The Brandenburg Concertos composed by Johann Sebastian Bach are splendid pearls in the history of baroque music. However, they are rarely played in full in Shanghai. On May 8, 2019, Concerto Copenhagen will join in the Hantang International Music Festival with the complete set of Brandenburg Concertos under the baton of the harpsichordist and chamber musician Lars Ulrik Mortensen. The audience will be taken back to the golden age of Bach and get a personal, intuitive experience of the instrumentation, performing techniques, and the use of polyphony in baroque music.
Baroque Music Comes to Shanghai Grand Theatre
A Rare Performance of the Complete Brandenburg Concertos
The word “baroque” comes from the Portuguese word barroco, meaning an irregular or imperfectly shaped pearl. Later it referred to a style of European architecture, music, and art prevalent in the 17th century that differed from the earlier Renaissance style. In recent years, Chinese interest in baroque music has been increasing. Many orchestras and art institutions have held baroque music festivals and staged 17th century operas and concerts.
Baroque music is also an indispensable part of the repertoire of the Shanghai Grand Theatre. In 2015, the golden-voiced Joyce DiDonato gave a recital of vocal works by Handel, Monteverdi, and Scarlatti here. The next year, the English Concert, one of the most active early music orchestras in the world, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the top ten orchestras in the world, came to the stage of the Shanghai Grand Theatre. They have already presented Shakespeare in Love and Bach's St Matthew Passion. As the most popular pieces of the baroque period, Bach's Suites for Solo Cello, Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, and the Goldberg Variations, have all been played several times at the Shanghai Grand Theatre. Earlier this year, the cellist Wang Jian performed the complete Suites for Solo Cello here. And in 2017, the young pianist Zhou Shanxiang performed the Goldberg Variations here.
The Hantang International Music Festival initiated by Hantang Culture and Shanghai Grand Theatre holds “the Baroque Month” every May. The Baroque Capella “Golden Age” from Russia join in the festival in 2015 and 2018, bringing to Shanghai the brilliance and elegance of baroque music. Le Poème Harmonique from France presented a special program “Baroque Carnival” in 2017, recreating the joy and passion of a 17th-century celebration. Hantang Culture also held an exhibition of baroque music in May 2017. With multimedia and holographic technologies, the exhibition reviewed the history of baroque music in an effort to give the general public knowledge of these masterpieces.
On May 8 this year, Hantang International Music Festival will stage the complete set of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos performed by Danish ensemble Concerto Copenhagen. Music lovers in Shanghai will have a rare opportunity to appreciate these iconic masterpieces in full. The Shanghai Grand Theatre is the first stop on Concerto Copenhagen’s 2019 China Tour. Later it will visit five other cities including Beijing, Tianjin, Wuhan, Changsha, and Guangzhou.
“The most stupendous miracle in all of music”
Scores nearly lost
The Brandenburg Concertos are one of the most famous instrumental works of the great baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. There are six of them, and they are believed to have been composed in Bach’s Köthen years. Each of these concertos showcases Bach’s creativity and virtuosity in composition. Together, they are like a museum of baroque instrumental music, keeping the performing skills and polyphonies of the baroque period alive. Richard Wagner acclaimed it “the most stupendous miracle in all of music”.
Between 1717 and 1723, Bach was working for the court in Köthen. It was a happy and productive time for Bach. He finished many works that have become classic today, including Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Suites for Solo Cello, and the first set of The Well-Tempered Clavier. The Brandenburg Concertos composed during that period are also wonderful pieces. Originally named "Six concertos with several instruments" by Bach, they were meant as a gift for the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721. . Since every one of the six concertos were selected and probably revised from Bach’s previous works, they share no similar instrumentation.
However, since the Margrave of Brandenburg did not have the musicians in his Berlin ensemble to perform all the concertos, the full score was left unused in the Margrave's library. After the Margrave died in 1734, the scores were assigned a nominal value of just 24 groschen. After passing through private hands, the manuscript ended up in the archives of Brandenburg and was rediscovered by the German music theorist Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn in 1849; the concertos were first published in the following year. The manuscript was nearly lost in World War II. When it was being transported for safekeeping to Prussia by train, the train came under aerial bombardment. Luckily, the librarian taking care of the manuscript escaped the train to a nearby forest, with the scores hidden under his coat.
From the standpoint of instrumentation, structure, tempo and melody, the Brandenburg Concertos were ahead of their time. They almost qualify as symphonies and possess more of an orchestral than chamber character. Since the pieces were not composed together, each one of them was to remain without parallel. To achieve the rich texture of the music, Bach used the widest spectrum of instrumentation. The smallest orchestra of all concertos requires seven instruments. The use of solo instruments was also avant-garde. For example, the Second Concerto innovatively features in the solo parts a flute, an oboe, a violin, and a natural trumpet. Bach revived the “concerto grosso” in Concertos One, Two, Four, and Five.
Performing in Shanghai Under the Baton of the Artistic Director
A Nordic interpretation of the Brandenburg Concertos:
simplicity and creativity, calmness and unpredictability
Concerto Copenhagen played its first concert in 1991 and has since developed into Scandinavia’s leading early music ensemble, becoming one of the world’s most exciting and innovative Baroque orchestras. It is outstanding at making even four-hundred-year-old classical music vital, relevant, and contemporary.
In 1999, the internationally acclaimed harpsichordist and chamber musician, Lars Ulrik Mortensen, became the ensemble’s chief artistic director. A graduate from the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen, Mortensen studied the harpsichord with Karen Englund and figured bass notation with Jesper Bøje Christensen. He also studied harpsichord with Trevor Pinnock in London. Between 1996 and 1999, Mortensen was professor of harpsichord and performance practice at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich. He now teaches at numerous Early Music courses throughout the world. In 2003, he made the decision to work exclusively with period instrument ensembles. In 2004, he succeeded Roy Goodman as the musical director of the European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO).
Mortensen’s first complete recording of Buxtehude’s chamber music with John Holloway and Jaap ter Linden received the Danish Grammy Award for best classical recording of the year. Another Grammy was awarded to a CD of Buxtehude cantatas with Emma Kirkby. And Mortensen became “Danish Musician of the Year 2000” for his three CDs with harpsichord music by Buxtehude. These recordings also received the Cannes Classical Award 2001.
For a number of years, Concerto Copenhagen has collaborated with many internationally renowned artists in the Early Music scene, including Emma Kirkby, Andreas Scholl, Anne Sofie von Otter, Sonia Prina, Vivica Genaux, Andrew Manze, Andrew Lawrence-King. Concerto Copenhagen enjoys a close collaboration with the Royal Danish Theatre with an average of one opera per season. Recent productions include works by Monteverdi and Mozart.
Over the years, the ensemble has recorded CDs and DVDs for labels such as CPO, Deutsche Grammophon, Harmonia Mundi and Decca, attracting worldwide attention and winning international awards. The recordings on Bach include his B Minor Mass, Harpsichord Concertos and the Brandenburg Concertos, of which the music journalist Per Rask Madsen wrote on Klassisk “The Brandenburg Concertos contain all what your heart may desire: grounded and heavenly striving, simplicity and creativity, calmness and unpredictability.”