BBC Proms: The Brandenburg Project – Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard

Proms 29 & 30: Soloists, Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard

Prom 29
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.1 in F major BWV1046
Mark-Anthony Turnage Maya (2014)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major BWV1048
Anders Hillborg Bach Materia (2017)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.5 in D major BWV1050
Uri Caine Hamsa (2015)

Prom 30
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.4 in G major BWV1049
Olga Neuwirth Aello – ballet mécanomorphe (2017)
Brett Dean Approach – Prelude to a Canon (2017)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.6 in B flat major BWV1051
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.2 in F major BWV1047
Steven Mackey Triceros (2015)

Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 5 August 2018

You can watch this Prom by clicking here

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

If musical authenticity has largely banished J.S. Bach’s Six Brandenburg Concertos (BWV1046-51) from the standard repertoire, then the brace of Proms that constituted The Brandenburg Project enabled near-capacity audiences to experience what was once the foundation of this tradition. This was hardly the large-scale Bach that would once have been a familiar fixture at these concerts, but the playing of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra – by turns incisive and sensitive – and unfailingly astute direction of Thomas Dausgaard served these pieces well.

A quirky collection this is too. Uncertain as to its date (Bach’s promotional autograph to the Margrave of Brandenburg dates from 1721 but the music was likely in existence up to a decade earlier) and hardly constituting a logical or systematic key sequence (being in F, F, G, G, D and B flat respectively), it positively invites juxtaposition with works either akin in genre or inspired by their specific precedent. It was this latter factor which underlies the present project, with six diverse composers commissioned to write a piece inspired by the Brandenburg in question.

The Brandenburg Project – 1

With its relatively expansive four-movement structure and its virtuosic use of a (then) sizable complement of wind and strings, the First Concerto anticipates the Concerto for Orchestra of two centuries hence. Dausgaard secured a suitably forthright response, not least in the diverse ‘quodlibet’ that is the finale; the SCO then providing eloquent support for cellist Maya Beiser in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Maya. Although the least ‘connected’ to its Brandenburg in terms of concept and follow-through, this was an impressive showing for its soloist’s long -limbed phrasing and mellifluous tone – even if its two halves witnessed relatively little sense of expressive contrast or intensification. The fact that Turnage completed his contribution so far in advance of the project’s taking place suggests his response as being a generalized one.

Long the most famous (rather, immediately recognizable) of the set, the Third Concerto is a blueprint for the Concerto for Strings beloved of the high Baroque era. The SCO relished the robust and incisive contrapuntal interplay of its outer movements; the (deliberately?) absent slow movement being provided on this occasion by Anders Hillborg, who then drew upon its plaintive understatement in the slow section of his Bach Materia. With its prelude of anticipatory tuning, headlong workout between violin and double-bass in its scherzo, then a finale whose interaction of soloist and ensemble was as much vocal as instrumental, it was a showcase for ‘improvising violinist’ Pekka Kuusisto as communicated readily to the audience, even if its attractions (not for the first time in Hillborg) seemed to lie primarily on the surface.

Whether or not the first Concerto for Keyboard, the Fifth Concerto is an intriguing take on that nascent genre; its elaborate harpsichord part scintillating in Mahan Esfahani‘s rendition (not least the headlong ‘cadenza’ passage), with the more circumspect contributions of flute and violin no less appealingly taken by Fiona Kelly and Antje Weithaas. They remained in their respective roles for Uri Caine’s Hamsa, joined by the composer on piano for a piece whose ominous-sounding title is no more than the Arabic for ‘five’. What ensued was an object lesson in composing-out an already elaborate structure and it was hardly Caine’s fault if, at the end of a lengthy programme, this piece outstayed its welcome. Certainly, his attentive pianism and formal finesse would have held one’s attention in any other context.

The Brandenburg Project – 2

With its dextrous and, in the elevated central Andante, plangent interplay of violin and two recorders (the preferred option for those mythical ‘fiauti d’echo’ so designated by Bach), the Fourth Concerto is perhaps the most immediately attractive of these works; despatched with relish and not a little pathos by Kuusisto in partnership with Per Gross and Katarina Widell. As part of her response, Olga Neuwirth pointedly eschewed Double or even Triple Concerto connotations for a single flute as heard against an ensemble with two obligato trumpets and portable typewriter as part of the continuo. This, along with judicious use of tuning systems, gave her ‘ballet mécanomorphe’ which is Aello (2017 – the title that of a retributive Harpy) an insubstantial and capricious aura not without its more ominous and suspenseful qualities.

That the final two instalments segued directly between Brandenburg and commission was not their least fascination. In his Prelude – Approach to a Canon, Brett Dean came up with a methodical extemporisation where he and fellow violist Tabea Zimmermann pursued a fine line in ‘call and response’ with the ensemble; motifs from the Sixth Concerto being variously evoked and denied prior to a rhetorical lead-in to the Bach such as Schnittke might well have relished. With its scoring for low strings and its accordingly dark sonorities, this is the most intriguing of the Brandenburg’s – a Concerto for (or at least predicating) Two Violas whose intricately polyphonic opening movement makes way for winsome elegance in the Adagio then gallant buoyancy in the finale. Qualities to the fore in this most probing of accounts.

The segue was in the opposite direction for the final pairing, with the Second Concerto a putative Sinfonia Concertante whose modest dimensions belie the plethora of timbres and textures derived from its solo quartet. Kelly and Weithaas were partnered by oboist Mårten Larsson and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, their overt élan during the outer movements complemented by their wistful poise in the Andante. A sustained note from trumpet duly provided a link into Triceros  Steven Mackey’s typically resourceful response that deploys ‘family’ instruments (piccolo/alto flute, cor anglais and flugelhorn/piccolo trumpet) in music whose ingenious variations on Bach motifs readily evoke the title’s ‘three-horned chameleon’ through to a heady culmination then full-circle resumption of that trumpet note.

Maybe it would have been preferable to hear this latter trilogy in the published order (2-4-6), or at least end with the Sixth Concerto so that Bach’s music could have framed proceedings. Even so this was a fascinating and engrossing project, judiciously conceived and unfailingly well executed, such as confirmed both the intrinsic greatness of the Brandenburg Concertos and their continued relevance three centuries on. Might a similar Proms project be considered utilizing Bach’s Four Orchestral Suites or Handel’s Op. 6 Concerti Grossi? Let us hope so.

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