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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Harpsichord Concertos, Vol. 3
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Complete Orchestral Works
Originals; Transcriptions; Reconstructions
Volume 5: Harpsichord Concertos III
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.
In his famous apologia on Johann Sebastian Bach's technique of composition the Leipzig professor of rhetoric Johann Abraham Birnbaum attempted as early as 1738 to characterize the special position held by the Cantor of St Thomas's among the composers of his age; in doing so he found words which today still afford an essential insight into the aesthetic and philosophical concepts which determined Bach's creative work:
"Incidentally it is certain that the parts in the pieces of this great master of music are mixed up with one another in a wondrous way; but for all that without the slightest confusion. They move with one another and against one another; both where it is necessary. They leave one another and still find their way back together at the right time. Each part is distinguishable from the others through a particular change, although at the same time they often imitate one another. They flee from one another and follow one another, without displaying the slightest irregularity in their activity of trying to be ahead of one another, as it were. If everything is performed as it should be, then there is nothing lovelier than this harmony."
The carefully worked-out counterpoint of apiece serves, according to Birnbaum, to correct the imperfections of nature; consequently the complexity of the elaborate inter-twinings presented in a work determines the measure of its beauty. This concept of musical perfection is probably best documented as far as Bach's orchestral music is concerned in the concertos for several keyboard instruments. The unprecedented contrapuntal richness of these works is hardly comprehensible in all its dimensions, even after one has heard them frequently; however, the innumerable contrapuntal ramifications and details which constitute the individual movements fuse into an overall impression which is definitely comprehensible – and this is exactly what shows Bach's greatness, in that he does not build esoteric castles in the air, but creates expressive and committed master works.
The three concertos for two harpsichords and orchestra approach the idea of a musical perfection based on a multivoiced texture in different ways and with differing consequences. All three works have in common a history which is apparently complicated but to a great extent obscure. The oldest work seems to be the C major Concerto BWV 1061. The piece existed at first as "Concerto a due Cembali", i.e. without the string ripieno in the outer movements. This explains the fact that the musical dialogue in BWV 1061 is almost exclusively limited to the two soloists. The orchestra accentuates the formal division of the movements by means of its accompaniment and gives prominence to thematic references. In the two C minor concertos BWV 1060 and 1062, in contrast, orchestra and soloists form themselves into a whole which is to a high degree homogenous and in which even the boundaries between accompanying and solo parts, or, as the case may be between ritornello and episode, disappear. This can already be perceived in the first bars of the opening movement of BWV 1060, where the soloists loosen up the ritornello theme with short interpolations. Both works are based on older concertos for two melody instruments, but only in the case of BWV 1062 has the original work, the Double Concerto for two violins BWV 1043, been preserved. The middle movements of both works are masterpieces of elaborate and yet cantabile writing and may be seen as alternatives to the simple homophonic texture of the Italian operatic aria popular at the time.
Bach must have been excited at the idea of going to the extremes of what was possible and daring to write a concerto for four harpsichords. This time it was not, exceptionally, once of his own compositions he took as a basis, but a work for four violins and orchestra by the Venetian master Antonio Vivaldi, whom Bach respected very highly. The relatively simple structure of the original also guaranteed in the transcription a well-balanced equilibrium between the transparency and comprehensibility of the work as a whole and the extraordinary richness of detail which goes beyond the bounds of normality. Particularly effective is the transcription of the second movement, although – or perhaps because – this is the movement in which Bach made the fewest alterations: after a few introductory chords from the orchestra the four harpsichords indulge themselves in luscious arpeggios which are all taken faithfully from Vivaldi's original together with the quite detailed expression marks. Bach's ideal of "perfect harmony" is achieved here, for a change, not by means of polyphonic complexity but by means of a series of chords which, though static, are broken up and enlivened by ingenious figurations.
Translation: Diana Loos
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BACH, J.S.: Harpsichord Concertos, Vol. 3