, BACH, J.S.: Favourite Piano Works (Eteri Andjaparidze/ Janos Sebestyen/ Wolfgang Rubsam) (Naxos: 8.554041), Rubsam, Wolfgang
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Johann Sebastian Bach(1685-1750)
Famous Piano Works
The career of Johann Sebastian Bach, the most illustrious of a prolificmusical family, falls neatly into three unequal parts. Born in 1685 inEisenach, from the age of ten Bach lived and studied music with his elderbrother in Ohrdruf, after the death of both his parents. After a series ofappointments as organist and briefly as a court musician, he became, in 1708,court organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the elderof the two brothers who jointly ruled the duchy. In 1714 he was promoted to theposition of Konzertmeister to the Duke, but in 1717, after a brief period ofimprisonment for his temerity in seeking to leave the Duke's service, heabandoned Weimar to become Court Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold ofAnhalt-Cothen, a position he held until 1723. From then until his death in 1750he lived in Leipzig, where he was Thomaskantor, with responsibility for themusic of the five principal city churches, in 1729 assuming direction of theuniversity Collegium musicum, founded by Telemann in 1702.
At Weimar Bach had been principally employed as an organist, and hiscompositions of the period include a considerable amount written for theinstrument on which he was recognised as a virtuoso performer. At Cothen, wherePietist traditions dominated the court, he had no church duties, and wasresponsible rather for court music. The period saw the composition of a numberof instrumental works. The final 27 years of Bach's life brought a variety ofpreoccupations, and while his official employment necessitated the provision ofchurch music, he was able to provide music for the university Collegium musicumand to write or re-arrange a number of important works for the keyboard.
The piano as it exists today was unknown to Bach, who had at hisdisposal, in addition to organs of various degrees of sophistication, theharpsichord, with its plucked strings, and the clavichord, with its relativelygentle hammer-?¡action. The piano, under the name gravicembalo col piano eforte (harpsichord with soft and loud) was invented by BartolommeoCristofori of Padua in 1709. The development was the result of dissatisfactionwith the fixed dynamics of the harpsichord, which played either loud or soft,but was unable to provide shades of dynamic. Bach himself saw two instrumentsby the German maker Silbermann in the 1730s, but objected to the weakness oftouch and sound of the treble register. He took a kinder view of a Silbermanninstrument that he saw in 1747. Nevertheless the developing instrument, whetherpianoforte or fortepiano, lacked the strength and possibilities of the laterpiano, with its iron frame and improved metal strings. Whatever it may lack inhistorical accuracy, the modem piano must be recognised as a viable instrumentfor the performance of earlier music, although searches for some degree ofauthenticity have led even pianists to adopt techniques of playing that reflectin some measure the earlier techniques of performance on harpsichord or clavichord.
Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring may claim immediate pianistic relevance. Thepiano piece of this name is a transcription of a chorale-prelude from Bach's CantataNo. 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben ('Heart and Mouth and Deedand Life') by the pianist Myra Hess. A pupil of Tobias Matthay, Myra Hess madeher concert debut in 1907 under Thomas Beecham, going on to a distinguishedcareer as a recitalist and soloist, in particular in the war-time concerts inLondon's National Gallery. Her transcription has made Jesu, Joy of Man'sDesiring one of the best known of all Bach's compositions.
The Italian Concerto holds a particular place in the affectionsof every pianist. In three movements, it has the original title Concertonach italienischen Gusto (Concerto in the Italian Taste) and was includedby Bach in the second volume of his Clavier??bungen (Keyboard Exercises),published in 1735. Here it forms a contrast to the Ouvert??re nachfranzosischer Art (Overture in the French Manner). The Italian Concerto reflectsthe form of the solo Venetian concertos of Vivaldi. Designed for a two-manualharpsichord, it allows for contrasts between solo and tutti, the fullorchestra of strings, with one manual serving as a solo keyboard and the other,perhaps coupled, providing the fuller sound. The piano has no need of suchmechanical devices to reproduce the necessary contrasts of dynamic level.
Programme music was nothing new to composers of Bach's generation. Hismost obvious excursion into this field was with his Capriccio sopra lalontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo (Capriccio on the Departure of hisMost Beloved Brother). Here each short movement suggests a further element inhis brother's departure, or, more accurately, a further reflection on hisabsence. In 1704 Bach's brother Johann Jakob left to enlist in the guard ofCharles XII of Sweden as an oboist. His later career took him to Turkey, wherehe had flute lessons from Buffardin. The Capriccio reflects the attemptsof his friends and family to prevent Johann Jakob's departure, their sadnessand apprehensions. The sound of the post-horn is heard, as the carriageprepares to leave, which it does to the sound of a lively post-horn fugue.
Bach's Minuet in G major enjoys some notoriety as apiecefor beginners. It was included in the collection of keyboard pieces that Bachput together for the use of his second wife, Anna Magdalena, whom he married in1721, sixteen months after the death of his first wife. The Anna MagdalenaClavierb??chlein (Anna Magdalena Little Keyboard Book) gives some idea ofthe kind of music to be heard in the Bach household, initially in Cothen, whereAnna Magdalena took immediate responsibility for her four survivingstep-children, to be followed by thirteen children of her own, of whom sevensurvived childhood.
The first five of the six French Suites of Bach are included inthe first little book for Anna Magdalena, compiled in 1722. Suite No. 5in G major, the additional title 'French' added by later musicians, todistinguish these from Bach's other keyboard suites, follows the set pattern ofFrench dances that had become customary, although without any prelude. TheFrench German dance, the Allemande, of moderate speed, is followed by anafter-dance, a Courante, leading to a solemn Sarabande. The nextthree dances, not obligatory in the sequence, are an elegant Gavotte, a Bourreethat is decorous rather than boisterous, a French Loure and theusual final Gigue.
Bach's Fantasia in C minor has been dated to about 1738,the year in which his second son Carl Philipp Emanuel was appointedharpsichordist to Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia, the later Frederick theGreat, and in which his third son, Johann Gottfried Bernhard, left Sangerhausenin a hurry. He had served as organist at the Marienkirche in M??hlhausen, buthad abandoned that position, leaving debts that his father had to settle. Nowhe had caused further embarrassment, for the same reason, leaving his positionas organist at the Jakobikirche in Sangerhausen to study in at the Universityin Jena, where he died the following year. The Fantasia, designed as anextended prelude to a fugue, is an impressive work, with its arpeggios andelaborate figuration, and antiphonal use of right and left hand.
The six Partitas, published singly between 1726 and 1731, formpart of the first book of Bach's collected Clavier??bungen (Keyboard