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.

The ever-flexible Bach – Antoine Tamestit at Wigmore Hall

Antoine Tamestit performs two solo Bach suites and a new commission from Olga Neuwirth


Antoine Tamestit (soprano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 27 April 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 28 May


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of the Bach suites played by Tamestit himself. Because the piece by Olga Neuwirth is so new – this was in fact the first performance – it has not been recorded yet. Here is the link to the Bach:

What’s the music?

J.S. Bach – Solo Cello Suite no.1 (arranged for viola) (1724, 15 minutes)

Olga Neuwirth – Weariness heals wounds (2014, 11 minutes)

J.S. Bach – Solo Cello Suite no.3 (arranged for viola) (1724, 19 minutes)

What about the music?

One sign of a great composer is surely the effectiveness of his music when heard on any instrument, not necessarily the one it was written for. J.S. Bach ranks among those whose music is incredibly versatile – Toccata and Fugue, Ave Maria and Sheep May Safely Graze just for starters! – and all have been successful in any number of guises.

So it is to a lesser extent with the solo cello suites, which transcribe for other stringed instruments – guitar and viola – very well.

The Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth has written for Tamestit before, in 2009 – a concerto for viola and orchestra. This much more private utterance, a response to the saturation posed by new media and some thoughts on how we can get away from that, takes a few quotations from the Concerto.

Performance verdict

These are excellent Bach performances, from a performer who is notable both for his technical command and expressive input. Tamestit ensures the Bach suites really dance, by taking pretty fast speeds but also giving plenty of air to the music. It suits the faster movements down to the ground, while the slower Sarabandes take time out for reflection.

The new piece Weariness heals wounds also gets a fine and concentrated performance. Tamestit clearly believes in this composer, and in the course of the ten minutes it is easy to hear the themes of frustration and saturation coming to the surface.

What should I listen out for?

Bach – Cello Suite no.1

1:37 – being up an octave from the cello original replaces the mellow sound of the lower instrument with a brighter viola. It works well as the dancing figures of the Prelude begin to work their magic. Towards the end an obsessive figure breaks out into a sunny finish.

3:42 – an Allemande, the first of the dance music, is relaxed and airy, and Tamestit adds to this feeling by slowing down at times in the more reflective passages. It is an effective technique.

7:50 – the Courante is a bit more lively, suggesting a quicker step in the dancing feet. Tamestit almost loses his way in the first half, with what seems like a memory lapse, but also adds some attractive ornamentation to Bach’s melodies, which is the performer’s prerogative here.

10:14 – the lovely Sarabande, a slower dance. Tamestit doesn’t let the bow rest on the string for too long, so the notes seem a bit shorter, and as a consequence they are lighter.

12:45 – the lively pair of Minuet begins, with a bracing first followed by a solemn second (beginning at 13:54 – and taken pretty fast by Tamestit here). As is customary in these suites, we hear the first Minuet again (14:45)

15:22 – the final movement in these Bach suites is always a Gigue, a dance of French origin in triple time that usually signs off the suite with some gusto. That is definitely the case here!


18:33 – quite a biting start, with two strings playing pitches very close together that sound like quarter tones. The mood is tense and – as in the title – given with a certain weariness.

The jarring notes return again, suggesting that the new media is grating somewhat? Then a more aggressive section begins, where the bow is positioned near the bridge of the instrument to create a scratchy sound. Discomfort abounds!

At 25:15 a semblance of a tune begins, but it is uneasy. Then at 26:04 the ‘G’ pitch asserts its importance before a series of virtuosic and sweeping runs. Again the use of quarter tones is in evidence, and when the melodies get longer Tamestit makes the viola sound bluesy and mournful. The piece ends with a sharply plucked note.

Bach – Cello Suite no.3

31:19 – there is a nice and slightly mischievous approach in the stop-start Tamestit applies here, with grand gestures followed by quite hurried phrases. It works well as the Prelude progresses through a number of different but utterly logical keys, before going through a quick series of movements over a ‘pedal’ note, after which it works to a big finish.

34:11 – quite a bouncy Allemande this one, genial too.

37:47 – a Courante with plenty of energy, bounding out of the blocks. If you were dancing to this one – the cello suites do after all have dance movements – you’d have to be pretty quick on your feet!

40:24 – a grand Sarabande, which might not be as weighty in the hands of the viola as it is on the cello, but which still makes a strong impression. As so often in the slower dances there is time for intensely concentrated thought.

43:44 – a genial pair of Bourrées comes into view – another dance Bach used for some of his solo instrument works. Bach often writes one in a major key but contrasts it – as here at 45:07 – with a more reserved one in the minor key. Once again the first Bourrée is repeated, coming back at 46:22.

47:06 – the Gigue swings into action with an energetic burst. There is some quite dissonant double stopping too (more than one string played at once)


Kurtág – Perpetuum mobile, one of the Signs, Games and Messages

51:19 – this piece is little more than a gruff introduction and a few jarring notes lasting little more than a minute! Yet as always with Kurtág, whose pieces are famously brief but incredibly concentrated, it takes longer to write about his music than to listen to it.

Want to hear more?

Not many composers wrote for the viola on its own, but the composer Max Reger – for whom Bach was a hero and inspiration – wrote three suites. They can be heard on Spotify here as part of an album of his chamber music for viola, played by Nobuko Imai, who is accompanied by Ronald Brautigam in the substantial Sonata for viola and piano. The album can be found here

For more concerts click here