Bach’s “Brandenburgs” – A Late Evening on Early Instruments
A review by Marc Shulgold
A list of Greatest Hits from the Baroque would be incomplete without Vivaldi’s tuneful “Four Seasons” and Bach’s brilliant “Brandenburg” Concertos. It’s not unusual to see the Italian composer’s quartet of violin concertos served up on a concert program. But an evening devoted to all of Bach’s glorious “Brandenburgs” is a rarity – for one good reason.
There are six of them.
For the true early-music aficionado, that’s no roadblock, as witnessed by the huge crowd gathered in Bethany Lutheran Church last Saturday for the third of four “Brandenburg” concerts by the wonderful Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado.
Hearing all six may be too much of a very good thing – or not, depending on your quota for a whole bunch of notes. Bach’s half-dozen were originally bundled together and apparently delivered in 1721 to the Margrave of Brandenburg as an ambitious (and unsuccessful) job application. Individually, one can’t question their unequaled greatness. But collectively, the set does make for a lengthy listening experience.
Unlike Vivaldi’s set, each of these six calls for different instrumentation, bringing welcome variety, as well as a rich trove of Baroque splendor. Under the leadership of artistic director Frank Nowell, the performances on Saturday reminded listeners of Bach’s unending invention, mastery of counterpoint and melodic gifts. The ensembles, consisting of BCOC core players and several invited guests, clearly gave their all.
That said, not every Concerto received an equally grand reading. Despite the Fifth’s show-stopping keyboard heroics of guest harpsichordist Stephen Gamboa-Diaz (more on him in a moment), the evening’s most exciting offering proved to be its finale: Number Four. Here, Cynthia Miller Freivogel, BCOC’s most dynamic player, churned her way through the dazzling solo violin’s passagework with all the energy and joyous virtuosity of a rock star. Nearby, recorder players Linda Lunbeck and Michael Lightner added to the charm and excitement of this wonderful work.
Guest harpsichordist Gamboa-Diaz hails from New Haven, Conn., appearing as a member of BCOC’s marvelous Young Artist Spotlight program. Through nationwide recommendations, he was chosen by Nowell to play the knuckle-busting cadenza in the Fifth “Brandenburg” – and he positively nailed it (he also sat at the keyboard for Number Three). Equally fine was the playing of violinist Martin Davids and flutist Tamara Meredith.
Not quite up to snuff were the pair of Concertos that call for brass instruments. In the First, Linda Dempf and Todd Williams did their best with those ungainly valve-less horns, blending nicely in the final Menuetto with their colleagues (Frievogel on violino piccolo and the oboe trio of Kathryn Montoya, MaryAnn Shore, and Matthew Hudgens).
The beloved Second Concerto featured the presence of the bright-sounding Baroque Trumpet – here played brilliantly by Josh Cohen. After a ragged start, the performance found its feet, thanks to the additional solo efforts of Freivogel, Lunbeck and Montoya.
The two “Brandenburgs” that are more ensemble-oriented – Number Three for groups of strings, and Number Six with cello and violas – were nicely handled. In the last of the six, violists Emily Bowman and Alexander Vittal teamed with cellist Lara Turner in a properly transparent, chamber-size reading.