Greetings, my fellow port swillers!

Ol’ Robbo wanted to draw the attention of the musick lovers among friends of the decanter to a new CD that is being highlighted as the “pick of the week” on the local classickal station and features the Bach Brandenburg Concerti Nos. 7-12.

But Tom, you are no doubt saying, we only know of six such concerti.  How can this be?  Well, I’ll let the station’s ad copy speak for itself:

This new release on the ATMA Classiques label is a performance by Montréal Baroque of a project by the late American oboist and musicologist Bruce Haynes.  In his words, “…these concertos are not meant as serious reconstructions, merely as speculative trials to demonstrate the possibilities for instrumental treatment of Bach’s rich fund of musical inventions contained in the cantatas and other vocal works.”  When Haynes conceived these sequels, he chose six cantatas and transcribed vocal lines for the same instrument groups Bach used in the original Brandenburg Concertos.  In May 2011, having orchestrated three of them, Haynes died unexpectedly during a surgical procedure.  His widow, cellist Susie Napper, finished the project, and was the artistic director for this recording, produced during the 2011 Montréal Baroque Festival.

So there you have it – concerti fashioned out of instrumentalized cantatas.

So far I have not heard a track based on a cantata with which I am much familiar, so I can’t really compare the vocal to the instrumental treatments.  I can offer a few observations, though.  Foremost is that listeners must not let the whole “new Brandenburgs” label set up any false expectations:  These pieces sound nothing at all like the original Brandenburgs, either in scope, scale, tone or structure.   This is hardly surprising, given that Bach had two completely different purposes in mind when he composed these two very different kinds of musick.  The Brandenburgs were, if you like, exercises in musickal conversation for its own sake, written by Bach for the aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment and amusement of a small, intimate group of musicians and their hearers.  The Cantatas, on the other hand, were meant for the purpose of enhancing the publick worship of God.  As such, they necessarily entailed different and very much broader performance goals and ideas.

Second, it’s my impression so far that the pieces are perhaps somewhat over-orchestrated, with more instruments than strictly necessary to the form jumping in and out in a way that sounds a bit fussy and contrived.   In this, they aren’t nearly so culpable as, for example, the abominable genre of “re-imagined” Christmas tunes of the “If Bach Had Written ‘Jingle Bells'” variety in which hack composers typically bulk up the orchestra for maximum cuteness.  However, even if they’re faithfully transcribed into the same instrumental groups used by Bach in the Brandenburgs, the effect – at least on a casual hearing – is a mite too cluttered for the ear of Robbo.  It’s quite true that Bach used the Brandenburgs as platforms for all sorts of different – and often novel – instrumental combinations, but again, that was part of the specific scope and purpose of these works, and the instrumentation was calculated based on those criteria.  (I haven’t heard yet how a cantata can possibly have been crammed into the delicate scoring of Concerto No. 5 with its trio sonata-like form and extended harpsichord solo, but the mind boggles at the thought.  Bull?  Meet china shop!)

Third, and for all that above,  I still find these tracks interesting and pleasant to hear and am toying with buying the CD myself.  Again, it’s a bit of a gimmick, and Hayes himself indicates that he is just messing about for the sake of experimentation, but there is after all a very long tradition of transcribing the same musick back and forth among various forms.  (Where would I be, after all, without my beloved recording of Charles Avison’s orchestral transpositions of Scarlatti’s keyboard musick?)  Also, this is Bach, after all, whose musick is of such utter genius as to be very nearly indestructible no matter what form it takes.  (Heck, even Leopold Stokowski’s horrid orchestral mutations couldn’t crush all the life out of it.)   And it is quite clear that Hayes and Napper respect that genius and treat it accordingly.

Oh, and the Montréal Baroque do a bang up job, with all the scraping and howling goodiness of a period instrument performance.

So, there you go.  You may assign what weight you like to my opinion, keeping in mind of course the fact that said opinion is amateur, gratuitous and off-the-cuff, but I think this CD worthy of a listen.