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J.S. Bach: "Switched-On" Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major. BWV 1050, 1. Allegro (Synthesized)

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Published on Mar 31, 2014

Few musical works are as loved - and as often performed - as the six "Brandenburg" Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. These six works (BWV 1046-1051) display a lighter side of Bach's imperishable genius. Yet they came into being as an unexpected gift. That's what happened in 1721 when Bach presented the Margrave of Brandenburg with a bound manuscript containing six lively concertos for chamber orchestra, works based on an Italian Concerto Grosso style. The Margrave never thanked Bach for his work - or paid him! There's no way he could have known that this unnamed gift (later named the Brandenburg Concertos 150 years later when Bach's biographer, Philipp Spitta called them that for the very first time, and the name stuck) would become a benchmark of Baroque music and still have the power to move people almost three centuries later.

Even though he didn't call them the "Brandenburgs," originally, Bach still thought of them as a set. What he did was compile them from short instrumental sinfonias and concerto movements he had already written. Then he re-worked the old music, often re-writing and elaborating where he saw fit. In doing so, Bach created something of a dramatic arc from the brilliant first concerto to the last, which evokes a spirited chase. Bach even later reworked components of the Brandenburgs into other compositions: the 1st movement of Concerto no. 1 can also be found as the Sinfonia to Cantata 52 and its 3rd movement was used as the opening Chorus of Cantata 207. The Sinfonia to Cantata 174 is a reworking of the 1st movement of the 3rd Brandenburg with the addition of three oboes and two horns. The 4th Brandenburg was used as the last of his set of 6 harpsichord concertos, the concerto for harpsichord, two recorders and strings in F major, BWV 1057.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major is scored for transverse flute, solo violin, obbligato ("indispensable to the performance") harpsichord, and strings. The harpsichord is given special prominence in this concerto, being elevated from its usual role to serve the supportive capacity, as well as being the unifying timbre throughout the work (the harpsichord is always present).

In the early eighteenth century the harpsichord normally acted as a continuo instrument, and indeed at the start of the opening Allegro (the longest among all the movements of the six concertos) it sounds as if the flute and violin are the soloists, with a harpsichord line that is only slightly more prominent than the usual continuo part. Gradually, though, the harpsichord's role increases, until all the other instruments drop silent for a cadenza of vast proportions (about 4 minutes long). It is likely that Bach himself played this virtuosic part at the premiere, which audaciously carves out one of the first concerted solos for a keyboardist. It remains one of the great virtuoso keyboard passages in all music.

Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the concerto was written for a contest between Bach and a visiting French harpsichordist, Louis Marchand (where Bach uses one of his themes in the 2nd movement). Another theory is that the piece marked the acquisition of a new Mietke harpsichord by the Cöthen court in 1719.

In homage to Wendy Carlos' original realization recorded on her "Switched-On Bach II" of 1973, I scored my version with fairly basic instruments reminiscent of her style. The big challenge here was to breathe life into the harpsichord part. This started as a piece of scanned sheet music remember, so a great deal of effort went into nuances of tempo changes and volume control to give the solo passage the feel of a real performance. The mix-down stage was almost as tedious, to give enough play and balance between the concertino parts in contrast to the tutti (especially during the "lulling effect" of the constant sixteenth-notes and repeated rhythms of the flute and violin beginning around the end of the first 3rd of the piece). As mentioned in my notes to other such videos, I normally prefer to attempt new pieces that she didn't record but again, this movement holds some sentiment so I hope you enjoy it as much as I did in creating it.

As always, the use of headphones will greatly enhance the listening experience.

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