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Review: Bach’s Brandenburg, Canberra International Music Festival

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On a pleasant weekend in Canberra, a great feat was accomplished. The complete Brandenburg concertos were performed over two days, as part of the Canberra International Music Festival.

Canberra itself was on full display. The performances were held at the beautiful Snow Music Centre, in Canberra Grammar School. And the ensemble featured no less than four Canberrans, reflecting that city’s flourishing early music scene.

As the story goes, the Brandenburg Concertos were Bach’s cover letter sent with the hope that the unhappy court musician might find patronage under the Margrave of Brandenburg. But it seems there was no response and he was, in modern parlance, “left on seen”.

The concert began with the lively first concerto. The concerto begins, strikingly, with something of a hunting call on the horns (corni da caccia). It is notoriously difficult to get the right notes on the natural horn but they were pleasingly accurate here. The horns were rather muted, to give enough breathing room to the rest of the ensemble. Another difficulty is to keep all three oboes in unison – in the Adagio’s closing cadence there was a slight slip – and with the horns. But the second movement was particularly lyrical.

The uninitiated are often caught by surprise when they realise that this concerto, departing from the tripartite structure of a typical concerto grosso. There were some premature claps. But the fourth movement was one of the highlights. In a way that harks back to the Menuet-Trios of his six orchestral suites, Bach interposes some delightful little vignettes to lighten the busyness of it all. The trio with bassoon and oboes was particularly well done, and James Tarbotton’s solo was expressive in such an effortless way.

The third concerto is a feast for the strings. It features many questions and answers between violins and viola, and other sections of the orchestra. The response from the violins was sometimes too diffident. But a young rising star on the viola (Brad Tham) made a name for himself in the final movement, with an impeccable rendition of a virtuosic solo. In the first movement, motifs are tossed around the orchestra with joyful abandon. But through it all, all three cellists kept perfect unison. Their expressions belied how the difficulty of those passages.

The first question everyone asks themselves before they sit down and listen to an interpretation of the third concerto is – what will the performers make of the second movement? The enigmatic second movement contains only two notes. Bach leaves it to what he assumes to be a well-informed custodian of his works to make something meaningful of it. Some take it to extravagant extremes – often to little avail. But Madeleine Easton fashioned it into a pleasing cadenza. It was a sign of careful musicianship crafted over years of dedication to Bach’s works. So was the way she interpreted the closing Presto. Easton gave to it great dynamic variety, and the first few bars vary between feverish crescendos and graceful falls.

But most were obviously there to hear the fifth. And especially the harpsichord cadenza. That cadenza is enough to dispel the philistines’ old myth that Bach was some uninventive curmudgeon who slavishly followed hidebound rules. The original version, in BWV 1050a, is much shorter. The version we know and love today runs across the keyboard and traverses rapid chromaticisms in the blink of an eye. It is not for the faint-hearted. There were a few slips in the timing for Neal Peres da Costa’s entry. But da Costa – a master of articulation on the keyboard – made the passages incredibly lyrical. Just as the solo is about to descend into the darker parts, da Costa changes the registration to engage another set of strings on the harpsichord. The sound of the running passages therefore fills the hall.

Another example of da Costa’s musicality is the beautiful intermezzo he improvised to cleanse the palette between the first and second movements. That is just as well. The movements differ entirely in character. Easton and flautist Mikaela Oberg improvised delightful little embellishments, and da Costa gave a loud burst on the keyboard to break the scene before the closing cadence, which ends on something of a question mark.

The second concert took place the next morning. As Easton pointed out, there is something right about hearing Bach on a Sunday morning. The concerti were played in reverse order here – 6, 4 and 2.

The orchestration of the sixth is intriguing. We have no violins (a violists dream), and two viols da gamba (Jennifer Eriksson and Danny Yeadon), with their distinctive earthy timbre. It seemed at times that the violas were not well tuned, but the overall effect of the first movement was toe-tapping. The third movement was particularly exhilarating and John Ma gave a stormy solo. He played a note with extreme portamento at one point; the performers’ expression let us in on the joke. Nathan Cox on harpsichord and double-bassist Pippa Macmillan did well in keeping toes taping for what were two jaunty movements.

In the fourth, Easton and Oberg were in peak form. At times it becomes clear that Bach would have performed this piece leading from the violin. There were a few virtuosic passages for violin which Easton despatched with flair. In those and other passages she had a varied, punchily staccato, style. Oberg too has a perfect sense of phrasing, and also of timing. Her performance was consistently elegant and unpretentious, and showed a quiet confidence.

The trumpet opens the second concerto. In keeping with Bach’s habit of torturing trumpettists (think back to BWV 51), the trumpet parts of this concerto are considered some of the hardest in the Baroque repertoire. The second movement begins with a wavering introduction on cello, as though Bereite dich Zion was about to be played. The third again opens with a crisp trumpet introduction, and small motif are exchanged between the violin, recorder, oboe and trumpet. In this concerto, there was a strong sense of unity throughout the orchestra.

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