Arts & Events

Harpsichordist Richard Eggar and Philharmonia Baroque in Bach’s Brandenburgs

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 20, 2015 - 03:51:00 PM

Noted harpsichordist Richard Eggar led the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in four of the six Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. I attended the Saturday evening concert, November 14, at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. Before the concert began, Richard Eggar provided droll commentary, noting that these concertos were finished in 1721 and immediately sent off to the nobleman who had commissioned them, Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. Apparently, the Margrave did not think highly of them, if indeed he even looked at the scores, which he filed away in his library. Upon the Margrave’s death in 1734, Bach’s scores were sold off in a job lot with a miscellaneous collection of music. Bach’s sons were not aware that their father’s Brandenburg Concertos even existed.  

The program began with Richard Eggar conducting from the harpsichord Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046. It was, in my opinion, a rough beginning. The First Concerto is the biggest of the set of six, in terms of the number of movements and size of instrumentation. With more than twenty instrumentalists all playing at once, the opening attack of Concerto No. 1 was aggressively loud, almost grating. As he led the orchestra, Richard Eggar kept leaping up from his seat at the harpsichord, flailing his left arm to mark the beat, vigorously bobbing his head, and, it seemed, generally egging on the orchestra to play ever louder. Featured in the first movement were Katherine Kyme on violino piccolo, (a small violin tuned a minor third higher), a woodwind choir composed of three oboes, a bassoon, and two French horns. In this movement’s ritornello, the horns play rhythmic hunting fanfares. The second movement, a lovely slow Adagio, offers an eloquent dialogue between the first oboe and the violino piccolo; and, thankfully, it offers a welcome respite from the loud and raucous opening move-ment. However, the third movement reverts to the raucous character of the first, with more rollicking hunt motifs. Tacked onto these first three movements are two suites of dances: a French minuet with a trio for two oboes and bassoon, and a Polish “polacca,” with another rollicking hunt motif scored for the horns and unison oboes.  

If the First Brandenburg brought out the manic side of Richard Eggar as conductor, the rest of the evening’s Brandenburgs brought out a mellower side. Eggar’s conducting style became less animated and more subtle as the evening progressed. Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048, was next on the program. This work features only strings and continuo, the strings consisting of groups of three violins, violas, and cellos. A three-note melodic figure is introduced at the outset and is ingeniously developed by Bach’s counterpoint throughout the long first movement, which climaxes with all three cellos playing in unison. The second and final movement of this, the shortest of the six Brandenburgs, is in the form of a dance movement, an Italian gigue. Towards the end, the first violin and first viola make unexpected solo appearances. 

After intermission, Philharmonia Baroque returned to perform Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050. In this work the harpsichord, elegantly played here by Richard Eggar, is elevated to the rank of a soloist, stepping out from its usual task of supplying the basso continuo. Also featured are a flute, here admirably played by Janet See, and violin, handled adroitly by Lisa Weiss. Both the harpsichordist and flautist get quite a workout in this concerto. Initially, the harpsichord shares the solo passages with the flute and violin. However, in a remarkable solo cadenza, the harpsichord is given a chance to show off Bach’s abilities as a virtuoso improviser. Richard Eggar dispatched this cadenza in magisterial fashion. The second movement, a slow and lyrical trio marked Affetuoso, brings the three soloists together in a lovely interplay, offering a rhythmic first subject and a rounder answering subject, both themes being frequently inverted. This trio offered some of the most delightful music of the evening. The final movement, in the meter of a gigue, brings the work to a lively close, with the trio of soloists introducing the theme and the orchestra later joining in for the finale. 

The final work on the program was Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049. This work features two recorders and a first violin soloist, accompanied by a full orchestra of about twenty instrumentalists. Elizabeth Blumenstock was a brilliant solo violinist here, and Hanneke van Proosdij and Andrew Levy were first-rate performers on the recorder. Initially, the recorders exchange lines in an intricate duet, while the violin soloist remains subdued. Soon, however, the violin soloist embarks on the first of three virtuoso episodes in the opening movement, interspersed with more dialogue from the recorders. The second movement is a graceful Andante in the form of a minuet with a touch of melancholy. The recorders carry the melodic line, and the first recorder even has a brief solo cadenza just before the movement’s end. The final movement, a lively fugato marked Presto, introduces a fugal subject announced by the violas against a contrasting bass line. The first solo episode is for violin and recorders, and the second is for solo violin with light orchestral accompaniment. In this latter episode, Elizabeth Blumenstock displayed her virtuosity as violin soloist, performing flights of accelerated passage-work. Eventually, the fugal subject returns in a slower countersubject and the full orchestra reiterates the fugue as the work comes to a homophonic conclusion.