Bach: Oboe Concertos
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Johann Sebastian Bach(1685-1750)
When Johann Sebastian Bach, in May 1723, accepted the appointment madeshortly before, with an official contract, signed and sealed, to the positionof Cantor at the Leipzig Thomasschule, he made a decision that would havefar-reaching consequences for the immediate circumstances of his life as wellas for the main focus of his creative activity and for the handing down of hiswork. Bach himself clearly sensed the implications of this decision, since, in aletter to his old friend Georg Erdmann, he declares that it would be for him"at first quite unsuitable to change from being a Kapellmeister to being aCantor and so I considered my decision for a quarter of a year."
Since his time at Weimar, from 1708 to 1717, Bach had served first asorganist and chamber musician, but then also as concert-master of a courtorchestra, an occupation of which involvement with music for instrumentalensemble was a central aspect. This professional orientation was strengthened,after his time at Weimar, by his appointment as Kapellmeister to the court ofCothen. That this position more than satisfied Bach's expectations is clearfrom his later and certainly idealised account of that period: "There wasa gracious prince, a lover and connoisseur of music, with whom I thought tospend my life."
Bach found thesituation in Leipzig brought very different working conditions. Now he had tosee to the composition and organization of music in the principal churches ofLeipzig, weekly duties that left almost no time for other activities. Only withgreat effort was he able to free himself from this overwhelming burden by,between 1723 and 1729, composing three complete annual cycles of churchcantatas, providing a repertoire on which, in the following years, he coulddraw without great expense of time. After his cantata period Bach turned hisattention again to instrumental music; he composed and published a series ofdemanding keyboard works and in March 1729 took over the direction of thestudent Collegium musicum. With this still semi-professional orchestra he wasable, at least to some extent, to resume the activity he had carried out atCothen; as he had there, he could now, apart from his official duties, performregular secular celebratory cantatas and, more particularly, purelyinstrumental compositions.
Nevertheless in his first years at Leipzig Bach must have come to aturning-point that would not have been easy to cross. He was able, now with adistance of years, to publish re-usable works from his time at Cothen; muchhere needed modification, adaptation to the new circumstances and conventions.
At all events Bach's orchestral works have as a rule only survived in theLeipzig versions, while the artistic output of the period at Weimar and atCothen survives not even in outline. Apart from the cycle of BrandenburgConcertos, preserved only through fortunate circumstances, the body ofconcertos written for the court at Cothen is now almost completely lost.
Nevertheless there are clear indications that Bach, when, in the 1730s, hewrote his series of concertos for one, two or three harpsichords, as directorof the Leipzig Collegium musicum, always fell back on early compositions;clearly those concertos for various melody instruments, which he had composedduring his service at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen, must haveserved him as originals.
From this has come the understandable desire to reveal the originalversions of these works and, as far as possible, reconstruct them for modernperformance. Such a project demands an element of courage in dealing with thenumerous questions that arise and the few concrete indications. As long as themusical result remains plausible and no dogmatic positions are taken up, thisseems a legitimate procedure, to bridge over the gaps in surviving sources - itis, nevertheless, always necessary to bear in mind that we will never know withabsolute certainty how the original versions of Bach's harpsichord concertoslooked. In this sense the present release must be taken as a contribution todiscussion; it is based on the latest researches into the concerto compositionsof Bach, according to which it is suggested that these were originallyconcertos for oboe, an instrument of which Bach, in his vocal music, made fulluse, so that it is quite conceivable that he also gave it a prominent place inhis ensemble music.
The Concerto BWV 1056 offers a number of problems. Sometimes ithas been taken that for the harpsichord version individual movements were puttogether from different works, yet such an explanation is hardly satisfactory.
The central movement may serve as a support for the identification of theoriginal solo instrument, since it survives also as the introductory Sinfoniaof Cantata BWV 156, there in a version for oboe and strings. Thelast movement of the concerto suggests in the idiom of the solo part the oboe,while this holds good for the first movement, given that Bach has madeextensive additions to the figuration for the harpsichord version; yet it turnsout that this movement too, with slight modifications, is playable on the oboeand is, in any case, not untypical of this instrument.
Bach planned the Concerto BWV 1059, in its surviving version, asa work for obbligato harpsichord and oboe, the realisation of this project,however, was unsuccessful from the first bar of the introduction. Luckily theouter movements survive in Cantata BWV 35 and allow the conclusion thatthis work was originally an oboe concerto. Unfortunately the form of thecentral movement is hard to uncover, since Bach arranged it in his cantata asan aria for alto, with organ obbligato and strings, a form that called forfar-reaching changes. For this reason in the present release the slow movementused is taken from the oboe concerto by the Venetain composer AlessandroMarcello.
The writing of the harpsichord part in the Concerto BWV 1055leads soon to the conclusion that the original must have been a concerto foroboe d'amore, written some time after 1717, the earliest known appearance ofthis instrument. The reconstructed oboe version enjoys in the concert-halltoday almost greater popularity than the harpsichord version. The work is amongthe most attractive that Bach wrote and the superb handling of the medium isespecially evident in the setting with oboe.
The original form of the Harpsichord Concerto in E major, BWV1053, is open to much speculation; from a technical point of view it hasrecently been argued that it was originally a D major concerto for oboed'amore. The refinement and beauty of the work place it among the maturecompositions of Bach's time at Cothen and could, with regard to the numerousstylistic indications (among theme the use of a Siciliana as a centralmovement, that was still inconceivable in the Brandenburg Concertos), havebeen written shortly after settling in Leipzig. It seems that Bach set greatstore by this work, since he used all three movements again in his earlyLeipzig cantatas.
The Concerto BWV 1060 only survives in a version for twoharpsichords and orchestra, but today is generally accepted as an arrangementof a concerto for oboe and violin. Since both harpsichord parts reveal in manyplaces the suspected original, the reconstruction in these circumstances causesno great difficulty. The work recalls especially the well-known DoubleViolin Concerto, BWV 1043. As with that work, the writing does not giveprominence to instrumental virtuosity, but Bach treats the concerto principleas