Episode 41: Teamwork in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4On November 15, 2019 by Raul Dinwiddie
This is María and this is Hester.
Together we are the CONSORT COUNSELLORS! Today we would like to talk about a composition
that every recorder duo wants to play at least once in their life: the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 by Johann Sebastian Bach. This concerto is in G major and is scored
for solo violin, two recorders, strings and continuo. Later, Bach made a version in F major
in which the solo violin is replaced by harpsichord, but the recorder parts stayed almost identical. Bach assigned the recorder parts
in the fourth Brandenburg to “Fiauti d’Echo”, which is quite an uncommon term in the 18th century.
What did he exactly mean by that? Is he talking about recorders in F… or maybe in G? Or about a completely different instrument,
maybe even one that sounds an octave higher? Or is he rather describing how the piece works?
Because the recorders are sort of “echoing” the violin, or even echoing themselves in the second movement,
in which there is a “forte” and “piano” effect. Musicologists and performers have been
discussing this issue for decades! Although there’s not a final or incontestable conclusion, enough experts assume that “Fiauti d’Echo” are just
‘normal’ alto recorders in F… so that’s what we brought today! One of the many reasons why we, the Consort Counsellors,
really appreciate and love this concerto is that the two recorders truly act as a team
over the course of the composition. They are such a tight team
that they almost sound like one instrument! So, being a bit opportunistic, you could say that this is
a concerto for solo violin, a tiny recorder consort and strings! Bach had a very good reason to use two recorders: balance. By having two recorders rather than one,
we achieve a louder and richer sound which is much more audible within the orchestra. In contrast with a very virtuosic, almost frantic violin soloist, the recorders play much more simple parts
but with the extra eloquence of counterpoint. If you listen very carefully to the concerto,
or if you look at the score, you will easily discover that the two recorders are always playing at the same time. They don’t get any individual solos or “moments of glory”
except for a few bars in the second movement. Bach assigned these few bars to the lucky Player One. These are the only moments where Bach
put only one recorder player “in the spotlight”. However, if you are Player One in the F Major version
for harpsichord and two recorders you are slightly less lucky, because in the second movement
Bach took the melody away from the recorders and gave it to the harpsichord. All Recorder One
gets to play is a simple but beautiful chromatic line. In the rest of the concerto, the recorders
always stick together as a team. Let’s see in which ways! The third movement of this concerto is fugal
and alternates between tutti and solo passages. To make sure that the recorders are audible in the tutti sections,
Bach lets them play in unison in a rather high register. A great recipe to play very well in unison is the TRIPLE S!
That stands for Sound, Sharing and Sympathy. Sound, because both players should play
with a good and beautiful individual sound Sharing! There should be a common idea
about direction, phrasing, articulation and length. …and Sympathy in the sense of mutual understanding.
In this concerto, although officially we are called Recorder 1 and Recorder 2, there is not a ranking
in which player 1 is more important than player 2. Teamwork is the key! In a way, fugal passages are
the complete opposite of unison playing, since we can play with much more independence.
In a fugue, different elements travel through the voices at different times, and we all get to play them
and make them our own. Play a lot with colouring, vibrato and
very subtle timings within the bar, so that, while fitting in the perfect and
complex structure of the fugue, you still can give the music your own colour and personality. Imitation takes shape in many ways in Baroque music. The opposite of the long fugal lines we just discussed may be the little and simple imitation
going on in the first movement. Even in such a little imitation game
we really need to think like a team, otherwise, the line in the music will be broken,
there will be no continuity from beginning until end. If our ideas are too personal and too different,
it may end up sounding a bit far-fetched… The opposite can also happen, of course…
that we ‘erase’ our own input so much that the total becomes too plain
and therefore a bit dull… blank! There is a lot of parallel motion going on
in the Brandenburg Concerto, where the two recorders play exactly the same material
but a third or a sixth apart. Small differences in phrasing, articulation, length
and timing may make parallel playing seem very sloppy. Do your sound, articulation, length and timing match? To get closer to each other’s sound take a small
fragment and play this over and over in a loop. This kind of teamwork features
different musical material in each of the voices. A very important motive in the first movement,
for example, features a low note for the first player… …and a nice row of semiquavers (16th notes) for the second. These contrasting motives match perfectly
and if the players understand each other well they can create a nice gesture together. Needless to say, this is very important material,
because the piece starts like this! How can you make a convincing gesture together?
Often, in Baroque music you can look at the harmony. It will give you important hints
about the direction of a certain gesture. In this case, for example, we start always on the tonic then we go to the dominant,
and on the last bar we come back to the tonic, which means: rest – tension – rest,
one – TWO – three. As we’ve seen,
the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4is full of teamwork! We hope that after watching this video you feel like
listening to this concerto over and over again. And, of course, that you will also like
to give it a try with a friend! You are going to learn a lot about Bach,
his composition, your colleagues and yourself! As we discussed in the beginning of this video, there are
many possible interpretations of the term “Fiauti d’Echo”. One of the many possible meanings is a construction
of two recorders joined together. They differ slightly in pitch and you can quickly
change between one and the other. And since they differ slightly in pitch,
you can create a real ‘echo’. In this video of the ensemble Voices of Music
you can see how that sounds and how it looks. If you are interested in watching some different versions of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, we leave you a few selected videos
in the description of our clip. Of course, we are curious to know what your favourite version is of the fourth Brandenburg concerto. Let us know so we can all listen to it!
Have a nice week! See you next time! Bye!