorders) and Shaun Lee-Chen (violin) understood the contrasting styles required. The recorders began their mellifluous duet only to be interrupted from time to time with virtuosic violin flourishes. Surely such flair and technical skill should be enough to impress any young ladies, but they continued with a dignified affettuoso while casually managing to toss off some “unplayable” top f sharps along the way. The recorders carried their dignity into the middle movement before the whole ensemble became in involved in the masterly fugal writing of the final movement.

Already, it was clear that we were in for a special night.

Concerto No. 6 featured the velvety texture of lower strings and the rare opportunity hear two violas as featured soloists. The central movement, played for the most part without keyboard continuo, produced the most intimate music making of the evening.

Performing the Brandenburg Concertos as a set requires several decisions to be made about instrumentation. The double bass or violone part is not composed for the same type of instrument in all six concertos. Fortunately, bassist Rob Nairn was able to accommodate them on the one instrument while at the same time showing exemplary musicianship throughout the night. Similarly, the self-effacing small harpsichord which had been used for the first two works of the night would have been no match for the demands of Concerto No. 5. Paul Dyer’s own larger instrument was brought on to tackle that task.

Concerto No. 5 is for solo flute, violin and harpsichord, but part way through the first movement the harpsichord brushes everyone else aside and launches into a giant cadenza. At the time when these works were sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Bach had a minor reputation as a composer but a more major one as a performer on harpsichord and organ. This cadenza, which Bach had substituted for an earlier much shorter one, may well have been intended to remind the Margrave that if he employed Bach for his court, he would be getting a top of the line performer. This cadenza was also Paul Dyer’s chance to shine and he did not disappoint. Throwing off fistfuls of notes, any imperfections were lost in the relentless forward momentum. In the middle movement, the three soloists displayed a perfectly balanced suavity of style with a whiff of the French court before heading off to the final gigue.

Interval provided the opportunity to ponder other decisions which need to be made for a concert of this nature. Bach had not assembled them with a complete concert in mind and all six makes for a very lengthy evening for both performers and audience. For this occasion, it was Number 2 (the one with solo trumpet) that did not make the cut. Similarly, the director needs to decide in what order to perform the works. For Bach, numbers nearly always have significance, but in this case the concerto numbers do not necessarily imply a performance order. In the end, we found the chosen ordering to be most satisfying.

After interval, the largest forces for the night assembled for Concerto No. 1. The impressive blend, balance and richness of tone provided an ideal commencement to the second half of the concert. The piccolo violin part is often played nowadays on a standard sized violin tuned up to the piccolo tuning. Matt Bruce, however, used the smaller instrument and showed us with his stylish playing why the difference in timbre is worth the trouble. In fact, the natural horns, baroque oboes and bassoons reminded us why it worth the trouble to play on period instruments in the first place. Bach’s sound world was different form that of a modern orchestra. Through the second and third movements, solos were traded between piccolo violin, oboe and horn to great effect before all forces re-joined for the final movement.

The concert concluded with the glories of Concerto No. 3. Three groups of three instruments threw themes around between each other like a troupe of polished acrobats. With this orchestra, there was no weak link in the chain, and the energy flowed from the stage into the audience. Bach’s manuscript only shows two chords for the second movement, but on this occasion the harpsichord and two string players offered brief improvisatory flourishes before that cadence. The final movement was played (as has become common) at breakneck speed but never exceeding the technical resources of the players.

As the streamers descended on the stage there was an opportunity to reflect on the contribution that Paul Dyer, Bruce Applebaum and the orchestra have made to Australian musical life. From an uncertain but brave beginning 30 years ago, we can now enjoy regular historically informed performances from an orchestra of international standard. Celebrations and streamers are certainly warranted.

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Bevan Leviston attended the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s performance of The Brandenburg Concertos at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on March 9, 2019.