Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 13: Remarks by Bettina Varwig, performance by Josh Cohen (baroque trumpet) and the 2019 Chestnut Hill Summer Festival ensemble
Hello, my name is Bettina Varwig. I'm Associate Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge, and I am delighted to introduce to you this performance of J. S. Bach's second Brandenburg Concerto.
When we think of the Baroque concerto and how it works, the standard pattern that usually comes to mind is ritornello form—that is, an orderly alternation of tutti and solo passages. In the tutti passages, the full ensemble plays and the main thematic material, the ritornello, is heard. And in the intervening episodes, the soloists display their virtuosic skill, while the rest of the ensemble look on admiringly.
Unfortunately, this concerto by Bach, and his Brandenburg Concertos as a whole, refuse to follow this standard ritornello form as was defined by well-meaning twentieth-century musicologists. When Bach presented this set of concertos to its dedicatee, the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, in 1721, he had had plenty of opportunities to become familiar with Italian concerto writing, in particular the works of Antonio Vivaldi, whose music Bach studied and admired. But already in Vivaldi's concertos, we find a wide variety of formal strategies that defy any attempt at defining a standard pattern. And those strategies seem multiplied again in the Brandenburgs, which demonstrate emphatically that Baroque concerto form was not a stable container into which musical content could be poured. But rather, it was a flexible set of procedures that were molded and shaped according to the particular musical materials at hand.
So in listening to this concerto, I would invite you to put aside a kind of structural approach that tries to discern the overall architectonic plan of the piece. The opening movement really is an aural maze. The beautifully-neat autograph that Bach prepared for the Margrave conceals an explosion of musical invention. There clearly is an opening ritornello statement with all the instruments, and we then move through different key areas that are each announced by the ensemble reaching a cadence point. But at least in my listening, these cadence points appear less as markers of a formal scheme and more as opportunities to catch my breath, as we briefly emerge from the musical flow before being plunged back in again.
After that opening ritornello, Bach leads his listeners through a tour de force of varying, elaborating, amplifying, and intensifying his initial musical ideas. The four solo instruments—trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin—combine and recombine in a kaleidoscopic display of timbres and figurations. Because these four instruments have such different timbral qualities, they maintain their distinctiveness even as the texture thickens and shifts. Although in the denser passages, it can become difficult to keep track of the individual parts, the overall musical fabric still feels differentiated and buzzing and alive. It is in the appreciation of these ever-changing permutations perhaps that a listener might find a path through this aural maze, not to mention simply being dazzled by the skill of the soloists, most of all the trumpeter who has to tackle one of the most difficult parts in the repertoire. The fact that the players in our performance make that task look so easy and effortless should not distract from the fact that this musical event can only happen when the skills of the composer Bach combine with the skills and energy of his performer-collaborators.
In the second movement, the trumpeter gets a welcome break. Here the very loose boundaries between the categories of chamber music and orchestral music in Bach's time become evident. The texture is reduced here to only the three remaining solo instruments, plus basss continuo. And this gives the movement the feel of an intimate chamber Sonata. Again, Bach's main musical ideas are pretty much all contained in the opening couple of measures, and these are then spun out over a purposeful walking bass line.
The final movement again puts the trumpeter at center stage. The main thematic material is clearly written for that instrument, the kind of fanfare motives derived from the German stadtpfeifer or "town piper" tradition, although it would have had to be a pretty extraordinary stadtpfeifer to tackle this part. In this movement, Bach presents a kind of amalgamation of ritornello and fugure procedures. But again, this music follows no blueprint, and instead it displays Bach's almost obsessive urge to explore the full possibilities inherent in his musical materials. Listen, for instance, to that climactic moment right before the end, where the ritornello theme is strummed out in the bass part, really heightening the intensity before the accumulated energy is just about reined in, at the final cadence. There is something almost intoxicating about this overflow of musical imagination, this seemingly inexhaustible proliferation of possibilities that somehow manages to remain lucid and cogent in its spectacular exuberance.
The slide in the video at timestamp 16:27 is missing violinist Edson Scheid. We regret the error.