I attended the concert by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra held at the Morton Meyerson Symphony Hall on March 25, 2018. The music presented was the six Brandenburg concertos by Bach. I enjoyed the concert very much! I arrived early enough to attend the pre-concert lecture at which a member of the symphony talked about Bach’s life and gave details about each concerto. For example, she mentioned that Bach sent the concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg as a kind of resume, hoping that he might be given a job. However, the Margrave must not have been impressed, because he put the music aside and for a long time no one knew it existed.
These Baroque concertos, unlike those written in the Classical period and forward, were not written for a solo instrument and orchestra. Instead, they featured a small group (the concertino) and a larger group (the ripieno). The numbering of the six probably did not reflect the order in which Bach actually wrote them, although scholars contend as to the exact order. It is likely that number six was written first, however, since it calls for the Renaissance instrument, the viola da gamba. This instrument was in decline during the Baroque period. On the other end, the Fifth concerto featured the harpsichord as part of the concertino; in fact, the harpsichord had a long solo section, and many music historians consider number five to be the first keyboard concerto. Therefore, it was probably one of the last written.
Since the orchestration changed in each concerto, there was a period of time between concertos for stage setup during which the director, who was also the harpsichordist, provided information about the next piece. It is my personal opinion that the concert would have been better with a separate harpsichordist and director, because Egarr’s switching back and forth was distracting, and I believe this double role was the reason that the group sometimes lost cohesion.
Concerto No. 1 in F major was presented first, but after that they were not played according to their numbering. Unlike the standard concerto, the First has four movements, fast-slow-fast-fast. The fourth movement also was unusual in that it featured dance forms from France (the menuetto) and Poland (the polacca). The concertino consisted of a violin, two horns (the only time horns were used), three oboes, and one bassoon. According to the lecturer, the original score called for a smaller and higher-tuned violino piccolo in place of the regular violin.
The next concerto performed was Concerto No. 6 in B-flat major which was written for two violas, two viola da gamba, cello, double-bass, and harpsichord. The second movement is marked “adagio ma non tanto” meaning “slow but not too much.” During this piece, I felt that the violas were playing flat, so I did not enjoy it as much as the others. On the other hand, I have never cared for the sound of the viola, so perhaps I am biased 😉
Next was Concerto No. 2 in F major, with flute, violin, oboe, and trumpet in the concertino. The original score called for the higher clarino trumpet used in Renaissance music, which had no valves. Pitch was changed using the lips alone, as in a bugle. The second movement of this concerto is odd in that it was not written out. Bach only provides two chords in one measure which were probably used as the basis of improvising by the concertino.
After an intermission, the second half began with Concerto No. 5 in D major. As mentioned above, the harpsichord really shines in this piece, especially in the first movement which contains a long passage of counterpoint and improvisation. The second movement was unusual in that the strings are tacit (silent). The last movement, according to the program, is a four-voiced fugue.
Both No. 2 above, and the next one, Concerto No. 3 in G major, are well-known pieces (although many people probably don’t know they were written by Bach). It is different from the others because it includes only strings plus basso continuo: three parts for each of violin, viola, and cello. The last movement is a variation on a binary dance form, the gigue, which also appeared in No. 6.
The final concerto, No. 4 in G major, included violin and two flutes or recorders in the concertino. The ritornello is very long, and the solo violin does not enter until the first ritornello ends. All the instruments are used in all three movements, and the presto of the final movement includes a complex fugue.