Brandenburg Concertos review (ACO, Sydney)

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It’s easy to endow the great composers with a romantic nobility they don’t entirely deserve. J.S Bach might well be the greatest composer of all time, but he was nothing if not pragmatic. I mean, even the greatest composer has to put schweinshaxe and sauerkraut on the table. So the suite of works we now revere as the Brandenburg Concertos was actually toadying-up to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg and of Prussian royalty.
Unfortunately, Bach went to a lot of trouble for little result. It seems the good Margrave stashed them in his library with nary further thought for their destiny. History has probably been distorted to appease our appetite for romance, but I suspect there’s a whiff of truth in this account. Anyway, the happy upshot is J.S pulled out all stops to pull this boldly innovative and eminently listenable set together. Perhaps that’s why they remain as popular as Thriller, or Dark Side of the Moon. The Brandenburgs, too, seem to satisfy critical and popular taste.
Yes, these comparisons of what amounts to the sublime versus the relatively ridiculous are flippant but I often regard Richard Tognetti and band as the punk rockers of orchestral chamber music. The ACO under his leadership are cloaked in a slightly brash, provocative garment, redolent of the upstartish young Elvis. Theirs is a pelvic-thrusting, hip-swivelling kind of musical presentation.
OK, I’m looking to find a novel way to communicate in words the way the ACO plays the Brandies and it’s difficult to do because its renditions can be as fresh, surprising and jaw-dropping as the compositions, each and every one of which set a precedent in scoring.
Take No. 1, for example; I’ve never heard it played with this playful, almost reckless abandon, brimming with confidence, bordering on Jagger swagger. Tognetti led this charge, with wild tonal excursions, tearing it up on his ‘toy’ violin (the first Brandy calls for a violino piccolo).
Vivaldi and other Italian composers significantly influenced the still youngish Bach (he was around 36 when he completed these works). There’s more than a hint of Vivaldi’s dashing string arrangements and J.S clearly had a similar aptitude for insinuating joie de vivre. This evident in the blithe and buoyant first movement, an allegro that also took cues from Tony’s talent for rhythmic push.
Oboes and bassoon get a good look in, harpsichord makes it’s basso continuo presence felt and there’s the rustic inclusion of hunting horns. As with the period trumpet we heard later, this imparts a sense of danger: one lives in fear of the slightest waver into deadly dissonance. There were two memorable takeouts from the performance of this movement: the magisterial tonal balance and the very particular character of the violin piccolo.
Jubilation turned to sadness with the contemplative advent of the minor-key, adagio second movement, in which strings (especially violas, which Bach seems to favour ) and reeds are the key opening voices, tending toward the tenor range, with cellos and bass plumbing the depths.
Concerto No. 6 (which, it’s conjectured, may well have been the first of the package) discovered the often under-the-radar brilliance of lead violist Christopher Moore and relative newbie, Alexandru-Mihai Bota. This work celebrates the viola and, also, the viola da gamba (so called, as it rests on the player’s gams, as opposed to violas da braccio), of which there were two, played by Laura Moore and Ruth Wilkinson. By turns Timo-Veikko Valve’s cello, Maxime Bibeau’s bass and Anthony Romaniuk’s harpsichord greeted and graced the ears. Sublime instruments, with extraordinary provenance. But wait! There’s something very unusual and, yes, radical, about this work. No violins.
The first movement is all rampant ritornello and classic, overlapping, canon form. The prince of polyphony silences the violas da gamba for the second movement, which let us savour the simpatico savoir faire of Christopher Moore and Bota.
After interval, we were treated to the second and third concertos. The second again flirts with danger, with the use of a period trumpet, played by Neil Brough. It makes for a thrilling ride, in both the first and last movements; Brough probably deserved some kind of medal for valour. We also got to hear some of the composer’s eccentricities thanks to Genevieve Lacey.
Bach’s resume of concerti mightn’t have gone down as well as expected with the Margrave as he hoped but it’s sure made up for it since. And, once again, the (augmented) ACO, challenged itself and came up trumps. Wunderbar!

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