Bach Weekend – The Brandenburg Concertos

The Brandenburg Concertos:
No.1 in F, BWV1046 [3 oboes, 2 horns, bassoon, violino piccolo, strings and continuo]
No.3 in G [3 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, violine and harpsichord]
No.5 in D [harpsichord, flute, violin, strings and continuo]
No.4 in G [violin, 2 recorders, strings and continuo]
No.6 in B flat [2 violas, 2 violas da gamba, cello, violone and continuo]
No.2 in F [recorder, oboe, trumpet, violin, strings and continuo]

The Feinstein Ensemble [Martin Feinstein (flute & recorder), Rebecca Prosser (recorder), Antoine Torunczyk, Mathieu Loux, Xavier Miquel (oboes), Chris Rawley (bassoon), Neil Brough (trumpet), Anneke Scott & David Ransom (horns), Catherine Manson (violin & piccolo violin), Sarah Moffatt & Persephone Gibbs (violins), Marianna Szucs, Jane Norman & Hazel Brooks (violas), Richard Campbell*, Ageet Zweistra & Kinga Gáborjáni* (cellos & viola da gambas*), William Hunt (violone) & Nicholas Parle (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 21 March, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Tonight’s performance of the Brandenburg Concerti will be performed on instruments tuned lower than the Baroque instruments which are most commonly heard today. It is now standard practice to perform music from the first half of the 18th Century on period instruments and it has also become the norm to perform this repertoire at A=415, one semitone lower than modern concert pitch, a tuning very common at the time Bach was writing. However the pitch of instrumenst was by no means standardised during this time. An even lower tuning of around A=392 (a full tone below concert pitch) was also in common use, especially in the royal courts, and it is quite probable that Bach would have expected the Brandenburg concerti to be performed at this pitch.”

A few hours before this concert (part of the Southbank’s Centre’s Bach Weekend) I was speculating on the best order to perform J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (written for Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg, and completed early in 1721). Independently, I came to the same conclusion as the members of the Feinstein Ensemble!

These were performances bursting with vitality, sensitivity and camaraderie, the first movement of Concerto No.1 given with infectious swing, the Adagio given plenty of time to express itself and the closing Minuet without the ponderousness that can sometimes undermine it, horns and oboes rapacious in one of the trios. Concerto No.3, for strings, was foot-tapping in the outer movements (if a little too nifty in the finale to turn corners elegantly), the added-in central Andante (either Bach didn’t write a slow movement or it is lost) a moment of respite.

In Concerto No.5, the harpsichord, the continuo instrument throughout these works (so too William Hunt’s violone, a double bass of firm foundation) , is also a soloist and is given an extensive cadenza, which Nicholas Parle brought-off in an affably spontaneous manner, this after his colleagues had entered a ‘twilight zone’ of haunting half-light colours and dynamics. Martin Feinstein’s flute-playing was utterly beguiling.

In the second half of the concert one could savour cascades of notes in Concerto No.4 and the whimsical-sounding recorders, then the darker hues of lower strings in Concerto No.6, music of mellow fruitfulness, a performance of relaxed point and the slow movement made sublime. To close, with Antoine Torunczyk as the oboist, Neil Brough made an heroic appearance with his Baroque trumpet, delightful in its softness yet adding unforced brightness to the whole, the treacherous high notes commanding but integrated.

Whether as soloists or part of the ensemble, this was playing of insight, skill and pleasure, a long evening that flew by and which proved enjoyable and enlightening.

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