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Bach: Concertos for Harpsichords

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Johann Sebastian Bach(1685-1750)

Concertos for Two,Three and Four Harpsichords

Born in Eisenach in 1685 into a continuing dynasty of musicians, JohannSebastian Bach was orphaned in 1695 and went, with his older brother Jacob, tolive with their elder brother Johann Christoph Bach, organist at Ohrdruf. Hecontinued his schooling there until 1700, acquiring his early skill as anorganist and, it may be presumed, as an expert on the construction of theinstrument. From Ohrdruf he moved to L??neburg as a chorister, employment thatallowed his continuing education. After employment as a musician at the courtin Weimar in 1703, he next held positions as an organist at Arnstadt, then atM??hlhausen and then again at Weimar, now as court organist. He remained in Weimaruntil 1717, holding the position of Konzertmeister from 1714 and movingin 1717 to Cothen as Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold ofAnhalt-Cothen. He only left after the Prince's marriage to a woman withoutmusical interests made a position that had been very congenial to him now verymuch less so. In 1723 he took what seemed to him socially inferior employmentas Cantor at the Choir School of St Thomas in Leipzig, with responsibility forthe training of choristers and the provision of music for the principal citychurches. He remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life, but was able tobroaden his musical activities when, in 1729, he also took over the directionof the University Collegium musicum, founded earlier in the century by Telemann.

Whereas in his earlier years there had been need for organ music, Cothen, withits Pietist court, called principally for secular music. Leipzig demanded aquantity of church music, largely satisfied in the first years that Bach wasthere, but the Collegium musicum itself allowed a return to the secularinstrumental music that had been a principal preoccupation of the Cothen years.

Bach's solo and multiple harpsichord concertos date from the years 1735to 1740 and were intended for the Collegium musicum. For these works, in whichhis sons could join him as soloists, he turned largely to earlier compositions,now re-arranged to create a new form, the keyboard concerto, much as Handel, inthe same years, was creating the form of the organ concerto.

The Concerto in C minor for Two Harpsichords, BWV1060, wasderived from an earlier double concerto for solo violin and oboe, with theinevitable strings and continuo. The work is constructed on the contemporaryprinciple of a recurrent ritornello, heard at the beginning, returningbetween episodes in which the solo instruments, with basso continuo anddiscreet orchestral assistance, enjoy greater prominence. The Largo ovveroAdagio finds the two harpsichords in dialogue accompanied by the pluckednotes of the strings in 12/8 metre. The concerto ends with an Allegro inwhich the principal theme is heard, the opening figure of which is to be heardagain, with varied figuration around it, notably when three rapid notes are setagainst one.

The Concerto in C major for Two Harpsichords, BWV1061, isclearly an original composition and also survives in a version for twoharpsichords without ripieno orchestral accompaniment. In this concertothe solo instruments are given greater chance, for display and dialogue, withoccasional interpolations from the orchestra. While structural principlesremain the same, there is a clearer differentiation between the twoharpsichords, as one answer, the other. The first harpsichord start, the Aminor Adagio, answered by the second, in a 6/8 movement that dispenseswith the orchestra. The first harpsichord states the subject of the fugue thatconstitutes the last movement, providing the answer and countersubject and thethird entry of the subject again in the tonic. The fourth entry is entrusted tothe second harpsichord, followed now by a fifth and sixth, after which thestrings are first allowed the subject. The movement and the concerto as a wholeallows close collaboration rather than competition between the twoharpsichords, treated as of equal importance in a closely interwoven texture.

Bach's Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, BWV1043, is veryfamiliar in its surviving original form. The Concerto in C minor for TwoHarpsichords, BWV1062, is a transcription of this Cothen work, The firstmovement follows the familiar outline, with its alternation of tutti and solopassages, in both of which the harpsichords busily engage themselves. The Eflat 12/8 slow movement is again a Siciliano, in its gently liltingrhythm, while in the final Allegro assai the two solo instruments dulyenter in close imitation.

The source of the Concerto in C major for Three Harpsichords,BWV1064, is a lost Concerto in D major for Three Violins, which,like the Concerto for Violin and Oboe, has been reconstructed for modernperformance. The first movement allows the three solo instruments, which havejoined in the opening ritornello to take an equal share of the solowork, engaging in tripal1ite conversation, over a basso continno, whilethe orchestra provides an important element in the busy texture. The A minor Adagiooffers an aria from the first harpsichord, in which the second and thirdjoin. There is a vigorous final Allegro that includes solo passages ofsome brilliance in which elements of string figuration survive, althoughcontemporary critics found in Bach a tendency to think that what he could dowith his finger, at the keyboard could also be done by performers on otherinstruments or by singers. Each of the three soloists has an opportunity to tacklea solo passage, starting with the third harpsichord, followed by the second andending with the first, before the final tutti.

Antonio Vivaldi was a figure of the greatest importance in thedevelopment of the three?¡-movement solo concerto. In his Concerto in Aminor for Four Harpsichords, BWV1065, Bach transcribes a concerto forfour violins by Vivaldi, the Concerto in B minor, Opus 3, No. 10, fromthe collection published in Amsterdam in 1712 as L'estro armonico. Thetranscription is masterly, resulting in a work admirably suited to the keyboardinstruments. The first movement, with initial resonances characteristic ofVivaldi, is soon transformed, in Bach's arrangement, into true keyboard music.

The chordal power of the four harpsichords is used to full effect in the solidopening of the central Largo, before deployment into a transformedpassage of arpeggiation, followed by the final solemn chords. In the lastmovement, as elsewhere, there are apt changes of lay-out, to provide an unusualaddition to multiple keyboard repertoire.

Disc: 1
Concerto for Four Harpsichords, A minor, BWV 1065
1 Allegro
2 Largo ovvero Adagio
3 Allegro
4 (Allegro)
5 Adagio
6 Vivace
7 (Allegro)
8 Andante e piano
9 Allegro assai
10 (Allegro)
11 Adagio
12 Allegro
13 (Allegro)
14 Largo
15 Allegro
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