Considering that the fifth Brandenburg Concerto was written explicitly to cel- ebrate the possibilities of a new harpsichord brought from Berlin to Cöthen in 1719, and considering that there are plenty of harpsichords and harpsichordists around these days to make honest and beautiful attempts at authentic delivery, one feels a bit guilty programming the work for ‘grand piano’ in 2009. But the recep- tion history of the fifth Brandenburg concerto, aside from whatever performances it may have received in Johann Sebastian Bach’s time, is in fact quite piano-dependent. The six Brandenburg concertos, not mentioned in early biog- raphies, were not revived by Mendelssohn when he championed other major Bach works, and not even the rediscovery of autograph manuscripts for the six concer- tos, and subsequent publication by Schott in 1850, brought much non-musico- logical notice. It was not until the arrival of radio, the LP, and the modern piano (especially in recordings with Rudolf Serkin, the Busch Chamber Players, and Pablo Casals at Marlboro) that this set of works became a familiar favorite from Bach’s output. These performances, which many of us grew up smiling to hear on FM radio, also conjure a context, and the works themselves are plenty celebratory even when not aimed specifically at a harpsichord. So in this spirit we proceed — a bit guiltily, from a musicological standpoint, but happily enough anyway.
The first movement rides on the opening tutti, which is broken apart and traveled by the solo voices. (This is a special case of a ‘ritornello’ structure, which can basically be seen as an advanced ‘refrain’ — as in ‘Welcome to the Hotel California’). There is a fantastic, out- sized keyboard cadenza which brings the final, complete ritornello. The second movement is reduced to a trio- sonata (violin-flute-keyboard), also in
a ritornello structure; the third move- ment is a fugal Gigue (‘gigue’ can trans- late to ‘jig’, though Bach’s Continental version has a less explicitly nautical/folk vibe than the British source.) Perhaps that is enough for introduction. Too much is lost in mere description.
Bach’s Brandenburg concertos are at once familiar and incredible, full of life and arching expression — such bright and ingenious work stands out even in the grand works of Bach.