Bach’s Brandenburgs in Montreal: Complete in Every Way

CanadaCanada Bach, Brandenburg Concerti: Soloists and Winners of the 2012 Canada Musical Instrument Bank Awards, Elizabeth Wallfisch (violinist/director), St. George Church, Montreal, 23.5.2013 (SSM)

Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat major
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major

Why does one live concert succeed while another fails? The obvious answer is that a concert must be well performed, emotionally resonant and reflective of the musicians’ intentions. Yet there are instances where everything comes together and goes beyond these qualities to a higher level of eloquence. For the audience in such a situation, nothing that occurs outside the music really matters. Technical and interpretative issues are subsumed by the nearly palpable sense of camaraderie between the artists and the audience.

This was the situation here. Did it matter that every seat in the church was taken and some members of the audience could only find places with a partial view, or that at times the musicians filled the stage so tightly that they might have feared accidentally bowing their colleagues. What mattered was the music: music played on an array of instruments of all shapes and sizes. Many of these were one-of-a-kind historical rarities whose resulting sound, aided by the unique acoustics of the church, were full yet at the same time unexpectedly intimate.

The ordering of the Brandenburgs was unusual in that it started with No. 2 and ended with No. 3. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind this, except for the fact that closing the concert with No. 3 gave all the string players an opportunity to be on stage for the final work of the night.

The 2nd Brandenburg opened the concert with a flourish of fanfares. Trumpeter Jens Lindemann faultlessly shot rapid-fired notes that Bach wrote for an earlier instrument even more difficult to master than our modern-day one. Despite the unusually fast tempi that were taken for this concerto, Lindemann breezed through it with seeming ease.

Both flutist Jocelyne Roy and harpsichordist Hank Knox were outstanding in the 5th Brandenburg. The harpsichord is the instrument in the spotlight here, acting as a major player rather than just a supporting member of the basso continuo group. In no other Brandenburg and perhaps in no other work by Bach, does an obligatto harpsichord play non-stop from beginning to end. The improvisatory-like cadenza of the first movement only gradually gains focus as instrumentalists drop out one by one as if they were precursors of Haydn’s vacationing musicians in his “Farewell Symphony.” Now completely alone, the harpsichordist is faced with 65 bars of daunting runs and arpeggios of 16th and 32nd notes, some even written as triplets. Getting to the end measure is an accomplishment in itself, and Knox is to be congratulated for getting there error-free.

Not that Elizabeth Wallfisch was in any way inactive in the previous concerti, but the 4th Brandenburg really gave her an opportunity to show her stuff. Along with the caressing playing of recorders by Vincent Lauzer and Alexa Raine-Wright, Ms. Wallfisch tackled the fiendishly difficult violin role in the concertino sections with thorough mastery. In fact throughout the evening she never for an instant wavered in control of all three of her roles: leader, soloist and member of the orchestra’s string section.

One can understand why Bach’s Brandenburg No. 1 is the first in the set: it makes use of more instruments than any of the others and as such is the prototype for all that follow. Each concerto is uniquely colored, but the first is sui generis. It is the only one that has four movements, and its final movement is comprised of the names of dances; technically, it’s more of a suite than a concerto. All the instrumentalists had a chance to step out from the crowd as if they were introducing themselves to the audience. Special mention should be given to the horn players Jocelyn Veilleux and Louis-Phillipe Marsolais, who succeeded in a challenging score.

After the brashness of the 1st Brandenburg, the 6th came as a needed respite. Bach perhaps felt that the last work in a set should be one of an unusual nature: both the cello suite No. 6 and the Brandenburg No. 6 are markedly different from their predecessors, the cello suite written for its highest register, the Brandenburg for its lower. The unhurried warmth that came from the normal string section’s violins, violas, celli and double bass was enhanced by the two viola da gambas played by Betsy MacMillian and Elin Söderström. What can be said about this Brandenburg’s second movement other than that it is ethereal.

The concluding 3rd Brandenburg had all the string members tightly fitted across the stage. The energy radiated by the previous concerti seemed to have been harnessed and reapplied to this one: a fitting finale that upon completion had the audience jumping out of their seats, giving the players well-deserved applause and bravi.

This was an exceptional concert, one sure to be on my list of best concerts of the year.

Stan Metzger