We don’t normally think of Bach -- whose music is felt to have been touched by a divine spirit and always displayed transcendent intellect -- as a rite of spring. But as musicologists and early music specialists never tire in pointing out, dance is the motor that drove much Baroque music, and Bach was no exception.
Born March 21, he was, in fact, a son of spring. Nor did his music lack a spring in its step, and that was particularly the case with the flamboyant concertos he dedicated in hot-house flowery prose to the Margrave of Brandenburg on an early spring day in 1721. And so in a concert on the vernal equinox, Friday, a sense of both history and renewal was strongly in the air when the Academy of Ancient Music played Bach’s six “Brandenburg” Concertos at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.
The AAM prides itself on being up-to-date early musikers. The instruments are old, but the ethos is new. You can, for instance, join the chorus of celebrators of its energized new recording of the “Brandenburgs,” terrifically recorded in the latest multi-channel Super Audio CD sound, on the ensemble’s Facebook page.
Founded in London in 1973 by harpsichordist Christopher Hogwood, AAM had within three years become a big enough hit to tour such places as Egypt, India and Sri Lanka. The good-humored harpsichordist Richard Egarr became music director in 2005, and the AAM remains as lively as ever.
But there is another history that can be found on the indispensable long list of links to articles on early music on the ensemble’s website. A history of the AAM by William Weber describes the original ensemble having begun in 1726, when the “Brandenburgs” were new music, and lasting through the end of the 18th century. “As for that indefatigable Society, the Gropers into Antique Musick,” we learn from a commentary of the time, these “Philharmonick Spiders” may have been “dress’d up in Cobwebs and powdered with Dust,” as they examined old music. But from them came “Harmony in an Uproar.”
And true to the ancient Academy of Ancient Music, there was in the dusting off of these “Brandenburgs” of old in Segerstrom just that -- harmony in a great and marvelous uproar.
Each concerto was written for a different combination of instruments and has a different form and personality. Egarr, who led from the harpsichord, used but one instrument to the part (which may or may not have been Bach’s practice). This makes for contrasting bright colors rather than smooth instrumental blend, creating a kind of musical fauvism. Egarr also favors a French Baroque tuning of A = 392Hz, which is considerably lower than the modern A = 440, and that adds to the sense of timbral rawness. The first concerto is, in the Margrave’s royal honor, music of the chase, replete with hunting horns and oboes, and it got the concert off to an uncertain start. The two horns weren’t warmed up, and these valveless predecessors of the modern French horn are pretty much impossible to play, but even so their tone broke more often than seemed reasonable.
The playing became more secure as the concertos proceeded over the long evening. In No. 2, David Blackadder really did accomplish the seemingly impossible in his agile, spectacularly flawless, high-flying trumpet solos. In No. 6, first violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk played dazzling arabesques against the background of an extra-tart marmalade of recorders.
Ultimately, though, what makes Egarr’s “Brandenburgs” stand out is their subversiveness. Bach got nothing in return for his kissing up to the Margrave. In his notes to his recording, Egarr wonders whether old man Brandenburg did send a nice thank you and it is lost.
But his fabulous harpsichord solos in the Fifth Concerto suggested something more radical. The keyboardist begins as a dutiful ensemble player, but two-thirds through the first movement, he throws off his royal garb and breaks away in a phantasmagorical, downright anarchist solo. The individual asserts his right. Egarr is about as colorful a player as can be found on the harpsichord, and he took to this with arresting gusto.
But he also took to all the “Brandenburgs” with a nose-thumbing gusto. Maybe the Margrave of Brandenburg had good reason not to thank Bach. As played by these latter-day ancient musikers, Bach’s rite of spring becomes a defiant, joyous celebration of the rights of man.