Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos at St John’s Smith Square review ****


Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: The Brandenburgs

St John’s Smith Square, 2nd May 2017

Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 1
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 6
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2

JS Bach. Tick. Brandenburg Concertos. Tick. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Tick. St John’s Smith Square. Tick.

What’s not to like. Might as well just stop there. A superb period ensemble with some of Europe’s finest instrumental specialists playing a series of the finest works of the Baroque age.

However, there is always something new to be found in the Brandenburgs and so it was this evening. With excellent harpsichord (Steven Devine) and cello (Luise Buchberger) continuo lines and a bit of double bass action when required from Ceccelia Bruggemeyer, and with one instrument to each part, we could focus on the key contributions of individual players/instruments: in No 1 Huw Daniel on the violino piccolo (yep that’s a tiddly violin), Katharina Spreckelsen on flute and the two horns of Roger Montgomery and Nicholas Benz: in No 5 on the violin of Huw Daniel now standing in for Pavlo Beznosiuk, and its interplay with the flute of Lisa Beznosiuk  and the harpsichord cadenza of Steven Devine: in No 4 Huw Daniel’s violin again and the recorders of Rebecca Miles and Ian Wilson; and in No 6 the same violinist and recorder with the oboe again played by Katharina Spreckelsen and the F trumpet of David Blackadder (how on earth does he do that – its just a tube of old metal with holes in!!). Nos 3 and 6 are the all string affairs but in No 6, Simone Jandl and Max Mandel made a mighty racket on their violas.

Now I confess I can bounce between period (Pinnock, Hogwood) and modern recorded versions of the Brandenburgs (with a special fondness for Benjamin Britten’s conducting) but in concerts period is best (and pretty much the only option these days). And this was properly raw and thrilling. For those who have never heard a period horn, trumpet or recorder, get up close and embrace the vitality and skill. It is a tricky business making these things do what you want but when it all falls into place the energy is palpable. The quality of the instruments, the skill of the players and the depth of the scholarly advance over the last couple of decades means you are now really hearing all these scores as (probably) they were intended. If I had to pick out a couple of faves it would be No 6 with the aforementioned violas offset by the grumbling gambas and the violone (a little double bass) and the oboe/trumpet/recorder combo in No 2. .

The excellent OAE programme (a numpty like me learns a lot from these which do not assume too much but neither are they patronising or just biographical) reminds us that these now ubiquitous works started as a speculative venture by JSB for a customer, the Margrave of Brandenburg (I would love to be a Margrave if  had to be a Continental European aristo), who never bothered to look at them. What a silly Margrave. The reason why the Brandenburgs are so popular and wonderful is because they have all the brilliant, diverse yet condensed musical ideas that JSB excelled at, but they also deliver the tunes and the visceral, show-offy excitement that the best of the Italian baroque supplies.

So I say if you are a newcomer to the classical world (this blog is aimed at you), ignore all those miseries who would have you listening to the endless droning on from the likes of Strauss, Mahler and Bruckner and get down instead with the funky muthas that are JSB and Vivaldi. And if you are anywhere near Manchester or Cheltenham they will be bringing this to you in the next few days.



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