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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Concertos for Solo Harpsichord (Complete) (Farr)
Among the wealth of works composed during his Weimar period, J.S. Bach made 22 keyboard transcriptions of concertos by Italian and German composers: six for two keyboards and pedal (BWV 592–596) and sixteen for keyboard (BWV 972–987), the latter of which are recorded here by multi-award-winning harpsichordist Elizabeth Farr. Complementing these masterful transcriptions is the Prelude and Fugue in A minor BWV894, which Bach later reworked as the opening and closing movements of his Triple Concerto BWV1044. Farr’s other Naxos recordings have been universally praised.
By Mark Kravchenko
Classical Music Sentinel
By Lynn René Bayley
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Concertos for Solo Harpsichord, BWV 972–987 • Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 894
Among the wealth of works composed during his Weimar period, Johann Sebastian Bach made 22 keyboard transcriptions of concertos by Italian and German composers: six for two keyboards and pedal (BWV 592–596) and sixteen for keyboard (BWV 972–987). Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar employed Bach as court organist in 1708, a position in which the young man thrived for the next nine years forging a strong reputation as a virtuoso keyboardist and composer of renown. The Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 894, an original composition from the same general period, is a brilliant work that makes use of the concerto principle. Bach later adapted both movements and the slow movement of BWV 527 to create his Concerto in A minor, BWV 1044, for harpsichord, flute, violin, and string orchestra.
Why did Bach transcribe so many concertos? There are a number of possible reasons. A remark in Forkel’s biography of Bach (1802) that doing so “taught Bach how to think musically” (the emphasis being on transcriptions from Vivaldi) has inspired scholars to attempt to define what it was that Bach learned and how this knowledge caused his thinking to become more musical. One of the more interesting articles on this topic, by noted Bach scholar Christoph Wolff, examines the three terms given by Forkel—order (Ordnung), connection (Zusammenhang), and proportion (Verhältnis)—using BWV 978, the Concerto in F major after Vivaldi, as illustration. Forkel provides an
important account of Bach’s life, having gained much of his information directly from Bach’s sons, yet it also seems possible that Bach could simply have been intrigued by this music, which is quite infectious and compelling, and wanted to make it his own by the act of arranging it convincingly for keyboard solo.
It is also known that composition was studied in this era, in part, by hand-copying music of other composers. To arrange music of another composer, especially when changing the instrumentation, follows this learning method closely but extends it a bit. Certain things need to be altered. If the original key exploits a high treble range, as is often the case for violin, and is therefore less suitable for a more balanced use of the keyboard, then the key often needs to be changed. Typical idiomatic figurations for strings are sometimes not transferable to the keyboard, for each instrument has its own best manner of expression. In the good contrapuntal writing of a German keyboard composer, the interplay of voices may present itself in a more or less complex way affecting the impression of continuity and the illusion of dynamic changes, causing us to believe that we are hearing either tutti or solo sections of the concerto even though there is just one player. In Bach’s transcriptions, beautiful ornamental elaborations that were conventionally entrusted to the soloist in the original
concertos are fully notated in the slow movements.
Further, it is known that young Prince Johann Ernst, nephew of Duke Wilhelm, studied abroad during the years 1711–13. In Amsterdam, he heard organists play the newest Italian concertos in transcription, including Vivaldi’s Opus 3, L’estro armonico, published there in 1711. With great enthusiasm, the prince brought many concerto scores
back to Weimar and requested that Bach make transcriptions. Since the prince was quite a good amateur composer himself, it is not surprising that Bach arranged not only string and wind concertos of the great composers Vivaldi, Telemann, Torelli, and Marcello in the next two years, but also a number from Johann Ernst himself. Interestingly, Johann Ernst also studied with the Weimar town organist, Johann Gottfried Walther (Bach’s cousin), who similarly made transcriptions of concertos in this same period.
In establishing Bach as the greatest organist and harpsichordist in Germany, the concerto transcriptions undoubtedly played a uniquely important rôle through their virtuosity and creativity. It was just a few years later that Johann Mattheson praised the keyboard compositions and church cantatas of Bach (in Das beschützte Orchestre), one of the earliest references to Bach in print. From the time that Bach made these transcriptions, concerto and concerto style continued to be a staple in his compositional output, as can be seen through a thorough examination of his works.
There are certain recurring characteristics in Baroque concertos. The majority of concertos featured a solo instrument, most often violin, which was either accompanied by or contrasted with the full ensemble or some portion of it. The solo rôle was also at times expanded to include multiple soloists or even a concertino group. As well, a number of concertos were written for string orchestra without a soloist, with contrasts achieved through dialogue or pairings within the orchestra.
In the eighteenth century, most concertos were composed in three movements: fast, slow, fast. In the seventeenth century, by contrast, concertos were multi-sectional: note the Concerto in B minor after Torelli with six movements, in which several function merely as short interludes or transitional segments. The earlier sectional style of concerto is very much in line with the seventeenth-century penchant overall for intense affekts presented in rapidly changing succession. Occasionally concertos even followed the four-movement format of the sonata da chiesa, slow-fast-slow-fast, in which the first movement is brief and introductory in nature.
The opening ritornello of each of the movements in the eighteenth-century style is clearly thematic, and usually fairly simple and direct in the use of harmony and texture
to establish the key centre and basic character, while the solo sections are typically more figurative and bravura in nature. The ritornello usually recurs throughout the movement in various keys, or on occasion merely introduces and closes a movement. Circle-of-fifth sequences that tonicize or modulate are standard fare. Motoric rhythms push forward energetically in the faster movements, and languid melodies inspired by vocalise dominate the inner movement. Dialogue and contrasts achieved through a variety of means and techniques define this formal style in a captivating way.
The original composers of these sixteen concertos communicated affekt and content in their works exceedingly well. Bach, in making successful arrangements of each, defined and detailed the original material in a way that fully recognizes the original within a new virtuosic environment, that of the solo harpsichord. The objectivity of the premise—to transcribe a concerto—has fostered the subjectivity of the delivery—illuminating its very essence in an original way.
For this recording, a large two-manual harpsichord was used with the disposition 16’8’8’4’ and two buff stops, built by Keith Hill. The availability of 16’ sound lends a power and grandeur that is reminiscent of the Baroque string orchestra, energetic and fiery, and the presence of two buff stops offers additional variety for more delicate
Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico is the source for three of the concertos in this set: BWV 972 (Op. 3 No. 9 / RV 230), BWV 976 (Op. 3 No. 12 / RV 265, composed in E major), and BWV 978 (Op. 3 No. 3 / RV 310, composed in G major). The remaining concertos after Vivaldi include three from collections published in 1716 and 1720 that must have existed in manuscript copies or early versions: La stravaganza, Opus 4, and Concerti a cinque stromenti, Opus 7 (“five instruments” refers to the addition of a solo line). BWV 973 is taken from Op. 7/ii No. 2 / RV 299. BWV 975 comes from Vivaldi’s RV 316 (now lost), which in its later published version RV 316a (Op. 4 No. 6) differs slightly here and there in the second movement and has an altogether different third movement. BWV 980 was labelled
in its manuscript source (P280) as Op. 4 No. 1, although it corresponds correctly with another concerto, RV 381, composed in B flat major.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) is arguably the most prolific composer of the Baroque string concerto. The variety and quality of his invention in over five hundred concertos is staggering, and undeniably so within the six included in this set. The outer movements are exciting and catchy, most often designated by Allegro, which can represent a range of tempos. The first movement of a concerto was often not even given a tempo word, as Allegro was understood and expected (this is also true for the first movement of Bach’s own Italian Concerto, BWV 971, which opens Clavier-Übung II). The last movement was sometimes imitative or fugal, or dancelike as seen in BWV 975 (and BWV 977).
The second movements are possibly even more memorable, with an expression or affekt that is slightly different in each of the concertos represented here. From utter simplicity and tenderness to warm appreciation and muted grandeur to the dazzling shimmer of arpeggiando figuration, all have the spontaneous natural quality of an improvisation through both simple form and exquisite ornamentation. Bach points up these qualities and creatively embellishes them even further. Although in BWV 972, 976, and 978 the ornamented solo lines of the second movements are virtually as Vivaldi composed them with only small additions, in BWV 973, 975, and 980 Bach has beautifully embellished a much plainer solo line. The use of a Picardy third in the final chord of BWV 973/ii is particularly touching.
BWV 977 is labelled as a concerto after Vivaldi in one period manuscript. It is not difficult to hear Vivaldi’s style in this work, but no corroboration for it has ever been found within his known works. The remaining two concertos whose origins cannot be traced with any certainty, BWV 983 and BWV 986, may come from German composers as
scholars suggest, but any assignations as to who can only be made on the basis of style. These two concertos sound in a style that, while exhibiting the characteristics of Italian models, seems more lyrical and not quite as earthy.
Three concertos come from Italian composers other than Vivaldi: Giuseppe Torelli (BWV 979, Concerto for violin in D minor), Alessandro Marcello (BWV 974, Concerto for oboe in D minor), and Benedetto Marcello (BWV 981, Concerto for violin in E minor, Op. 1 No. 2). Each of the original works has survived in either incomplete form or in manuscripts that differ slightly from the transcriptions.
Torelli (1658–1709) was a virtuoso violinist and composer for strings, and is also noteworthy for his concertos for trumpet, some of which call for a larger orchestra than is typical of the era. The Concerto in B minor, BWV 979, opens with the explosive excitement of fireworks and proceeds through a series of highly contrasting sections (movements) that make it potentially the most dramatic concerto in this set.
The Marcello brothers were both excellent amateur composers of noble birth. For many years, Benedetto (1686–1739) was thought to be the composer of the oboe concerto now believed to be by Alessandro (1669–1747). The sublimely beautiful melodic ornamentation added by Bach in the second movement of BWV 974 is an instructive example for oboists today who wish to learn more about the Baroque art of embellishment.
BWV 981 is a difficult concerto to interpret. Its challenging fast movements, the second and fourth, are, despite their technical demands, possibly more accessible than the two slower movements, the first and third. The first movement is decidedly introductory, attention getting, and whimsical, albeit in the serious atmosphere of C minor. The content of the third movement plays with the acoustics of punched chords in a different way than the first: instead of overture-like dotted rhythms propelling the motion forward, forte and piano terraced dynamics in close rhythmic proximity create an abrupt yet mysterious foil for the melodic interludes. The final movement is one of the most exciting in the set, marked Prestissimo in 3/8 metre.
Just one concerto, BWV 985, comes from Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767), who composed a number of concertos during this time period. Bach met Telemann when the latter was employed in Eisenach, and in 1714 Telemann became godparent to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. This violin concerto (TWV 51: g21) is dated between 1708–14. The flowing first movement precedes a beautiful slow movement built on a hypnotic bass rhythm, followed by the concluding fugal Allegro.
The remaining three concertos come from Johann Ernst (1696–1715), who composed them during his teens. BWV 982 and 987 come from his Opus 1, while the source for BWV 984 remains unknown. Bach also set the first movement of this concerto for organ, BWV 595, a setting that differs in various ways including its length (fifteen
measures longer than the first movement of BWV 984) and the notation of keyboard changes.
Johann Ernst died before reaching the age of nineteen. The youthful charm of his compositions displays the Lebensfreude one would expect from someone so young and talented, but there is also a tender expression evident especially in the slow movements of BWV 982 and BWV 984. At the ending of the first movement of BWV 982 Bach employs alternating octaves in both hands—a rarity in Baroque keyboard music. The final movement of BWV 984 unfolds as a loosely gathered set of variations, interrupted only by the cadenza-like passage situated almost exactly in the middle of the movement. BWV 987 opens with a dramatic sectionalised movement that alternates grave and presto, but the high point of this concerto is its virtuoso last movement that energetically traverses nearly the entire range of the keyboard.
Undoubtedly, the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 894, belongs to the category of Bach’s keyboard works that were intended for his own virtuoso performances in this important period in his career. The Prelude is built on a short theme that looks forward with anticipation, and the Fugue subject unfolds in the rolling triplets of 12/16, an
older compound time-signature indicating a fleet, light approach to tempo and touch (Kirnberger, 1776). Whirlwind pacing, relentless rhythmic activity, sequencing, pedal-point harmony, and cadenza-like passages give both movements a smouldering power that exhibits itself in a range all the way from raw to eloquent to grandiose. Crescendos fuelled by activity rise and fall in this work. Energy builds to such a point in both movements that the final cadences must take place rather suddenly and abruptly, a satisfying technique that carries the listener to the brink
without any let-down. That both movements were inspired by concerto style is not only audible but also substantiated by Bach’s later expanded versions of each for his BWV 1044, a concerto using the same performing forces as Brandenburg Concerto V.
This recording presents Bach’s early transcriptions of concertos by other composers. Even a number of his two dozen later concertos for soloist(s) and string orchestra, primarily those for harpsichord soloist(s), are actually transcriptions of his own concertos for violin(s), oboe, or oboe d’amore. The famous Brandenburg Concertos, collected and dedicated in 1721 although probably composed earlier, show great originality and contain perhaps the very first concerto for harpsichord soloist. Concerto figured importantly in his second published volume, Clavier-Übung II, and can be found in a variety of his keyboard works and cantata movements. In the concerto transcriptions, as in every other area of Bach’s works, we can truly marvel at the workings of a mind that never ceases to consider the possibilities, the industriousness of a talent that continually stretches itself, and the expression of a heart that has an unfailing appreciation of beauty and form.
Harpsichords built with a 16’ set of strings, sounding one octave lower than 8’ strings, still exist from the eighteenth century, although rare. They were undoubtedly expensive for musicians to afford, and the addition of a 16’ set of strings complicates the construction of a harpsichord such that some makers would have avoided building them. Yet it is known
that these instruments were available in the Baroque era and probably made as early as the sixteenth century. As the maker of the harpsichord used in this recording, I wanted to hear the acoustic effect of extending a Ruckers type harpsichord in size by adding a 16’ stop with its own soundboard in the manner of Hass. The majesty, breadth, depth, richness and power of a 16’ harpsichord create the only sound appropriate for music of composers whose conception of music was universal. Bach’s music is breathtaking when played on a good-sounding 16’ harpsichord, as demonstrated in this recording. Naturally, not every piece Bach wrote demands this particular resource, but when one does ask for it, its value cannot be overestimated.
– Keith Hill
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