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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Harpsichord Concertos, Vol. 2
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Complete Orchestral Works
Originals; Transcriptions; Reconstructions
Volume 4: Harpsichord Concertos II
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 concertos are set about with more unanswered questions and stubborn problems than most of the other genres in his œuvre. In the very first catalogue of his works, published in 1754 in the context of the obituary drawn up by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricola, one entry merely mentions "Various Concertos for 1, 2, 3 and 4 harpsichords" and concludes with the sweeping generalisation "a large amount of other instrumental works of all kinds and for all manner of instruments", which presumably means all Bach's chamber music and orchestral works which were available at the time. If one takes into consideration that, during his years as chamber musician and later as concert-master to Duke Wilhelm Ernst and Duke Ernst August of Saxe-Weimar (1709-1717) and above all as master of music at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (1718-1723), Bach was responsible for many years for the repertoire of first-class ensembles, then it is astonishing that hardly any compositions have been proved to originate from this time, for the concertos known today – apart from the Brandenburg Concertos – belong for the most part to the Leipzig period (1723-1750). However, many of the lost concertos have been preserved, at least in substance, in the concertos for one or several harpsichords; for it seems that Bach exclusively used concertos for melody instruments composed earlier for these works.
The Concerto in D major BWV 1054 is based on the Violin Concerto in E major BWV 1042, which was presumably written during Bach's term of office at the court of Cöthen. In the later version Bach changed numerous details of the solo part as well as of the accompanying parts. The variety of motivic ideas, some of them used for development and some for contrast, which are worked into a compact texture and dominate above all the first movement, is conveyed to the listener in the harpsichord transcription in a very singular way. Thus the harpsichord version can be seen on equal terms with the violin version as a realization of the same musical material. The analagous transcription of the A minor Violin Concerto can be found in the Harpsichord Concerto in G minor BWV 1058. This version also makes certain structural characteristics appear in a new light. In listening to and comparing both versions one is led to a deeper understanding of Bach's concept of creativity.
The Concerto in D minor BWV 1063 for three harpsichords is an extremely individual work. The history of its composition is completely obscure, and there are extremely divergent hypotheses about possible works on which it could be based. According to an older tradition, which can possibly be traced back to Bach's school or family circles, Bach is said to have written the work for himself and his two eldest sons, in order to give them the opportunity "to train themselves in all manner of performance". This would suggest a date of composition around 1730, i.e. immediately before Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach left their father's home. This information does not however, explain the strange heterogeneity of the composition and the way the solo instrument is treated differently in all three movements, which leads one to think of a pastiche made up of works of different origins, as is the case with the Triple Concerto BWV 1044. Bach displays in this work his sovereign mastery and at the same time free treatment of the concerto form perfected by Vivaldi, which expresses itself in the first movement in a motivically dense development which in several places breaks down the boundaries between solo episode and ritornello; at the entry of the last ritornello, the climax of the movement the ritornello themes and the virtuoso figurations of the first harpsichord are interwoven with one another. The second movement – uniquely in Bach's concerto œuvre – is a simple binary dance movement with varied recapitulations, whereas the final movement displays the more frequently found form of the concerto fugue.
The Concerto BWV 1064 – the sister work to BWV 1063 – has likewise survived only in a version for three harpsichords and orchestra (in C major), but today it is unanimously accepted that this is the arrangement of a lost concerto for three violins in D major. Since the harpsichord part in this concerto still allows the presumed original work to shine through in many places, its reconstruction did not present unconquerable difficulties. In both its versions the concerto is a work of extraordinary intensity and almost symphonic dimensions. The three soloists, who in the outer movements are allotted difficult parts which in places demand extreme virtuosity, already come to the fore in the ritornello with an obbligato part they all play together. In the middle movement the cantilenas of the solo instruments unfold over a repeated bass formula in the style of an ostinato and thus create a quiet balance to the complexity of the first movement. The third movement takes up the character of the first movement again, whereby the fugal ritornello and the harmonically far-reaching episodes are particularly remarkable.
Translation: Diana Loos
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BACH, J.S.: Harpsichord Concertos, Vol. 2