More Brandenburgs from the Proms

I’ve listened to all six Brandenburgs from the BBC Proms concert now. They’re terrific — as they’re live recordings, there are a few bloopers here and there, but they’re full of life, very joyous. In a couple of cases, the performance caused me to think about the music in a new way, and how often does a performance of such a familiar work manage to do that?

I’d blogged before that #1 had the most raucous horns I can remember hearing in the piece, and I found it very fresh and exciting. The other performance that I thought was particularly ear-opening was #3. Two reasons. First, #3 is the Brandenburg with the empty middle movement. Bach wrote only two slow chords, a cadence, for the movement. He gave no explanation, but the usual assumption is that he intended that one of the soloists would play a cadenza here, and that the two chords were what the orchestra would come in with to close off the movement and get you into the right key for the final movement. The violin cadenza here is terrific and more substantial that what I’ve generally heard done in this slot.

Then in the last movement, I’ve never heard the cross-rhythms emphasized so strongly. The whole movement is in 12/8, but there’s a certain figure that keeps recurring, that has a tendency to sound like it’s in 6/4. Then near the end of the movement Bach adds a tie to a couple of the notes in the figure, which eliminates one of the stronger beats in the middle and just about forces the figure to be heard in 6/4. In most performances I’ve heard, this is smoothed out; either the pulse is kept in 12/8 throughout or when the cross-rhythms occur they’re done somewhat subtly; in this performance, though, they let the cross-rhythms have a lot of weight, so that some instruments are very definitely playing in a strong 6/4 while others are playing in 12/8. And not just in the measure with the explicit syncopation but to a lesser degree in all the measures where the figure appears. It gives the movement a real kick that I can’t recall ever hearing it have before.

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