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New Music/Early Music: The New Brandenburgs, pt. 1

The Brandenburg Concertos of J.S. Bach

Around the age of 36, Johann Sebastian Bach completed what are today known as the Brandenburg Concertos. In the score, he titled them Six Concerts avec plusieurs instruments, or “Six Concertos with several instruments,” but they have been associated with their dedicatee, Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, since they were rediscovered in the middle of the 19th Century.

Oddly enough, scholars believe that they might have never been performed in Bach’s day due to the pristine condition of the autograph manuscript, yet one thing is certain—since their rediscovery, the Brandenburg Concertos have become one of Bach’s most popular compositions and most often recorded. They have inspired generations of musicians and music lovers with their catchy tunes, spirited movements, and varied character.

They have inspired modern composers, as well.

The New Brandenburgs

Not long ago the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra initiated an ambitious project inspired by the Brandenburgs. Entitled “The New Brandenburgs,” the esteemed New York City-based ensemble commissioned six internationally-recognized composers to write a companion piece for a particular concerto.

[Special thanks to WQXR, New York Public Radio for providing recordings of the New Brandenburgs heard on the program.  Click here for more information about this project.]

Aaron Jay Kernis and Concerto with Echoes

American composer Aaron Jay Kernis was given concerto #6. In his program note, Kernis explains the motivation for the piece he wrote and titled “Concerto with Echoes.”

“The essential element in Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 6 that inspired Concerto with Echoes comes from the very first measure: the opening passage with two spiraling solo violas, like identical twins following each other breathlessly through a hall of mirrors. I also had in mind other Bach works that I think of constantly, such as the Ricercare, keyboard Toccatas, and the C-minor Organ Passacaglia. The concerto also echoes some of my own recent works, as well as other composers I love who have paid homage to Bach in their music.”

Christopher Theofanidis and Muse

Another internationally-recognized American composer approached and paired with one of Bach’s concertos was Christopher Theofanidis, who tackled the third concerto which was originally scored for string orchestra. Not only did he retain Bach’s own scoring, but added a more present and independent harpsichord part. Entitled “Muse,” Theofanidis describes his understanding of the original concerto next to his own.

“I was given the third Brandenburg concerto instrumentation which is for strings and harpsichord, though the strings are not divided in the standard orchestral division of five parts, but rather in ten—3 violins, 3 violas, 3 ‘cellos, and contrabass. Bach used this breakdown to great effect by thickening each of the principle lines in 3—using a broader paint brush for each of the parts of the counterpoint.  Despite this, he remarkably achieves a light and transparent sound, and I tried to move toward this way of working in my piece. The general sound world is also quite closely Baroque in harmony and rhythm.”

Revisiting Prominent Countertenors in Recording: 1990s

Perhaps the most promising and frequently recorded countertenor in the 1990s was Andreas Scholl. Originally from Germany, Scholl was a protégé of the famed Belgian conductor Rene Jacobs, a countertenor himself. And while Scholl is quite famous today, his career actually began in the 90s by taking part in iconic recordings such as Antonio Caldara’s oratorio Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo, “Mary Magdalene at the Foot of the Cross.”

Another prominent countertenor during the 1990s was Yoshikazu Mera, who is best known as a soloist in the Bach Collegium Japan’s endeavor to record all of J.S. Bach’s cantatas. Yet he is also known as an interpreter of Early Italian Baroque song.

British countertenor Robin Blaze also came to prominence in the 1990s, especially with English and German repertoire. Like Andreas Scholl, Blaze also worked under Rene Jacobs, who in 1998 asked Blaze to take on the role of Cupid in John Blow’s masque Venus and Adonis.

Featured Release

Our featured release is an ECM recording led by Norwegian lutenist Rolf Lislevand. As he has done in the past, Lislevand explores and redefines the early repertoire by creating novel cross-over works that retain a perspective that is both of the past and the present. Entitled “Diminuito,” the recording focuses of a number of Italian Renaissance hits such as Petit Jacquet.

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