Bach to the future: Dutch conductor and recorder virtuoso Frans Brüggen, 1934 – 2014 [Photo © Polskie Radio]
FRANCISCUS JOZEF BRÜGGEN
30 October 1934 – 13 August 2014
Pioneers are those brave souls who see a wilderness and long to go into the heart of it, to connect the present with the future by finding new ways of doing what must be done to ensure survival. During the past half-century of musical history, some of the boldest, most innovative pioneers have been those who looked to the past in order to carve out of ignorance and indifference a path via which future generations might venture into the overgrown Eden of music composed before 1750. For those who are mindful of finding within a score the truest sense of a composer’s inspiration, the pursuit of historical accuracy in the performance of Early Music is not a pedagogical ‘movement’ but a way of life. For Dutch recorder virtuoso and conductor Frans Brüggen the quest for an absolute faithfulness to composers’ musical blueprints in building edifices in sound was his life’s work. He approached Bach, Händel, Telemann, and Vivaldi as friends, and when he found in Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn the Baroque roots that so many latter-day musicians have ignored, these geniuses, too, welcomed him as an equal. Unlike a number of period-practice specialists, Maestro Brüggen never stood between the listener and the music: he opened a score before an audience’s senses like a kaleidoscope, and his awe at the technicolor flickers of sound was as great as the listener’s.
A native of Amsterdam, Maestro Brüggen began his storied career as a master of historically-informed playing of the transverse flute and recorder. At the early age of twenty-one, he was named a professor of his chosen instruments at the Koninklijk Conservatorium Den Haag. As a pedagogue, Maestro Brüggen eventually also shared his comprehensive knowledge with students at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkley. As a flautist and recorder virtuoso, Maestro Brüggen lent his playing to a number of groundbreaking recordings, including excellent accounts of Baroque music for recorder by Barsanti, Corelli, Telemann, and Veracini, as well as flute sonatas and concerti by Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Gluck, Quantz, and Johann and Carl Stamitz. He also collaborated with Gustav Leonhardt, Anner Bylsma, and Sigiswald Kuijken on recordings of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti that remain cornerstones of the discography of period-appropriate performances of these important scores.
In 1981, Maestro Brüggen and Sieuwert A. Verster founded Orkest van de Achttiende Eeuw, the Orchestra of the 18th Century. The principal focus of Maestro Brüggen’s career was then transitioned to conducting, and his efforts on the podium proved no less revelatory than his earlier achievements as an instrumentalist. The completeness of Maestro Brüggen’s understanding of and affinity for Baroque repertory was not surprising, but the lucidity, insightful approaches to rhythmic precision and details of orchestration, and dynamism that he brought to later repertory were astonishing if hardly unforeseen by those acquainted with the dedication that he gave to every task that he undertook. The compositional styles evolved but still deeply rooted in the Baroque models from which their creators gleaned their musical educations, the Symphonies of Haydn and Mozart were natural territory for Maestro Brüggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century: less expected was the breadth of the conductor’s interpretive skills in the music of Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. The consistency of engagement, depth, and inspiration in Maestro Brüggen’s Philips recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies make the series worthy of comparison with the most acclaimed of competing sets, and the appropriately-scaled drama of his readings of Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ and ‘Italian’ Symphonies divulges both the preeminence of the young composer’s musical pedigree and the individuality of his creativity.
The singularity of Maestro Brüggen’s manner with music, no matter when it was composed, is disclosed in recordings that follow the paths that led music from the Eighteenth Century into the Nineteenth and beyond. In his performances of Haydn’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ Symphonies with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, he exposed with exceptional clarity the ways in which Haydn worked to fashion the modern symphony from the ‘raw material’ of the Orchestral Suites of Bach and Concerti grossi of Händel. In the performances of the Mozart and Beethoven Violin Concerti with Thomas Zehetmair, Mr. Brüggen’s management of textures evinces the composers’ syntheses of tradition and innovation. There are in his performances of Chopin’s First and Second Piano Concerti with Yulianna Avdeeva the remnants of the keyboard concerti of the late Baroque and the juvenile stirrings of the piano concerti of Brahms, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. Maestro Brüggen effectuated these intersections of musical past, present, and future by doing what many conductors are too distracted, stubborn, or egotistical to do—seeking the spirit of a piece within the score rather than inventing it and then distorting the music to match. When I heard him conduct Mozart’s Requiem, it was an enlightening experience: in the hour of that familiar score, I heard the voices of Caldara and Pergolesi and those of Verdi and Vaughan Williams. Primarily, though, I heard the voices of Mozart and Frans Brüggen, not in negotiation but in simple, mutually admiring conversation.
It was via Maestro Brüggen’s 1992 and 1996 recordings that I became acquainted with Bach’s Johannes- and Matthäus-Passions, and I regularly return to these performances, both of which feature tenor Nico van der Meel as the Evangelist and bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Christ. Among so many memorable documents, these Passion recordings encapsulate the finest qualities of Maestro Brüggen’s conducting. Few performances adequately convey the grittiness with which Bach depicted the betrayal, trial, and death of Christ, but Maestro Brüggen finds within—rather than imposing upon—Bach’s music the fury of the crowd demanding the destruction of Christ, the fall of bitter tears upon the apostle Peter’s cheeks, the piercing of the crown of thorns, the grisly breaking of Christ’s body upon the cross. These are not specifically Christian interpretations or didactic exercises. In Maestro Brüggen’s hands, Bach’s Passions are allowed to make impressions on their own terms. Throughout his career, this was his way: find the sincerest means of performing a score as its composer intended, embracing rather than rejecting its proper context, and the music will glisten as new even after hundreds of years. It is by any standard an incredible legacy.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Johannes-Passion, BWV 245—Nico van der Meel (Evangelist), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Christ), Annegeer Stumphius (soprano arias), James Bowman (countertenor arias), Christoph Prégardien (tenor arias), Peter Kooy (bass arias), Jelle Draijer (Pilatus), David Barick (Petrus), Michiel ten Houte de Lange (Servus), Adiinda de Nijs (Ancilla); Nederlands Kamerkoor; Orchestra of the 18th Century; Frans Brüggen, conductor [Philips 434 905]