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Review of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos: Laurence Cummings with The Academy of Ancient Music





All six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were performed at West Road Concert Hall on Wednesday evening by The Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of Laurence Cummings.

Rarely are these works performed chronologically en bloc, and the packed house was privileged to attend a stunning performance from musicians who, constantly aspiring to perfection, clearly live and breathe for their art.

Academy of Ancient Music. Picture: Benjamin EAlovega.
Academy of Ancient Music. Picture: Benjamin EAlovega.

In a forum preceding the concert, as well as during the concert itself, Laurence Cummings explained some of the technicalities of the ensemble’s presentation. He described using the ‘French Baroque’ pitch, and explained they had adopted Bach’s ‘Low Chamber Tone’ which gave to some of the sections what he called a depth of sonority. The progress of each concerto was helpfully signposted for the audience by visual images displaying the first page of each in Bach’s own hand, and the name of each movement in turn.

After the joyful opening movement in the first of the two (chronological) concertos in F Major, and advancing towards a slow and melancholy conclusion, there comes a plaintive Adagio shared by oboe, violin and cello. As suddenly as it’s surprising, everything springs to life again in the Allegro which follows.

An analogy from Shakespearian drama might be the ‘dying fall’ of the music accompanying the first words of the love-sick Orsino [Twelfth Night 1.i], which mood gets immediately dispelled by the vibrancy of Viola’s speech on her arrival at the beginning of the next scene.

The upbeat atmosphere of this transition in the concerto continues in the final movement which shares two dance measures, the minuet and polonaise. Prominent in this performance were two horns, outside hunting instruments brought inside, as it were, and which gave at times a startling rawness and freshness to the concerto, an authenticity here which perhaps hadn’t been experienced by many of us before.

The comparatively shorter Concerto No.2 emphasises the trumpet in its first and last movements while three concertists on recorder, violin and oboe accompany it. The lively first movement is again succeeded by a melancholy Andante which in turn gives way to a complex and energetic fugue.

Concerto No. 3 in G Major is written for strings alone. The opening Allegro, has a steady progression and purposive rhythm, while the final movement is an ebullient musical chase where the cellos and continuo section join forces alongside their colleagues in a collective and exhilarating hurtle to the finish. Between these two movements is an ‘adagio’ which consists simply of two chords, performed here on harpsichord by Laurence Cummings conducting from it.

Concert No.4 in G.Major followed the interval. Essentially this is a violin concerto with some very taxing passages and carried off spectacularly by first violinist Bojan Ĉiĉiĉ Two recorders accompany the violin throughout and the programme notes raise the interesting question as to whether Bach intended his description of them in the score (fiauti d’echo) to mean what it sometimes did, two instruments tied together, or simply two recorders, as here in the Andante, providing an echo to the main theme. AAM’s recorder players (Rachel Brown and Rachel Beckett) were superb and the concerto’s conclusion, a tuneful fugal presto, was performed by the whole ensemble with élan.

If the previous Brandenburg is a violin concerto of a kind, Bach’s Concerto No. 5 in G Major is actually the first historical keyboard concerto. In the first movement violin and flute proceed at an engaging, lilting pace before the extended passage for solo harpsichord, a Fantasia played by Laurence Cummings, and a virtuoso performance by any standard.

Cummings has an endearing tendency, on occasions when the music takes him, to rise into the air from his seated position. Maybe Bernstein’s dynamics on the podium (‘Lenny’s Leaps’) have found a worthy successor in ‘Larry’s Levitations’ this reviewer might suggest.

The very demanding keyboard sequence gives us some insight into the nature of Bach’s own improvisations, and is succeeded by a dreamy movement, Affetuoso, a combination of harpsichord, violin and flute, where the flute part’s central role was wonderfully delivered. The jaunty allegro which followed brought the sublime music to a conclusion.

For his 6th and final Brandenburg Concerto in B flat major Bach features violas and a much older instrument, the viola da gamba. The complicated structure of the piece is evident from the start in the sustained earnestness of the violas, the soulful, slow melody of the Adagio, and the complex interplay of strings in the final Allegro.

Despite what, historically, John McMunn in the programme notes suggests might be seen as over-exposure for them, the Brandenburgs remain, he says, ‘stubbornly undiminished’. But, he adds, ‘The more one hears them. The more one hears in them’, provided that is, ‘one is guided with sufficient care and attention.’

Where accuracy and timing are at a premium, it goes without saying that the AAM performers, in this their golden anniversary year, were at their customary best in revealing the wonderful techniques and melodic charms of these works and the audience were more than justified in loudly acknowledging how suitably impressed they had been.

Given the staggering output of JS Bach it seems like mere quibbling to regret that there aren’t even more orchestral works from him. But we should perhaps be grateful for what we have, given that the concertos it seems had something of a perilous afterlife, or so the story goes, not least being rescued from aerial attack in WW2 by a librarian transferring the manuscript out of Berlin State Library for safekeeping. An event perhaps no less relevant to our own vivid and apocalyptic times.

JOHN GILROY



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