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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Harpsichord Concertos, Vol. 1
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Complete Orchestral Works
Originals; Transcriptions; Reconstructions
Volume 3: Harpsichord Concertos I
It seems that only a relatively small part of Bach's orchestral œuvre has been preserved for posterity. Much has been speculated about the reasons for the above-average losses in this particular field, but up till now no really conclusive reasons have been found. The fact that so few works for instrumental ensemble have survived particularly from the Weimar and Cöthen periods, during which the composer directed so many excellent ensembles, has led many researchers to the hypothesis that Bach was obliged to leave the majority of his compositions in these places when he moved on to another post – a common custom for which much evidence can be found in many eighteenth century documents; other considerations establish a connection with the distribution of Bach's compositions to his heirs after his death. Whatever the case, only one thing is certain: that at the latest with Bach's death a veil of oblivion began to sink over his orchestral works – partly caused also by a profound change in taste which began in the middle of the eighteenth century. Thus great effort was necessary in the course of the Bach renaissance at the beginning of the nineteenth century to win back these works, which by then were completely unknown even to Bach connoisseurs, into the performance repertoire.
Today Bach's orchestral works enjoy an enduring popularity once more. Intensive study of this repertoire, which in spite of the regrettable gaps is in many ways incomparable, has led to the realization that only a part of the works can be regarded as original compositions, whereas many of the concertos in the form in which they are known today represent transcriptions of pieces written earlier. Among the works of the first-named category are the Brandenburg Concertos and the three Violin Concertos, among the transcriptions are all the concertos for one to three harpsichords, which are presumed to be based on lost works for various melody instruments. The Concerto for four harpsichords, BWV 1065 is a special case in that Bach did not take one of his own works as a basis but, exceptionally, a work by Antonio Vivaldi. Comparative studies on Bach's technique of rearranging works have led again and again to speculations about the possible form and structure of the lost works on which the arrangements are based, and as a consequence to attempts at reconstruction which have resulted in pieces which are stylistically convincing and which have proved their worth in practice; within the context of this recording these works are intended to help fill the gaps mentioned above.
The present complete recording of Bach's orchestral works illustrates graphically the enormous musical variety and compositional quality of this sphere of his creative work. We meet the composer for the first time around 1715 on his first pinnacle of mastery (Brandenburg Concerto No. 5) and accompany him for approximately a quarter of a century up to the sublime works of his maturity – the Overture BWV 1067 and the Triple Concerto BWV 1044.
Bach's cycle of seven concertos for harpsichord with orchestral accompaniment has survived in the form of a valuable fair copy of the score in Bach's own hand, which –in view of the fact that most of the other original manuscripts have been lost –represents one of the most significant sources of his instrumental ensemble music. The more detailed circumstances of how and for what occasion this jewel was composed have not yet been fully researched. However, on the basis of investigation of the handwriting and the watermarks it can be established that the score probably originated from the year 1738, or perhaps 1739. If the later date is favoured, it could be assumed that the works were written in connection with Bach's taking up the post of director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum once again after a two-year break on 2nd October 1739; but the scrupulously laid-out fair copy does not really seem to fit into the picture of the works with the less formally organized student ensemble. It seems more plausible to connect them with a visit of Bach in Dresden which written evidence proves took place in May 1738, during which he was sure to have been musically active in court circles or at private aristocratic gatherings, for example with concerts at the home of Count Keyserlingk, who was a music-lover. But no matter where Bach appeared in public with his harpsichord concertos, he would have succeeded in drawing his audience's attention to his mastery as composer and virtuoso.
The cycle begins with a piece which is unusual in every way, the Concerto in D minor BWV 1052. The history of this work is to a great extent obscure; however, the technical style of certain figures tells us that the original work must have been a violin concerto of which the young Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach started making a transcription as early as 1734. The first movement takes its unmistakeable character from the concise unison theme of the ritornello, a theme which in the course of the movement turns up again at regular intervals. The solos in between are characterized by an unusually dense motivic treatment of the accompaniment, in which hardly a bar is without a reference to the theme. The second movement displays a similarly dense texture; the theme, also introduced in unison at the beginning, acts as an accompaniment in ostinato style to the elegiac and richly ornamented solo cantilena of the harpsichord. A brilliant Finale, the mood of which is as intensive as that of the previous movements, ends the work.
In contrast to the gloomy D minor Concerto, the following Concerto in E major BWV 1053 displays a charming, cheerful mood. The first movement – like that of some of the Brandenburg Concertos – is in large-scale da capo form and thus displays similarities to an overdimensional aria. The transparent polyphonic texture, elaborate but at the same time seeming to have been effortlessly composed, allows every orchestral part in the accompaniment to become the harpsichord's dialogue partner, as it were. The harpsichord part, which is notated in detail from the first to the last bar, is so intimately interwoven with the filigree texture of the orchestra that in one place it is also allowed to play a single note of the ritornello theme for once. The same principles of composition technique apply to the two movements which follow, a tenderly restrained Siciliano in C sharp minor and a cheerful Allegro in dance-like 3/8 time.
The Concerto in A major BWV 1055 is characterized by the particularly cantabile quality of its solo part; for this reason it has been generally accepted for a long time that the original work was a concerto for oboe d'amore. In the first movement the ritornello themes clearly take second place to the solo part, which is allowed to develop unimpeded; thus at the beginning of the movement only sonorous broken chords are heard, between which the solo part already draws attention to itself with material of its own before the episode begins. The second movement, marked Alla siciliana, is in the relative minor, as in the E major Concerto, which, apart from a short ritornello which serves as introduction and conclusion, is dominated completely by the quietly flowing semiquaver figurations of the harpsichord. The final movement is in the rhythm of a fast minuet; the dance-like metre and the strict four-bar periodic structure bring about the lovely peaceful mood of this Finale, in spite of occasional more rapid figurations.
The Concerto BWV 1056 presents numerous problems as far as the original work is concerned. Possibly it was originally in G minor; when Bach put the works together into a cycle he may have decided to avoid a doubling of this key, which also appears in BWV 1058. The form of the three movements creates in this work an even more simple and concise effect than in the other concertos and could therefore be interpreted as an indication that the composition is a relatively early one. But even here essential elements of Bach's concerto style are already clearly recognizable; among these are above all the motivic development of the accompaniment in solo sections as well as the integration of the soloist into an interwoven polyphonic texture, surpassing as an aesthetic concept even the traditions of the concerto form genre
Translation: Diana Loos
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BACH, J.S.: Harpsichord Concertos, Vol. 1