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  • Meirion Harries

DAY TEN Remaking the Brandenburg Concertos

The story starts in the ward of a military nursing home in Kent. In one bed was Neville Marriner, a Royal College of Music student who had been drafted into the commandos and injured in a raid on the Normandy coast, just before D-Day. The shrapnel from the hand grenade that injured him could not be removed and would sit close by his kidneys for the rest of his life. In the other bed was Thurston 'Bob' Dart. Bob was a maths graduate and statistician in the RAF's Strategic Bombing Planning Unit. He had been shot down over Calais.


In the nursing home, Bob decided to give up maths and study music. So, after the war, he went to Brussels to study with Charles Van den Borren, a Belgian musicologist and one of the pioneers of authentic performances of early music. He was also a man of courage who had hidden two Jewish children in his house during the war. Bob Dart was extremely gifted both as a performer - he played the baroque cello and the harpischord – and as a musicologist. He became Professor of Music at Cambridge and taught Michael Nyman and John Eliot Gardiner. Many of his manuscript scores are available in the University Library, if you would like to see his work first hand. Perhaps because he had a mathematical brain, his inclination and life long passion was for baroque music. And so, when Neville founded the Academy of St Martin in the Fields to specialise this repertoire, he got back in touch with Bob. It was a remarkable musical collaboration. Bob would make an edition of a particular score; Neville would produce the performing edition; then they both would work with the Academy players in rehearsal to iron out any wrinkles – and then record the piece. By 1971, Bob had edited what he believed was the true version of the Brandenburg Concertos. His research had convinced him that Bach had cut some corners and presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg a collection of works which were neither composed as a cycle not were strictly 'concertos'. Bob believed that the Brandenburg Concertos had simply formed "part of the larger repertory of chamber music which Bach wrote for performance at Court on Sunday evenings". So, Bob argued, when the Margrave's request for a cycle of concertos came in, Bach simply collected up a selection of these Sunday evening pieces and copied them out with some modifications in the 'masterpiece of calligraphy' that is the presentation copy.

It was a brave and radical reinterpretation. For example, Bob took from the original compositions the original instrumentation and the critics sharpened their knives: Edward Greenfield, who was a nice man, protested that replacing ordinary recorders and flutes in No.4 with sopranino recorders only “gives pleasure to passing bats … my ears seized up”. It says a lot about the musical integrity and purpose of Neville and the Academy, of the recording company – Phillips - and of the German producer, Erik Smith, that Bob and Neville's (and partly Erik's) Brandenburgs saw the light of day. But the four days of recording sessions were a sad time. Bob's stomach cancer was at an advanced stage. He should have played continuo on the recording but was too ill. He was desperate at least to attend the sessions, so they put down a mattress in the studio for him to rest on. With Bob unable to play, the groundbreaking recording was threatened - but a remarkable thing happened. Molly, who was running the Academy, sent out an urgent appeal to the top harpischordists in London. And they responded: Colin Tilney, George Malcolm, Philip Ledger and Raymond Leppard took a day of sessions each. And more than this, these creative musicians buried their tastes and preferences and followed the direction Bob gave as he lay there on his mattress. Continuo playing is partly improvised - but such was their respect for Bob that you cannot tell that four different personalities underpin these performances. Stanley Sadie, who knew what had happened, praised “these distinguished players” for having “subsumed their own individuality”. Sick though he was, Bob insisted on going back into the recording booth to dissect the playbacks with Neville and Erik. On one occasion, when the debate grew heated, Bob said 'Come on chaps. I haven't got much time'. They got the recording done and Bob was satisfied: “All my life I have been a voice crying in the wilderness and now I'm hearing my ideal performance”. Have a listen: https://youtu.be/PUbjXQEknJM

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