Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5
performed at Staunton Music Festival
August 17, 2018
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA
Immanuel Davis, solo flute
Plamena Nikitassova, solo violin
Mark Shuldiner, solo harpsichord
Aisslinn Nosky, violin
Kyle Miller, viola
Michael Unterman, cello
Erik Higgins, violone
video by Stewart Searle
About the Music
Bach composed the six Brandenburg Concertos in 1721 during his tenure in Cöthen, the Calvinist court where secular instrumental music took precedence over sacred music. Each concerto in the set explores a different combination of solo instruments and varying degrees of coordination between the soloists and the full orchestra (the latter group also known as the ripieno or ritornello). Concerto No. 5, in D major, is scored for solo flute, violin, and keyboard along with string orchestra.
There are several interesting aspects of this particular concerto. For one thing, Bach achieves a dovetailing of thematic heads and tails in the first movement that strongly influenced the concerto strategies of Mozart and Haydn. Moreover, the slow movement’s trio texture and the soloistic opening of the finale are both noteworthy. However, none of these features grabs our attention like the three-minute, unaccompanied keyboard cadenza in the first movement. Indeed, some musicians regard the piece as a keyboard concerto in all but name. For ears accustomed to Mozartian cadenzas, Bach’s achievement will hardly sound new, but such a structural interruption was unprecedented in ensemble concertos of the early 18th century. Bach’s patterned repetitions, sequences, and chromatic meanderings reflect many of the devices employed in his solo keyboard works. It is not the music per se that is remarkable, but the bold assertion of one voice above the many-voiced texture of the concerto grosso. Bach makes the keyboard part far more active rhythmically than the others throughout the first movement. Thus, from the start he plants a seed for the keyboard’s eventual liberation from the other players. Imagine Bach himself directing the first performance from the keyboard, simply indulging his improvisatory fancy at this point. Imagine, as well, the chagrin of flute and violin soloists during his display, awaiting a chance to somehow get back in, rolling their eyes as the “old man” goes off on another tangent.
The second movement is a broad meditation in B minor. Many phrases begin with canonic imitation between flute and violin, whereas the keyboard now stays modestly in the background. After cadences in closely related keys (D major, F-sharp major, E minor, and G major), Bach returns to the main theme in the home key for the final phrase. This is not the full-scale recapitulation that will become de rigueur in the later 18th century. Still, the rounded return of the main theme/key gives a satisfying degree of polish.
The finale opens with fugal imitation between flute and violin, joined after eight measures by the keyboard. The ripieno does not even come in until the first strong cadence in the secondary key. Even though the full ensemble plays a majority of the time thereafter, Bach’s opening paragraph for the soloists give them a marked prominence. At one point he flirts with another extended cadenza for solo keyboard. But by now the other players are wise to his tricks. They seize the first possible moment to jump right back into the action and carry the movement through to a strident, ensemble finish.
(c) Jason Stell, 2018
Immanuel Davis is one of the most versatile flutists of his generation. Equally at home on modern and baroque flutes, Immanuel has performed as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the United States and abroad. In 2005 he received a Fulbright Fellowship to study baroque flute at the Koninklijk Conservatorium in The Hague. Since then he has performed as soloist and chamber player with such early music ensembles as Early Music New York, ARTEK, Lyra Baroque and the Bach Society of Minnesota and Mercury Orchestra of Houston. He has also had the pleasure of performing on NPR’s Performance Today and in recitals with baroque luminaries Barthold Kuijken and Wilbert Hazelzet.
Trained in Geneva, Vienna and Basel, the Bulgarian violinist Plamena Nikitassova maintains a busy international career and is among the most acclaimed violinists of her generation. As concert master of the J.S. Bach Foundation Orchestra, she has recorded over fifty Bach cantatas. She also directs various ensembles in France and Germany, including the Freiburger Barockorchester. Her CD recordings of 18th-century sonatas by Carlo Zuccari and Gaspar Fritz were highly praised by the public and the press. She is an advocate of historical performance techniques including “low-hold” (instrument rests on the chest) and “thumb-under” (thumb on the bow hair surface).
Hailed as a “splendid harpsichordist” (Chicago Tribune) and praised for his “supportive style” and “breathtaking, rapid-fire passagework” (Chicago Classical Review), Mark Shuldiner maintains a rigorous performance schedule with Chicago Lyric Opera, Opera Theatre and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, playing organ and harpsichord under Riccardo Muti, Harry Bicket, Pinchas Zukerman, and Bernard Labadie. In 2014 Mr. Shuldiner appeared as harpsichord soloist in the CSO’s performance of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto, conducted by Nicolas Kraemer. He also has performed with for Music of the Baroque, The Newberry Consort, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Callipygian Players, and many others.
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