Performing a complete cycle of Brandenburg Concertos in one evening may take less time than a Wagner opera, but it is an equally epic undertaking for any Baroque ensemble as Bach throws so many challenges at the musicians. (Admittedly Bach did not envisage them to be performed in one concert, but somehow I don’t think he would have minded as he was at heart a completist.) It is typical of Bach that whereas his contemporaries would compose a set of six concertos for the same instrumentation, he explores different combinations of solo instruments in each concerto, including unusual combinations such as solo recorder and trumpet in No.2 or the use of viola da gambas in No.6. When performing these concertos in a large concert hall, there are many issues that need to be addressed: what size should the tutti ensemble be, how should the musicians be positioned on stage, and which order to play them in?

Capella Savaria (rehearsal photo) © Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest
Capella Savaria (rehearsal photo)
© Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest

Capella Savaria, Hungary's first and foremost period instrument ensemble based in Szombathely (near the Austrian border), took up this huge challenge as part of this year's Early Music Festival at Müpa Budapest. They have recently recorded all six concertos (for the Hungaroton label, soon to be released), so they would have already considered many of these issues during the process. Still, recording and a live performance is different and I imagine one of the difficulties in this concert must have been finding the right balance for each concerto. Fortunately, the acoustics of Béla Bartók National Concert Hall in Müpa (that seats between 1200-1500) can be fine-tuned to the size and type of each ensemble by lowering the canopy and moving the doors of resonance chambers in the balconies, and there certainly was a warm and resonant sonority.

Regarding the order, Capella Savaria chose to perform the concerti simply from No.1 to No.6, therefore ending each half with the more chamber-like No.3 and No.6 respectively. The players, led from the violin (the viola in No.6) by Zsolt Kalló, performed standing up, with the soloists in front and the tutti behind. The harpsichord (without lid) was placed in the middle facing the audience.

Zsolt Kalló (rehearsal photo) © Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest
Zsolt Kalló (rehearsal photo)
© Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest
Kalló is a natural leader and moreover a great soloist (he played his solos with easy virtuosity), but one realises that leading from the melody-line produces a different dynamic compared to leading from within the ensemble on the harpsichord – in general the chamber-type works such as Nos.3, 4 and 6 were more successful than the concertante Nos.2 or 5 where the soloists and tutti didn’t always integrate with the same intensity.

There was well-balanced ensemble playing in the lively and uplifting Concerto No.3 (scored for 3 violins/3 violas/3 cellos and continuo), probably the most popular of the Brandenburgs along with No.5. Each played his/her solos with precision and finesse and maintained rhythmic momentum until the end. In Concerto No.4, featuring two solo recorders (Gábor Prehoffer, Bettina Simon), they created an elegant and intimate dialogue between the solos and tutti, and the inclusion of the archlute in the continuo was effective.

László Borsódy with coiled trumpet © Capella Savaria
László Borsódy with coiled trumpet
© Capella Savaria
Concerto No.2, on the other hand, is inherently a difficult work to balance – one wonders what sort of sonority Bach wanted to achieve by combining a high-register trumpet with a soft-sounding recorder. On this occasion, the solo trumpet László Borsódy played on a small horn-like coiled trumpet, especially constructed based on historical sources, producing a unique tone which was both bright yet lyrical – but still the recorder and oboe struggled to be heard. The balance in the Concerto No. 5 seemed to favour the solo violin and baroque flute (Andrea Bertalan) who stood in front the harpsichord (Rita Papp). Papp delivered the famous harpsichord solo with panache, but elsewhere her tone didn’t quite penetrate above the orchestra, perhaps due to the position of the instrument. In the most symphonic No.1, the two natural horns played brilliantly.

The audience was substantially larger than for the previous evening’s concert of French sacred music (although the smaller audience then was more attentive), but that is to be expected when one programs Bach’s popular works by a well-loved local ensemble. A healthy balance between international and local artists, popular and rarer repertoire is surely the key to a successful early music festival and I think they have got the balance right.