Freiburg Baroque Orchestra: Complete Brandenburgs on an Off Night

United StatesUnited States  Bach: Brandenburg Concerti, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Gottfried von der Goltz (Violin and Director), Petra Műllejans (Violin and Director), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 5.2.2014 (SSM)       

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

Recordings have often required a rearrangement of the parts of a complete set. For instance, the six Brandenburgs or the nine Beethoven symphonies are sometimes boxed out of sequence. To avoid splitting a movement midway because of a need to flip the disc, or to fill the recording in the most efficient way, an audio editor might place Beethoven’s Third Symphony on one side and the Fifth on the other. But why rearrange a live performance of works that are clearly marked by the composer to be in a specified order.

I asked this question last year of Baroque violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch, who had just led an unordered performance of the Brandenburgs at the Montreal Festival (the concerti were played in a sequence of 2, 5, 4, 1, 6, 3). Her answer was that it wasn’t her decision and  she would have done it Bach’s way, but she thought the producers might have wanted to open both the concert and its second half with larger works. I would hazard a guess that a similar rationale was used by the Freiburg musicians: wanting to open and close with as many orchestral members as possible on stage as possible. The First Brandenburg requires the most players, and the Fourth, which ended the program, is large enough to include doubled instruments without compromising the composer’s intent. This cannot be said of the Sixth Brandenburg which calls for a smaller ensemble and less diverse instrumentation.

 The First Brandenburg is the most complex of the set. It is the only Brandenburg with more than three movements and demands much from all the musicians. It is a work that can easily sound cacophonous, and even more so when played on original instruments, as it was here. The rapid changes between the ripieno and concertino sections and the extremely difficult scoring for two natural horns requires a well-seasoned orchestra with virtuosic soloists: exactly what one expects from the Freiburg Baroque. Unfortunately, this performance of the First never quite came together. Their 1990 DVD of the Brandenburgs focused on the soloists, and the horn players in the First never missed a beat, which cannot be said about the horn soloists here. The violinist, Gottfried von der Goltz, played the violino piccolo in a way that contradicted the description of  the instrument in the program notes as a “sweet-toned mini-violin.” Whether the problem was with the instrument or the player, the sounds produced were harsh and shrill.

 For Bach, the Sixth Brandenburg deserved its place as the grand finale in the set, and for many it’s the greatest of them all, but this performance lacked both depth and dimension.  The violas should have sounded rich and resonating, not weak and thin as they did here.  The acoustics and the inherently small sound of original instruments were part of the problem.

 The Second Brandenburg, scored for violin, recorder, oboe and trumpet solos, succeeds or fails on the playing of the trumpet. So difficult is the trumpet part that I always feel a sense of relief when the concerto ends. In many cases, when performed on the impossibly difficult clarino trumpet, I’m happy if only the highest notes are flubbed. The instrument was so hard to master that Bach’s eldest son stopped writing for it: he couldn’t find anyone willing to play it. Jaroslav Rouček made a valiant effort to keep within the trumpet’s tessitura but wasn’t able to rein in the instrument enough to allow the audience to stop focusing on him and give their attention to the music itself.

 The second half of the concert was more relaxed: the remaining concerti are free from the technical challenges of the first three. The Third Brandenburg was well performed and lacked only the improvisatory-style second movement often used to replace the bare two chords that Bach  provided.

 The Fifth Concerto, along with the Fourth that concluded the concert, were played on the level one expects from a group with such a reputation. The famous virtuosic cadenza which concludes the first movement of the Fifth gives the harpsichord its only chance to shine, and the music worked here exactly as intended: the voice of the harpsichord rose as each instrument faded away, taking the stage as soloist for a grand conclusion. In the Fourth Brandenburg, second violinist Petra Műllejans dug into the music with an intensity missing from von der Goltz’s vacant posturing. The Fourth ended the cycle with more verve than any of those that preceded it.

 The encore, the last movement of Telemann’s Concerto in F for two horns, was played with such intensity and energy (as well as perfectly pitched horns) that it made me wonder why the Freiburg Baroque had chosen to tour with the Brandenburgs when it is clear that the ensemble have lost their fire for these works.

Stan Metzger