For musicians, it doesn’t get much better than having the opportunity to perform and share some of history’s greatest masterpieces on tour. Apollo’s Fire is thrilled to have that opportunity this fall as we tour Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, which have proven their extraordinary power to move, delight, and captivate audiences for 250 years. But what is it that gives them that power, that greatness that we all intuitively sense?
To start with, most of Bach’s instrumentations are unique and daring. Take, for example, Concerto No. 2—violin, recorder, and trumpet?! The uniquely dark palette of Concerto No. 6 is also extraordinary, with the violins banished from the ensemble while two dueling violas take the spotlight amid the colorful sonority of viola da gamba and bass instruments.
Bach uses both texture and form in unprecedented ways, blending the solo concerto and group concerto (concerto grosso) forms. Concertos Nos. 2, 4, 5, and 6 feature primarily one solo instrument (trumpet, violin, harpsichord, and a pair of violas, respectively), but also feature groups of solo instruments in contrast. The density and polyphonic complexity of Bach’s compositional textures (far exceeding the concertos of Vivaldi) is surely one of the qualities that makes us feel we hear something new and different each time we listen. He also achieves extraordinary textural variety: the slow movements take us into a chamber music environment, where the pool of light centers on the soloists and their continuo players, while themes unfold with expressive individuality and a timeless sense of measured order.
Above all, there is a sense of exhilaration that all of us feel from performing the Brandenburgs. Some of that is due to sheer virtuosity: the featured solo instrument(s) in each piece requires a level of playing that is literally athletic. For example, Concerto No. 2, which strikes awe, if not fear, into most trumpet players, is certainly the most challenging piece in the trumpet repertoire. Not only does Bach expect the trumpet to play real melodies rather than the usual simple fanfares, but he takes the instrument up to G—a note requiring fifty pounds per square inch air pressure. The musical and physical challenges of this piece make live performances rare.
And then there is that exuberant celebration of democracy in music: the Concerto No. 3, in which each individual string player is an equal soloist. Designed to showcase the virtuoso musicians of Bach’s orchestra at Cöthen, the piece remains a thrilling workout for any ensemble today. Bach composed two substantial movements for this concerto, leaving the players to improvise a transitional second movement, for which he provided only two chords. Concerto No. 4 features revolutionary pyro-technics for the violin, and the recorder parts are rather devilish, as well. The triumphant counterpoint of the finale proves once and for all that fugal writing can be fun.
Concerto No. 5 requires from the harpsichordist a level of speed in the scalar passages that far exceeds anything else in the repertoire. One has to train for this piece the same way one trains for an athletic event. Also, the unusual role of the harpsichord in this concerto—starting off playing basso continuo (easy), then playing solo melodies in dialogue with the flute and violin (moderately difficult), then getting carried away into virtuoso scales (very difficult), and finally leaving the others in the dust as one contemplates the universe in a huge solo cadenza (mountaintop experience)—makes this piece a unique emotional experience each time one plays it.
What makes them so great, in the end, is best understood through Bach’s words as a teacher of how to play basso continuo. “The aim and reason of the basso continuo, as of all music, should be none else but the glory of God and the refreshing of the mind.”