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Bach's Fifth Brandenburg, from Edinburgh

Skyline of Edinburgh
Andrew Colin
Wikimedia Commons
Calton Hill, Edinburgh

On The Bach Hour, a masterpiece, ignored when it was new, reveals a revolutionary spirit in a vivid performance by harpsichordist John Butt and the Dunedin Consort in Scotland.

On the program:

Three-Part Inventions: No. 12 in A, BWV 798, No. 3 in D, BWV 789, No. 4 in D minor, BWV 790, and No. 8 in F, BWV 794 - Janine Jansen, violin; Maxim Rysanov, viola

Cantata BWV 186 Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht (translation) - Miah Persson, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; Peter Kooy, bass; Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki, conductor

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, BWV 1050 - Dunedin Consort, John Butt, conductor



Brian McCreath: Today, this is one of Bach’s most popular works.


But when it was new, it was … ignored.


The Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, a gift that was apparently completely unappreciated by its recipient, is coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I'm Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from Classical Radio Boston WCRB, a part of WGBH. It’s not hard to find performances and recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos. Those six pieces, packed with invention, virtuosity, and gorgeous textures, are the very definition of “eternal.” and when it comes to the Fifth of them, there’s even the possibility that we’re hearing a bit of social commentary by its composer. More on that is coming up later in the program. Also on the program today is the Cantata No. 186, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht, or “Do not be vexed, o soul.” You’ll find a translation of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can hear this program again on demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Before all of that, here is a selection of Sinfonias by Bach, originally written for harpsichord and performed by violinist Janine Jansen, violist Maxim Rysanov, and cellist Torleif Thedéen, here on The Bach Hour.


This set of Sinfonias, or, as they’re sometimes called, Three-Part Inventions, by Bach were performed by violinist Janine Jansen, violist Maxim Rysanov, and cellist Torleif Thedéen.

In one of the most striking stories from the New Testament of the Bible, Jesus takes 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread and manages to feed thousands of hungry people. The experience of those people - the doubt and anxiety, followed by relief and security - is at the heart of the Cantata 186, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht, or “Do not be vexed, o soul,” a piece Bach wrote for the 7th Sunday after Trinity. Written in two parts, it begins with a chorus that musically illustrates the contrast of those two states of mind, first through a thick layering of texture that captures the experience of being vexed…


And then through a bright transparency to express God’s “all-highest light.”


A recitative and aria by the bass makes clear that that light is “visible in the scripture,” and an aria for the tenor celebrates the nourishment God provides, a reference to that story of Jesus feeding thousands of people.

The chorus returns to close part 1 with a chorale setting that confirms scripture as the source of faith.

In Part 2, all of that is brought into a more immediately relevant realm for the believer. The world is depicted as a wilderness to contend with, and faith in scripture the force that protects against danger. And that’s followed by a soprano solo that promises compassion for the poor through scripture.

Finally, the reward for that faith through scripture is expressed through a duet for the soprano and alto soloists.


Remember, you can find a translation of the text for this piece at our website, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is Bach’s Cantata 186, featuring soprano Miah Persson alto Robin Blaze, tenor Makoto Sakurada, and bass Peter Kooy. Masaaki Suzuki conducts Bach Collegium Japan, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 186]

The Cantata No. 186 by Bach, in a performance by Bach Collegium Japan and conductor Masaaki Suzuki. The soloists included soprano Miah Persson alto Robin Blaze, tenor Makoto Sakurada, and bass Peter Kooy.

A couple of years before he went to Leipzig, Bach assembled a set of six concertos intended to impress the Margrave of Brandenburg, presumably in the hope of landing a job. Among those six pieces, the Fifth is especially interesting because of how Bach uses the harpsichord. At the time, that instrument was really only meant for accompaniment. But Bach puts it on equal footing with the flute and violin, at one point bringing the harpsichord out of the texture for an extended solo. To some, this has the marks of a commentary on social hierarchy. Musicologist Susan McLary sees it as an overthrow of the hierarchy of Bach’s time, the harpsichord “servant” overcoming the more distinguished flute and violin. Meanwhile, Michael Marissen finds it to be more an expression of all humans being equal in God’s eyes. Whichever is true or not, the music itself is brilliant.

Here is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, with flutist Katy Bircher and violinist Cecilia Bernardini. John Butt directs the Dunedin Consort from the harpsichord, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1050]

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 by Bach, in a performance by the Dunedin Consort, led by John Butt from the harpsichord, with flutist Katy Bircher and violinist Cecilia Bernardini.

Remember, if you’d like to hear this program on demand, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.