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Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos: Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr (director, harpsichord) Birmingham Town Hall, 26.10.2010. (GR)

The opportunity to hear all six of Bach’s outstanding Brandenburg Concertos at one sitting and performed by such a distinctive ensemble as the Academy of Ancient Music presented an unmissable occasion. Add the historic and conducive venue of Birmingham’s Town Hall and you have an irresistible combination – or so it seemed. While the concert was full of many delightful serene and foot-tapping moments, I could not help feeling that at times it lacked a certain spark. Founded back in 1973 by the legendary Christopher Hogwood, the AAM were directed from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr, their leader since 2006. Egarr has progressed much of the tradition begun by Hogwood, inheriting his qualities of energy and passion that did so much for the period instrument revival.

Although not the first of the six to be composed, Egarr began at the beginning with No 1 in F major, BWV1046. It was not the solid start I was expecting; I did not get that sense of togetherness in the first movement. But as they warmed up, Egarr injected some cohesion and joviality into the
Allegro third movement. Momentum now generated, the impetus spilled over into the finale – a series of dances with recurring minuet theme; the woodwind Trio with Alexandre Salles on bassoon was particularly engaging. Eggar pointed out in his first little chat to the audience that how through Bach, a contrast between the chase from the horns and the stateliness of the Minuet, had been present. It was indeed possible to envisage the court of the Margrave of Brandenburg in the fourth movement, but I perceived no tally-ho from the two horns in the first.

No 6 in B flat major followed, described by Egarr as an allegory of transient wealth – the living and the dead respectively portrayed by the traditional violas da braccio on one side and the violas da gamba on the other. With no violins, No 6 is only one of the unusual combinations Bach uses in the polyphonic Brandenburgs. The solemnity of the second movement
Adagio ma non tanto featuring the two violas da braccio and cello was beautifully played, although the spasmodic audience coughing was becoming a distraction. The closing jig went with a swing.

No 2 in F major closed the first half in fine style. The arrangement of the first movement reminded me of traditional jazz practice, the four soloists (trumpet, violin, recorder and oboe) ‘breaking’ from the
tutti. And each individual contribution from the quartet was outstanding. Is there a better baroque trumpet player than David Blackadder? He handled, or should that be tongued, the high and difficult line with apparent ease; his clarity of tone, whether sustained or for the briefest of quavers, had the audience on the edge of their seats. No coughing now! Another star of the AAM throughout the evening was violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, in either continuo, or here in a solo role. As the quartet became a trio (without Blackadder) the Andante was most poignant, chamber music at its best. But Blackadder was back to dazzle his fans again throughout the Allegro assai.

One of my favourites, No 5 in D Major began the second half. One AAM member to catch my eye in opening
Allegro was Rachel Brown, swapping her recorder for a baroque flute. She grabbed the limelight during some delightful interchanges with Beznosiuk. Positioning the harpsichord side on allowed the audience full access to the nimble fingers of Egarr and his extended solo. No 5 was an excellent example of Albert Schweitzer’s descriptive quotation on the Brandenburgs:

It is not now a question merely of the alternation of the
tutti and the concertino; the various tone-groups interpenetrate and react on each other, separate from each other, react again, and all with an incomprehensible artistic inevitability’.

Egarr briefly addressed the fascinating number symbolism of Bach: 3 referring to the trinity, the mystical figure 7 and how the numerical sum of J S Bach becomes 41. This introduced No 3 in G Major, with its own groups of three – violins, violas and cellos.

Also in G major, No 4 completed Bach’s set. Rachel Beckett on a second recorder, teamed up with Rachel Brown to introduce one of Bach’s best-known tunes. I think it was Rodolfo Richter who played the lead violin part on this occasion and brilliantly so (surely the programme notes could have done more to identify the roles of the instrumentalists!) Prominent among the support players in this concerto, and elsewhere, was the double bass of the enthusiastic Judith Evans, who along with the theorbo of William Carter had a busy evening.

Egarr said the Brandenburg Concertos were ‘a joy to play’. Judging by the enthusiastic reception of a full Birmingham Town Hall (including the Choir Stalls) they were a joy to hear.

Geoff Read


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