BACH, J.S.: Harpsichord Concertos, Vol. 3
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Johann Sebastian Bach(1685-1750): Complete Orchestral Works
Volume 5: HarpsichordConcertos III
It seems that only a relatively small part of Bach's orchestral ceuvrehas been preserved for posterity. Much has been speculated about thereasons for the above-average losses in this particular field, but up till nowno really conclusive reasons have been found. The fact that so few works forinstrumental ensemble have survived particularly from the Weimar and Cothenperiods, during which the composer directed so many excellent ensembles, hasled many researchers to the hypothesis that Bach was obliged to leave themajority 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 centurydocuments; other considerations establish a connection with the distribution ofBach's compositions to his heirs after his death. Whatever the case, only onething is certain: that at the latest with Bach's death a veil of oblivion beganto sink over his orchestral works - partly caused also by a profound change intaste which began in the middle of the eighteenth century. Thus great effortwas necessary in the course of the Bach renaissance at the beginning of thenineteenth century to win back these works, which by then were completelyunknown 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 isin many ways incomparable, has led to the realization that only a part of theworks can be regarded as original compositions, whereas many of the concertosin the form in which they are known today represent transcriptions of pieceswritten earlier. Among the works of the first-named category are the BrandenburgConcertos and the three Violin Concertos, among the transcriptionsare all the concertos for one to three harpsichords, which are presumed to bebased on lost works for various melody instruments. The Concerto for fourharpsichords, BWV 1065 is a special case in that Bach did not take one ofhis own works as a basis but, exceptionally, a work by Antonio Vivaldi.
Comparative studies on Bach's technique of rearranging works have led again andagain to speculations about the possible form and structure of the lost workson which the arrangements are based, and as a consequence to attempts atreconstruction which have resulted in pieces which are stylistically convincingand which have proved their worth in practice; within the context of thisrecording these works are intended to help fill the gaps mentioned above.
The present complete recording of Bach's orchestral works illustratesgraphically the enormous musical variety and compositional quality of thissphere of his creative work. We meet the composer for the first time around1715 on his first pinnacle of mastery (Brandenburg Concerto No. 5) andaccompany him for approximately a quarter of a century up to the sublime worksof his maturity - the Overture BWV 1067 and the Triple Concerto BWV1044.
In his famous apologiaon Johann Sebastian Bach's technique of composition the Leipzig professor ofrhetoric Johann Abraham Birnbaum attempted as early as 1738 to characterize thespecial position held by the Cantor of St Thomas's among the composers of hisage; in doing so he found words which today still afford an essential insightinto the aesthetic and philosophical concepts which determined Bach's creativework:
"Incidentally itis certain that the parts in the pieces of this great master of music are mixedup with one another in a wondrous way; but for all that without the slightestconfusion. They move with one another and against one another; both where it isnecessary. They leave one another and still find their way back together at theright time. Each part is distinguishable from the others through a particularchange, although at the same time they often imitate one another. They fleefrom one another and follow one another, without displaying the slightestirregularity in their activity of trying to be ahead of one another, as itwere. If everything is performed as it should be, then there is nothinglovelier than this harmony."
The carefully worked-outcounterpoint of apiece serves, according to Birnbaum, to correct theimperfections of nature; consequently the complexity of the elaborateinter-twinings presented in a work determines the measure of its beauty. Thisconcept of musical perfection is probably best documented as far as Bach'sorchestral music is concerned in the concertos for several keyboardinstruments. The unprecedented contrapuntal richness of these works is hardlycomprehensible in all its dimensions, even after one has heard them frequently;however, the innumerable contrapuntal ramifications and details whichconstitute the individual movements fuse into an overall impression which isdefinitely comprehensible - and this is exactly what shows Bach's greatness, inthat he does not build esoteric castles in the air, but creates expressive andcommitted master works.
The three concertosfor two harpsichords and orchestra approach the idea of a musical perfectionbased on a multivoiced texture in different ways and with differing consequences.
All three works have in common a history which is apparently complicated but toa great extent obscure. The oldest work seems to be the C major Concerto BWV1061. The piece existed at first as "Concerto a due Cembali", i.e.
without the string ripieno in the outer movements. This explains thefact that the musical dialogue in BWV 1061 is almost exclusively limited to thetwo soloists. The orchestra accentuates the formal division of the movements bymeans of its accompaniment and gives prominence to thematic references. In thetwo C minor concertos BWV 1060 and 1062, in contrast, orchestra andsoloists form themselves into a whole which is to a high degree homogenous andin which even the boundaries between accompanying and solo parts, or, as thecase may be between ritornello and episode, disappear. This can alreadybe perceived in the first bars of the opening movement of BWV 1060, where thesoloists loosen up the ritornello theme with short interpolations. Bothworks are based on older concertos for two melody instruments, but only in thecase of BWV 1062 has the original work, the Double Concerto for two violins BWV1043, been preserved. The middle movements of both works are masterpieces ofelaborate and yet cantabile writing and may be seen as alternatives tothe simple homophonic texture of the Italian operatic aria popular at the time.
Bach must have beenexcited at the idea of going to the extremes of what was possible and daring towrite 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 violinsand orchestra by the Venetian master Antonio Vivaldi, whom Bach respected veryhighly. The relatively simple structure of the original also guaranteed in thetranscription a well-balanced equilibrium between the transparency andcomprehensibility of the work as a whole and the extraordinary richness ofdetail which goes beyond the bounds of normality. Particularly effective is thetranscription of the second movement, although - or perhaps because - this isthe movement in which Bach made the fewest alterations: after a fewintroductory chords from the orchestra the four harpsichords indulge themselvesin luscious arp