Bach from big to small is what Les Boréades de Montréal have in mind for the 2019 edition of the Vancouver Bach Festival. Over four separate concerts, in combinations ranging from an intimate chamber duo to a powerful ensemble of 20 instrumentalists and four singers, the Québécois early-music specialists will present a number of intriguing portals into the great German’s output.
The buzz, among Johann Sebastian Bach’s many local devotees, has been understandably generated by Les Boréades’ presentation of the complete Brandenburg Concertos, a cycle of six works that, perplexingly, went unheard during their composer’s lifetime—and, in fact, for a century after his death. Discovered by musical scholar Siegfried Dehn in the Brandenburg archives in 1849, they’ve since been recognized as among Bach’s finest works, if not the pinnacle of the baroque repertoire.
“Bach was not famous in his time,” Les Boréades’ founder, Francis Colpron, reminds us, in a telephone interview from his Montreal home. “He worked locally, in his central Germany region, and never in an important court or politically important court. Even in Leipzig, at the end, they were not very fond of his music. They were complaining all the time—and so he’s a hero, in a way!”
Bach’s refusal to cater to popular taste, combined with his restless mind and prolific output, is presumably why the Brandenburg Concertos were so easily overlooked for so long. Today, though, these works display a timeless vivacity, and they’re also a textbook example of the finest baroque compositional strategies. For a more intimate lesson, though, listeners might want to check out the Bach Sonatas & Chamber Music concert that Les Boréades have scheduled as an afternoon palate-cleanser between the two Brandenburg presentations. Here, three of Bach’s organ sonatas have been arranged for recorder, violin, cello, and harpsichord, and Colpron—who’ll star as the recorder soloist—says that this format allows for a particularly clear presentation of Bach’s musical bone structure.
“If a line is played by a recorder player and another line by a violinist, then you can hear the lines better, and you can see also the connection between them,” he notes. “If just an organ plays…of course you can listen to the result and enjoy it, but when you see all those lines subdivided and redistributed to multiple musicians, then you have a real connection, a real conversation, among musicians. And I think this is a plus. This will be very interesting for the listeners.”
For those who might mourn the absence of the organ, Colpron adds that the Trio Sonata No. 3 in D Minor will feature that instrument, along with a rarely heard cousin of the violin. “Mélisande Corriveau is one of the world specialists of the pardessus de viole, which is the tiniest of the gamba family,” he says. “So you have a viola da gamba the size of a violin; she takes the top line, and the organist—Mark Edwards, in this case—will play the two other lines. You’ll have the possibility of listening to an instrument that was very much in favour at that time, and that has a very specific sound.”
The fourth Les Boréades concert takes a turn towards the spiritual by featuring three of Bach’s cantatas, two written for church services in Weimar, and the other composed when Bach was music director at the Paulinerkirche in Leipzig.
“Those cantatas are fantastic,” says Colpron. “Especially when you listen to the recitative, where he talks to us, explaining why he’s doing this. You’re so amazed by how touching this is, and how deeply he felt. Bach had faith, and he was deeply convinced about that.”
In today’s deeply perplexing world, certainty can be hard to find—but we have faith, at least, that the enduring power and beauty of Bach’s music will be well-represented by Colpron, Les Boréades de Montréal, and their guests.
The Vancouver Bach Festival and Les Boréades de Montréal will present Bach Complete Brandenburg Concertos Pt. 1 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Tuesday (July 30). Bach Complete Brandenburg Concertos Pt. 2 will be held at Christ Church Cathedral on Wednesday (July 31). Bach Sonatas & Chamber Music takes place at Christ Church Cathedral at 1 p.m. on Wednesday (July 31). Bach Cantatas will be performed at Christ Church Cathedral on Friday (August 2). For a full Vancouver Bach Festival schedule, visit the Early Music website.