Historical Recording dates: 1972 (Brahms) and 1960 (Beethoven)
I mean, I don’t know, these are fine historical Soviet recordings but seem pretty cold (war) – maybe it’s because of the time – Leningrad Orchestra in the 1960s and 1970s.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES:
The brilliant violinist David Oistrakh, born in Odessa on September 30, 1908, and died in Amsterdam on October 24, 1974, was a pupil of the teacher Stoliarski, who also contributed to the training of Nathan Milstein.
In 1926, Oistrakh gave his first performance in Odessa and in 1937 was awarded first prize at the Eugene Ysa of Belgium Competition.
He achieved success at a very early age. The international public was overwhelmed by this young man who possessed such skill that he was able to overcome every technical difficulty with the greatest east by conveying the violin’s melody in a beautiful and profound way.
The nobility, sincerity and fidelity of the style of ‘King David’ (as he was soon called) were outstanding from an early age. Oistrakh played a violin made by Stradivarious in 1706. He was the person to whom the two Violin Concertos by Dmitri Shostakovich, Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano by Sergey Prokofiev and the respective Concertos by Khachaturian and Kabalevsky, were dedicated.
The pianist Lev Oborin was born in Moscow on September 11, 1907, and died in Moscow on January 5, 1974. His teachers were Elena Gnesina and Konstantin Igumnov.
In 1927, he was awarded the Chopin Prize at the first Warsaw Competition and the following year, he took up the post of Professor of Piano at the Moscow Conservatoire. There he taught, amongst others, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Ekaterina Noitskaya. Under Oborin they extended the analytical restraint of their expression and exquisite legato.
Both instrumentalists play together frequently and, accompanied by the violinist Svjatoslav Knuschevitsky (Petrovsk, 1908 – Moscow, 1963), they form a wonderful trio which will always remain in the annals of Russian musical history.
Johannes Brahms – Concerto For Violin And Orchestra, in D Major, Opus 77
Allegro non troppo – 22:37
Adagio – 9:19
Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace – 8:29
Ludwig Van Beethoven – Sonata For Violin And Piano No. 8, in G Major, Opus 30 / 3
Allegro assai – 6:41
Tempo di menuetto, ma molto moderato e grazioso – 8:46
Allegro vivace – 3:37
This Leningrad Masters disc issued in the early-1990s from the Soviet Archives is not very well mastered and is definitely not the cleanest recording – but the performers are in top form – even though, as I said up top, it left me a little cold.
Beethoven is not the ideal composer for Glenn Gould (as Bach is – as illustrated hereand hereand hereand hereand here) but this is still a rousing, exciting performance throughout and, certainly, never boring.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Marc Vignal – translation by Robert Cushman):
To inaugurate at least two of the important periods of his career, Beethoven wrote a work of vast dimensions in the four traditional movements and applying Haydn’s principles of form on a scale hitherto unknown: on the one hand, the Eroica Symphony in 1804 and, on the other, the Hammerklavier Sonata (No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106) in 1818.
Only three piano sonatas – No. 30 in E major, Op. 109; No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110; and No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111– were written after the Hammerklavier. They were composed between 1819 and 1822 in parallel with the Missa Solemnis, the other major work to which Beethoven was then devoting his time.
As for the Diabelli Variations, although they were started in 1819 before the last three sonatas, they were only completed in 1823, after a long interruption. The year 1823 was also that in which Beethoven did most of the work on the Ninth Symphony. After this there remained only the last five string quartets.
Compared with the Hammerklavier, the last three sonatas appear to mark a return to a certain brevity, even to a certain simplicity. All three are about the same length with, as a common characteristic, special importance given to the finale, which in each case lasts over half the length of the entire sonata.
Nevertheless, although Opus 109 has three movements and Opus 110 four, Opus 111 has only two. In themselves these overall structures were in no way extraordinary, but it is noteworthy that, in both Opus 109 and Opus 110, the section preceding the finale tends to be reduced to the role of an introduction.
The finales of Opus 109 and Opus 111 are in the theme-and-variations form, ending almost imperceptibly in silence (and yet they do not truly seem to end), while that of Opus 110 is a complex combination of recitatif, arioso and fugue (variations and fugues especially preoccupied Beethoven at the end of his life).
By comparison with what leads up to it, the finale of Opus 111 functions as an antithesis.
That of Opus 109 returns to and somehow prolongs the first movement (with the second movement acting as a violent interlude), while the finale of Opus 110 – the only one of the three to end fortissimo – little by little frees the energy previously held more or less in check.
Unlike the Hammerklavierand each in its own way, Opus 109, Opus 110 and Opus 111are constructed in “open” form, and in them we remark a considerable simplification in style and in the working-out, as well as clearer alternations of tension and relaxation. Such alternations, however, are especially characteristic of the composer’s late works. In these sonatas Beethoven confronted time – and eternity.
Begun in 1819, Sonata No. 30 in E major, Opus 109 was finished in the autumn of 1820 but not published until November 1821, with a dedication to Maximiliane Brentano (the daughter of Antonie Brentano, whom Maynard Salomon believes the most likely candidate for the “Immortal Beloved”).
The manuscripts show that the first movement was originally planned as a separate piece, probably for inclusion in the future series of Bagatelles Op. 119. Of the last three sonatas this is the one that is most unlike the Hammerklavier, after which it offers a welcome feeling of relaxation.
The first movement presents a very free alternation of a lively theme (Vivace ma non troppo, sempre legato), of almost impressionistic sonorities, with an Adagio espressivo bearing the traits of an improvised recitatif. The Prestissimo in E minor (second movement) enters without a pause. The third movement (Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo), which returns to E major, opens with a calm, lyrical theme (a kind of sublimated sarabande) followed by six accelerating variations and closing with the repetition of the theme.
Initially sketched in 1819 and completed by December 18, 1821, Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110was published in August 1822, without a dedication. It begins with a Moderato cantabile molto espressivo which is undoubtedly the composer’s most beautiful lyrical movement, setting aside his slow movements. It offers resemblances with Schubert. There are many themes, but they follow one another smoothly.
Then comes a violent Allegro molto in F minor, a sort of scherzo in duple (rather than triple) time. After a normal organ point, everything forms a solid block, as Beethoven successfully performs the miracle of interlocking different opposites: arioso and fugue, profound despondency and elan vital. A solemn recitatif in B-flat minor (third movement or introduction to the finale?) marked Adagio ma non troppo opens this “universe of alternation” and culminates in an A repeated 26 times.
Then rises a song of lamentation (Arioso dolente) in A-flat minor leading to a fugue in A-flat major (Allegro ma non troppo) bringing a respite. When it falls away, the Arioso dolente comes back in G minor, more gasping, more despairing than ever. Ten increasingly powerful, obstinate G major chords try a new sally, and the fugue returns inverted and in G major (a distant key). This fugue is dropped once A-flat major reappears, thereby reinforcing the dramatic, triumphal effect of the final measures, especially since the piano writing here is particularly brilliant.
Completed in 1822 and published during the same year, with a dedication to Archduke Rudolph, Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111has only two, completely dissimilar movements: minor and major modes, sonata form and theme-and-variations form, dynamic character and static character, dramatism and contemplation, etc.
It opens with an introduction (Maestoso) largely based upon diminished seventh harmonies. Three diminished sevenths follow one another and return in the same order as chords at the end of the Allegro con brio ed appassionato and, above all, as a generalized harmonic procedure during the central development.
This development is fugal: the main theme of the movement clearly called for a fugue, but Beethoven withheld using it earlier to provide increased animation in the development.
The second movement is the famous Arietta (Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile) in C major with variations. The theme is very simple, and the working-out moves toward constantly greater simplification – not in the musical or sound fabric, quite the contrary, but as regards the very conception of the theme, which is gradually reduced to a mere skeleton.
After about a quarter hour of the purest C major, we reach a cadential trill followed by a modulation to E-flat major: this passage constitutes the only harmonic motion in the movement and also the only passage in which, from the rhythmic standpoint, everything remains completely suspended, until the return of C major in the final, accelerated variations.
As Charles Rosen points out, Beethoven’s exploration, late in his life, of the tonal universe became more and more essentially meditative.
1-3: Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 30 in E Major, Opus 109
4-6: Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 31 in A-flat Major, Opus 110
7-8: Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 32 in C Minor, Opus Opus 111
An 85 rating almost seems too low for ANY recording by Glenn Gould (he’s Glenn freakin’ Gould for goodness sake) but this entire recording is just so over the top intense that all subtlety is lost on the first notes of the first cut. But 85 out of 88 is still way better than most. I love Glenn Gould!
Sonatas 3 and 7 Recorded Live in 1960 and Sonata 19 Recorded Live in 1965 (Reissued by Leningrad Masters – 1995)
One of those amazing historical recordings pulled from the abundant but badly preserved Soviet vaults, Sviatoslav Richter rips into these sonatas like a great pianist in his prime – if only the recording quality were as perfect as these performances.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (typos included from the original horrible translation):
Born in Zhytomyr on March 20, 1915 during his life, Sviatoslav Richter has been one of the most brilliant pianists in history.
After receiving general musical tuition, the Ukrainian musical completed his training with Heinrich Neuhaus.
He worked for seven years under this great pianist and teacher, his classroom companion being the equally gifted Emil Gilels and he soon made friends with Mstislav Rostropovitch and Sergei Prokofiev.
It has been said that Richter possesses an amazing capacity for improvisation and memory, but the real secret of his success is to be found in his powerful personality, which emerges in a revealing manner in each of his passionate interpretations.
Richter is an artist totally consumed by music. He was awarded first prize at the 1935 USSR Piano Competition.
Always seen as controversial at the time, today the pianist is considered a “megastar” who keeps record companies at a distance and shies away from the concert circuit.
Each time he sits down at the piano, Richter reflects, with a sublime capacity for philosophy, on the fundamental questions and messages which surround the works he confronts in a repertoire which ranges from Bach to Shostakovich.
In this live recording, we encounter one of the cornerstones of Richter’s art: “his” Beethoven.
There are very few opportunities for the record lover to preserve Richter in the music of Beethoven and consequently this record has value as a rarity.
Richter has been captured live in his creative work – an immense, metaphysical and exclusive creation – of Piano Sonatas Nos. 3, 7 and 19 by Ludwig van Beethoven.
1-4: Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 3 in C Major, Opus 2/3
5-8: Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 7 in D Major, Opus 10/3
9-10: Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 19 in G Minor, Opus 49/1
I remember being so excited after the fall of the Soviet Union when they opened the previously closed vaults of Soviet recordings. There was so much there. I only wish there was a company that remastered and took care of these precious moments in time. I love the great musicians from the 20th century Soviet Union. Like ballet, music composition, art and opera, they were really in a class by themselves.
Recorded at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, Elstree, Herts in January 1994
I’m back after a couple of months of intense real work and so are Beethoven and Schubert!
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Ruth Waterman):
Beethoven String Trios – Opus 9/1 & 3
Beethoven write five works for string trio, all composed before any of his quartets.
The three trios of Opus 9 were dedicated to Count Browne, a wealthy patron of Irish descent.
As in Beethoven’s first set of three piano trios, (Opus 1), the third is in the key of C minor and it expresses the turbulence that seemed to emerge whenever Beethoven wrote in that key.
There is tremendous verve in the two trios on this disc, as each player is treated as a virtuoso and subjected to equal demands.
Both trios open with a statement in unison, but the show of unity quickly disintegrates in the quest for individuality; and both slow movements reveal Beethoven’s supreme lyricism.
Schubert Trio Movement, D471
A first movement and forty bars of a second are all that Schubert completed before abandoning his trio.
Shortly afterwards, he wrote another trio, also in B-flat (D581), that stands as his one complete magnificent contribution to this genre.
However, the Allegro heard here is a gem in its own right; a shining example of his gentle lyricism, his playfulness, and his fondness for veiling his melodies in wistfulness.
Written in September 1816, it was most likely included for performance at one of his popular house-concerts, in which he would have played the viola part.
1-4: Beethoven Trio in G, Opus 9/1 [30:12]
5-8: Beethoven Trio in C-minor, Opus 9/3 [26:05]
9: Schubert Trio Movement in B-flat, D471 [5:58]
Solid works but not all that exciting in the playing (not like the clip above!) This is another of the free discs that came with my BBC Music Magazine subscription in the 1990s. But I’m just so happy to be back doing this and not my real job that I’m giving it a higher rating than it deserves.
Recorded live on September 3, 1981 at the Royal Albert Hall, London
ONE-SENTENCE REVIEW (BEETHOVEN):
OK – so unlike my last review of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (which was awful), this one is a terrific live recording from 1972 – conducted by Sir Adrian Boult – and that’s pretty much all you need to know.
ONE-SENTENCE REVIEW (BRAHMS):
Though the Brahms Symphony No. 2is not a personal favorite (I’m afraid if I would have been present during the performance you might have heard me yawn on the recording), but this is still a great live performance of (in my opinion) a boring symphony and a must listen for any fan of Brahms.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES:
No liner notes – it’s just another one of those cheap discs (cheaply made – not cheap performances by any means) that came with my paid subscription to BBC Music Magazine in the early 1990s. That magazine is long gone and it was sad when it went away. I used to love to get those surprise discs every month in the mail. Ah, well…
1-5: Beethoven – Symphony No. 6 in F, Opus 68 (Pastoral)
6-9: Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D, Opus 73
Note: These bottom videos are meant to be a really good live recording that I can share and not just the sound recordings of the CDs being reviewed (those are meant to be the links at the top).
Very competent, solid recording. It’s Beethoven as Beethoven should be played and Brahms as Brahms should be played – nothing wrong with that.
So – this is another one of those ridiculous 1990s CD-ROM discs where you could, supposedly, follow along with the score while it played in your computer – but mostly it just jammed and the performances of these discs were always pretty terrible.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES:
No liner notes but lots of instructions on how to get it to work in your computer. All very complicated and it never really worked. I tried a few of these discs and they were always pretty frustrating but I still bought them because the concept of being able to follow along with the score while a piece of music played was very new and very exciting.
I just wished it would have worked.
1: CD+ROM Data Track
2: Mvt. I: Allegro ma non troppo
3: Mvt II: Andante molto mosso
4: Mvt III: Allegro; Mvt. IV Allegro; Mvt V: Allegretto
But I give you a really good performance below:
It was a novelty and would have been really cool had it worked and had the performances chosen actually been decent. But, alas, these were pretty terrible discs from the Laserlight division of Delta Music Inc. (whatever that is).
New York Philharmonic (Leonard Bernstein, conductor)
Back from vacation – oh, yeah – and starting with one powerhouse symphony that everyone in the world can hum and one forgotten symphony that gets no respect – and, in fact, is actually hated (which is which – do you think?)… regardless, this is a classic recording not to be missed.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (written by Michael Danner):
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Opus 60
This symphony lies like some sunlit valley between the cragged “Eroica”and the mountainous Fifth Symphony. Beethoven composed this work in 1806 during the summer months, it is generally believed, that he spent with his friends the von Brunswicks at their estate in Hungary.
Some musicologists – notably, Sir. George Grove – hold that the Fourth Symphony is an expression of the composer’s feelings for Countess Therese von Brunswick, to whom he was reputed to have become engaged.
“When writing the symphony,” said Sir George, “his heart must have been swelling with his new happiness. It is, in fact, the paean which he sings over his first conquest.
But the Fourth Symphonywas not well received at its first performance, in Vienna, during the winter of 1807. One critic, admitting “wealth of ideas, bold originality and fullness of strength,” still complained of “neglect of noble simplicity” and “excessive amassing of thoughts.”
Carl Maria von Weber, then an aspiring twenty-year old musician, write a derisive article in which he had a violin claim, after a performance of the work, that it had been forced “to caper about like a wild goat” so that it could “execute the no-ideas of Mr. Composer.”
A more illuminating and sympathetic interpretation of the Symphonyis left to us by Sir George Grove, who write that “a more consistent and attractive whole cannot be… The movements fit in their places like the limbs and features of a lovely statue; and, full of fire and invention as they are, all is subordinated to conciseness, grace and beauty.”
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67
In Berlioz’s opinion, the Symphony No. 5 was the first of Beethoven’s symphonies in which the composer “gave the reins of his vast imagination, without taking for guide or aid a foreign thought.”
It seems to come, wrote Berlioz, “directly and solely from the genius of Beethoven; he develops in it his own intimate thought, his secret sorrows, his concentrated rage, his reveries charged with a dejection, oh, so sad, his visions at night, his bursts of enthusiasm.”
The date of the Fifthhas not been definitely determined. The Symphonywas begun in 1805, shortly after the completion of the “Eroica,”but it was laid aside almost at once, and Beethoven presumably did not resume work on it until 1807.
It is supposed that he completed it in that year, though it remained unplayed for another twelve months. The first performance took place in Vienna, at the Theater an der Wien, on December 22, 1808.
Concerts were concerts in those days, and the audience that heard the premiere of the Fifthalso heard the Sixth Symphony and the Choral Fantasy, the Piano Concerto in G, two numbers from the Mass in C, the aria “Ah, Perfido”and an improvisation by the the composer.
Apparently the performances were deplorable, and perhaps for this reason the new works on the program were indifferently received. But the subsequent history of the Fifthwas one of repeated triumphs.
The first movementof this great work is possessed of a wild and demonic energy – “a frenetic delirium that explodes in frightful cries,” as Berlioz expressed it.
The second movement is a noble and melancholy contemplation; in form, variations on two themes.
The scherzoestablished a mood of mystery and terror that remind Berlioz of a sinister scene in Goethe’sFaust.
Suddenly, at the close of this movement, comes one of the greatest strokes in Beethoven, the mysterious bridge passage leading into the exultant shout that begins the finale, a glorious ascent from the darker recesses of the soul to the light of courageous, challenging life.
Note: Mr. Bernstein’s is a complete performance of the Fifth Symphony, with all repeats observed, exactly as Beethoven indicated.
1-4: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Opus 60
5-8: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67
Because Symphony No. 4 isn’t famous and we haven’t heard it a thousand times, it comes off as a little flat and boring while the Symphony No. 5, of course, does not disappoint, especially under Mr. Bernstein’s fiery baton! Classic. Classic. Classic.
Now this is a double-pack to be appreciated – live performances, BBC Philharmonic – unbelievable music.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (written by Richard Wigmore):
BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 55 – ‘EROICA’
As Joseph Kerman has observed, the ‘Eroica’ marks a turning point in the history of modern music.
In it the dimensions and reach of the Classical symphony are startlingly expanded.
The music’s gargantuan energy and unprecedented expressive range are contained within a mighty architectural span whose proportions Beethoven was not to exceed until the Ninth Symphony.
He worked on the symphony during 1803, the year after the crisis engendered by his encroaching deafness, movingly expressed in the Heiligenstadt Testament.
The work was dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. But Beethoven furiously tore out the dedication on hearing that the First Consul had proclaimed himself Emperor.
The hero became anonymous; and on the symphony’s publication in 1806 the title page ran: ‘Sinfonia Eroica: composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.’
SCHUBERT SYMPHONY NO. 8 IN B MINOR – ‘UNFINISHED’
The circumstances surrounding Schubert’sB minor Symphony have provoked reams of speculation.
We know for certain that in autumn 1822 he composed the first two movements and bean a scherzo, breaking off after 20 bars.
He gave the torso to his friend Anselm Huttenbrenner, and apparently forgot about it. the work’s incomplete state may just be linked to the onset of Schubert’s serious illness (syphilis)late in 1822.
But his reasons for abandoning the symphony were more likely due to a creative crisis during the years 1818-22. Virtually all of his other instrumental works from this period were likewise left as fragments.
And, as with the symphony, Schubert’s failure to complete them testifies to his struggles to evolve a new conception of the four-movement sonata ideal that reconciled the powerful impact of Beethoven’s middle-period works with an increasingly subjective melodic and harmonic vision.
1-2:Schubert Symphony No. 8 in B Minor – ‘Unfinished’
3-6:Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Opus 55 – ‘Eroica’
If I had a choice between my current creative state and Schubert’s ‘creative crisis of 1818-1822’ – I’ll take Schubert’s any day. We should all have such writer’s block!
Other than sounding like it was recorded in a high school gymnasium (lots of echo), when you cut through the sound clutter, the performance is excellent.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Misha Donat):
Beethoven published his first three sonatas, Opus 2 (1-3) in 1796, when he was in his mid-20s, and dedicated them to his former teacher Haydn.
Two decades and two dozen piano sonatas later, he began work on what was to be his final group of five sonatas. For some time he had been attempting to find German equivalents for the traditional Italian musical forms; and in 1817, he instructed his publisher to use the term “Hammerklavier” instead of “pianoforte” for all his future piano works.
His instruction was, however, unambiguously carried out only in the case of Opus 106 – the second of his late sonatas. As a grand sonata in four distinct movements, the Hammerklavierstands apart from its companions. It is a work of unprecedented scope, with the broadest slow movement Beethoven ever wrote for the piano, and a finale consisting of a colossal fugue – which makes huge demand on performer and listener alike.
Like the Sonata Opus 111, the Hammerklavier was dedicated to Beethoven’s staunchest patron, Archduke Rudolph of Austria, and its fanfare-like opening phrase was designed to fit the words, “Vivat, vivat Rudolphus!”
Opus 111 was Beethoven’s last sonata, and also his final work in his characteristically dramatic key of C minor. This time there are only two movements; the first begins with an intense slow introduction, out of which the Allegro explodes with force.
The finale is a set of variations on a serene ‘Arietta.’ The variations gradually increase in intricacy until they reach a long-sustained trill, and the sonata comes to a close in an atmosphere of profound calm.
1-4: Piano Sonata in B flat Major, Opus 106 – “Hammerklavier”
5-6: Piano Sonata in C minor, Opus 111
I used to love with my new copy of BBC Magazine would come in the mid-1990s with the CD glued to the cover. The glue would tear the cover of the magazine off until they decided (after the first few issues and probably thousands of complaints) to put the CD in plastic. The performances were always hit or miss but I have a nice nostalgia for all those discs in my collection.
Zino Francescatti, Violin; Robert Casadesus, Piano
Recorded in France (Sonata No. 5, 1961 – Sonata No. 9, 1958) (CBS Records)
And the hits just keep on coming – ah, nice.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES:
No liner notes on this budget disc but it’s such a pleasant recording you really don’t need to know anything about it – just sit back, get a glass of wine and relax.
1-4: Sonata No. 5 in F Major for Violin and Piano, Opus 24 – “Spring”
5-7: Sonata No. 9 in A Major for Violin and Piano, Opus 47 – “Kreutzer”
The easiest review I’ve had to do thus far. I like it. Whenever I hear this recording, I can’t help but think of the scene in “Love & Death” where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton play the opening strains of the Spring Sonata.
If you want the hits, you’ve got the hits – this is one classic recording – a great performance by Wilhelm Kempff on Piano.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Joan Chissell):
“L’adolsecent, l’homme, le dieu” was LIszt’s description of Beethoven’s successive stages of development so patent in the 32 piano sonatas completed between 1795 and 1822, a series as remarkable for the composer’s constant quest for variety of pattern within the traditional sonata mold as his response to the challenge of the piano itself in crucial days of the instrument’s development in strength, compass and colour.
The Grande Sonate Pathetique, as its publisher first issued it, dates from 1798-99. Never before had Beethoven extracted more drama from C minor, always his most faithful key, than in the turbulent opening movement starting with an imposing Grave introduction twice recalled in the course of the sonata-form argument (like Clementi and Dussek he had already tried out a similar device in a sonata written at eleven).
It is no surprise to learn from letters that already in the later 1790s he was secretly tormented by early symptoms of deafness. Assuagement comes in the idyllic, recurrent song melody of the Adagio cantabile in A flat, through tension mounts in two contrasting episodes. The finale is an urgent sonata-rondo back in the home key of C minor.
Composed in 1801, during an ill-starred romance with its youthful dedicatee, the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, the C sharp minor Sonata testifies to Beethoven’s tireless pursuit of formal adventure: like its predecessor in E flat it carries the subtitle “quasi una fantasia.”
His boldest stroke was in opening with an Adagiososenuto, music sufficiently hypnotic in its calm to remind the poet-critic Rellstab of moonlight on Lake Lucerne – hence the nickname apprended after Beethoven’s death.
For the Allegretto, a grecious old-style minuet and trio following without sharp break. Beethoven slips enharmonically into D flat major. The finale in the home key is a passionately disturbed Presto agitato in sonata form.
Following hard on the heels of the “Moonlight” in the same year of 1801, the D major Sonata reverts to a traditional four-movement sequence. The nickname “Pastoral”came from the publisher Cranz. But the music exudes enough of the relaxation and simple joy Beethoven always found in the country (openly confessed in the Sixth Symphony) to make it easy to believe Czerny’s contention that the sonata was one of the composer’s favorites.
Repeated low Ds, like a rustic drone, support the opening tune of the sonata-form Allegro. The lilting main theme of the sonata-rondo finale, again with a drone-like accompaniment, is still more redolent of the village green.
Though the D minor-major Andante, with its regular, march-like tread, is tinged with regret, the Scherzo is one of the composer’s most playful.
Beethoven was in his 40th year when composing the F sharp major Sonata in 1809, after four years away from the genre: in total contrast to its story F minor predecessor, the “Appassionata,”this gracious work in only two movements was dedicated to the Countess Therese von Brunsvik, who though no longer accepted as his legendary “immortal beloved,” was one of the few closest to his heart whose character approached his own exalted ideals of womanhood.
With the unpredictability of genius Beethoven rejects heart-searching, after only the briefest Adagio cantabile introduction, to write a radiantly lyrical Allegro non troppo in concisely expressed sonata form. In the scherzando-like concluding Allegro vivace, also in (for him) the unusual key of F sharp major, he springs constant surprises of tonality, register and dynamics.
1-3: Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Opus 13 – “Pathetique”
4-6: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp Minor, Opus 27 No. 2 – “Moonlight”
7-10: Piano Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Opus 28 – “Pastorale”
11-12: Piano Sonata No. 24 in F sharp Major, Opus 78
Like a warm blanket or a favorite pair of shoes, these sonatas will never let you down. A great recording.
This is one of those Enhanced CDs from the early 1990s that was supposed to be interactive (by letting you follow the score as the music plays on your computer) but, in reality, did nothing but take up your time while you searched for Drivers that still couldn’t play the disc. (And, for some reason, I didn’t throw it away.)
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Drs. Lyn and Lawrence Schenbeck):
Johann Sebastian Bach was born March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany. During his 65 years, he wrote over 200 sacred cantatas (some of which were also lost); five masses; two magnificats; six passions; six motets (or seven, depending on whom you ask); 518 chorales, sacred songs and arias; 215 keyboard works, including many toccatas and fugues; five pieces for lute; 37 chamber sonatas and 30 orchestral works, including several suites, violin concertos and the six Brandenburg Concertos.
Bach came from a large musical family. While most Bachs were instrumentalists, only a few composed. His early years were spent in Eisenach, where he entered the Latin School in the spring of 1692. By the age of 17, both of his parents had died, so he briefly lived with his older brother Johann Christoph.
In 1703, Bach was appointed organist of the New Church in Arnstadt. Unfortunately, not all went well. On August 29, 1705, he was disciplined for calling a student a “Zippelfagottist” (a “nanny-goat bassoonist”) and was told to behave better with the students. (The Bach Reader, David and Mendel, eds.)
The following year, Bach was reproved for other matters, as excerpted from the Proceedings of the Arnstadt Consitory:
February 21, 1706: The organist Bach had previously played rather too long, but, after his attention had been called to it by the Superintendent, he had, at once, fallen into the other extreme and had made it too short. Reprove him for having hitherto, made many curious “variations” in the chorale and mingled many strange tunes in it and for the fact that the Congregation has been confused by it.
November 11, 1706: “If he considers it no disgrace to be be connected with the Church and to accept his salary, he must not be ashamed to make music with the students assigned to do so, until other instructions are given… [Bach is told to] declare himself in writing concerning this matter. [He shall then] be asked further by what right he recently caused the strange maiden [probably his first wife and cousin Maria Barbara Bach, whom he married in 1707] to be invited into the choir loft and let her make music there.
Bach later held positions in other cities. After leaving Arnstadt, he was an organist in Muhlhausen (1707-08). According to the Proceedings of st. Blasius’ Church Parish meetings, he received 85 gulden in salary, plus the following in-kind emoluments:
54 bushels of grain; two cords of wood [one beech and the other oak or aspen]; and six times three-score fagots delivered to the door instead of acreage. (The Bach Reader, 55)
Six of Bach’s children were born during his stay in Weimar (1708-17). Also, many of his keyboard works were written there, including the famous organ toccatas, and some of the popular Brandenburg Concertos.
Bach’s illustrious career continued in Cothen (1717-23), where he served as capellmeister. Prince Leopold, whom Bach served, loved music and wanted the chapel instruments to be in excellent condition. Bach supervised the repair of the chapel organ and personally fixed the prince’s harpsichords.
Several important events in Bach’s life happened in Cothen. The first involved the marriage of his second wife, Anna Magdalena, December 3, 1721. In addition to being his wife, she was a fine court singer. According to an excerpt from the Accounts of the Cothen Capelle, both were paid for their musical services to the prince.
Also that same year, the Brandenburg Concertos were published. This lively set of six concertos was dedicated to Lord Christian Ludwig, the elector of Brandenburg.
Lastly, in 1722, the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of 24 preludes and fugues, was composed. “Clavier” is Germany for “keyboard,” but, during Bach’s day, it referred only to the harpsichord and clavichord.
The last 27 years of Bach’s life were spent in Leipzig, where he was cantor and music director of the St. Thomas Church. In reality, he was music director of the entire city. His first production at St. Thomas was May 30, 1723.
Bach’s writing flourished in Leipzig. All his major vocal works – the B Minor Mass, St John and St. Matthew Passions, six (or seven) motets, two magnificats and many of the 200 sacred cantatas – were composed there. During this time, Bach wrote many instructional works for his pupils, including The Art of the Fugueand numerous canons.
In the 1740s, Bach’s eyesight began to fail due to cataracts. In 1750, he was twice operated on by John Taylor, a British eye specialist. Both were unsuccessful.
Sick and virtually blind, Bach spent the last year of his life fighting the perennial battle of music teacher against city hall. He engaged in heated correspondence with the headmaster in Freiberg, Herr Bidermann, who opposed the “cultivation of music in schools.” Bach felt his moral obligation was to write vehement letters against Bidermann’s position.
By the summer of 1750, Bach’s health had seriously declined. In July, he suffered a stroke and, six days later, died on the 28th.
1: Toccata and Fugue [8:10]
2: Orchestral Suite No. 3 – Air for the “G” String [3:15]
3: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 – Allegro [6:50]
4: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring [3:51]
5: Orchestral Suite No. 2 – Minuet and Badinerie [2:44]
6: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 – Allegro [9:54]
While, in general, this is a pretty worthless disc (basically six of Bach’s “greatest hits” performed very studiously), the biographical notes are very concise and give a good amount of information. For that reason, I hope this little write up was worth your time.
Recorded December 19-20 & 23, 1992 at the Performing Arts Center, SUNY, Purchase, NY (Musical Heritage Society)
It doesn’t get any more authentic than this boring ass shit (that’s a joke – lighten up).
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Harris Goldsmith):
“Weimer,” “Cothen” and “Leipzig”: These three locations can be used to neatly divide the towering musical legacy of J.S. Bach – an arrangement analogous to the “Early,” “Middle” and “Late” groupings habitually bestowed upon Beethoven’s output. The tryptych approach for both of these musical geniuses has undeniable utility but can sometimes be misleading.
It was in 1713, during his employ as organist to the Duke of Weimar, that Bach first encountered the then new Italian music of Antonio Vivaldi, TomasoAlbinoni, ArcangeloCorelli and the other violinist-composers.
The Duke’s young nephew, Prince Johann Ernst, had developed a passionate fondness for this fare and had brought some of these concerti (recently published in the Netherlands) back with him as additions to his uncle’s library.
Bach had a favorable impression, particularly so in Vivaldi’s case – for he thought sufficiently well of the latter’s music to arrange six of his Concerti Grossifor solo keyboard. And in some of his subsequent original works (the F major Concerto in the Italian Manner, BWV 971, springs immediately to mind), Bach assimilated the style in all its specifics and immeasurably transcended it – an observation that, likewise, applies to several of the compositions heard on this recording.
In 1719, Bach moved to Cothen where he served as Kapellmeister and Director of Chamber Music. The court of Cothen, according to Bach’s biographer Spitta, was “held on a modest scale.” “It had never possessed a theatre and the Reformed (Calvinist) services did not encourage music.” But Bach’s employer, Leopold did. He was, in the composer’s words, “an amiable prince who knew and loved music.”
Indeed, Leopold was an accomplished player of three instruments – the clavier, the violin and the viola da gamba – and it was under his aegis that Bach spent what was reputably the happiest part of his life and certainly – at least in terms of purely instrument music – the most productive. During this period, he penned the six suites for unaccompanied cello, the sonatas and partitas for violin, the concertos for violin (all but three of which are lost), all six Brandenburgsand Book One of the Well Tempered Clavier – all in all, a pretty fair accomplishment.
All good things must come to an end and, unfortunately, the good prince too him self a spouse who didn’t share his affection for music and, moreover, resented her noble husband’s consorting with one of his servants (by then, a close friendship had developed between Bach, who was already a musical celebrity, and the much younger prince). In fact, the good (?) woman was instrumental in hastening Bach’s departure to St. Thomas and it was in Leipzig where he stayed to his dying day.
Bach began his tenure as Cantor at St. Thomas in 1723. He was the third choice for the position, hired only after Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) and Christoph Graupner (1683-1760) had declined the offer. His duties were primarily ecclesiastical and although he had, until then, composed relatively little church music, he was now required to produce cantatas every Sunday, and for major church holidays as well.
By 1729, he had composed four complete cycles, each numbering about sixty cantatas, and he had composed two Passionsin addition. But he felt disillusioned because there was little support or enthusiasm for his efforts.
This lack of gratitude led to his seeking an additional outlet and incentive for his creativity and he thus became director of the Collegium Musicum, an organization of university students that had been established by Telemann in 1702, when he was studying law in Leipzig. Meeting at Zimmermann’s coffee house – and, during the summer months, outdoors – this amiable assemblage performed a wide variety of secular vocal and instrumental music.
With so much music to compose, it is little wonder that Bach was not above occasionally recycling an earlier work or two for reuse. For his Cantata No. 156, for instance, he devised its Sinfoniaby transposing the slow movement of his Cothen period Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1056 downward from A flat Major to F Major. Or, more correctly, this lovely movement for oboe solo is a borrowed item from a lost concerto for either violin or oboe (of which the Harpsichord version is a subsequent arrangement).
Similarly, the Concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060 is a bit of speculative guesswork: a reconstruction of a Cothen period concerto, either for two violins or (more probably) for oboe and violin, that was among the aforementioned lost works from that epoch.
Again, the concerto’s musical material survives by way of the composer’s later arrangement for two harpsichords. To my ears, it sounds far more agreeable in its presumed original instrumentation, and the aural superiority is particularly striking when one compares the central Adagio– angular and earth-bound in its dual-keyboard form, but flowing “on wings of song” when intoned by oboe and violin. In its three movement, fast-slow-fast format, and its subtle alternation of solo instruments alongside (but sometimes in juxtaposition with) the tutti strings and continuo, BWV 1060 – in whichever form – is recognizably “to the Italian taste.”
So, too, is the Fifth– and arguably grandest – of the immortal Brandenburg Concertos. Dating from circa 1719 (it is all but impossible to ascertain definite vintage dates for most of Bach’s output), the concerto was probably composed to inaugurate the new harpsichord that Bach had brought back from Berlin. Probably the last of the six, the Fifth Brandenburg, like its brethren, shows how Bach had assimilated all the stylistic prerequisites of Italian style but, with his genius for innovation, far transcended the “role model” in terms of structural dimensions and spiritual profundity.
On a purely subjective plane, confluence of the solo concerto and the concerto grosso – with its gigantic written-out first movement cadenza – the work is unmistakably a harpsichord concerto, and one that paved the way to, if not Liszt and Rachmaninoff, certainly to Beethoven.
Conversely, and heart-stoppingly so in its central unaccompanied Affetuoso, the spirit of intimate chamber music – a memorable three-way conversation between the harpsichord (now subdued where it was, just a movement earlier, explosively public), violin and flute. Incidentally, this is the first time Bach wrote specifically for the flauto traverso, or transverse flute, rather than (as in the Fourth Brandenburg) for a pair of recorders. In the final Allegro, Bach repeatedly uses a sprinting figure indicated in conventional baroque notation wherein the upbeat is written as a sixteenth note rather than as the third of a triplet (which is almost certainly the way it was intended to sound).
Bach’s four orchestral suites (sometimes called Ouvertures) are in the French rather than the Italian style. Two of them (No. 1 in C, BWV 1066, and No. 4 in D, BWV 1069) were composed at Cothen, the others (No. 3 in D, BWV 1068 and the present No. 3 in B Minor, BWV 1067) at Leipzig.
The B minor Suite, despite its misleading designation as “No. 2,” was the last, with a vintage date from the 1730s. Unlike the clarion trumpet and tympani-laden D major works and the relatively more subdued but still strongly oboe-permeated C major, the B minor Suite projects a grave persona, sternly-but tenderly set forth by a solo flute against a backdrop of strings and continuo. Its eponymous Ouverturefulfills its role as a throat-clearing call to order without violating the work’s essential intimacy. It somewhat reminds this listener of the opening Sinfonia of the C minor Partita for keyboard, BWV 826(but unlike that work, returns to the slower-moving opening material).
A series of contrasted dances follows: First a Rondeau, then a Sarabanda, a pair of Bourrees, a Polonaiseand its double variant, a Menuetand, finally, a Badinerie– Bach’s only know use of this bantering plaisanterie (“Badinerie” or “Badinage” can be translated to mean jest, trifle or piece of fun).
1-3: Concerto in C Minor for Oboe, Violin, Strings and Basso Continuo, BWV 1060
4-6: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 for Flute, Violin, Obbligato Harpsichord, Strings and Basso Continuo, BWV 1050
7: Sinfonia in F Major “Ich steh’ mit einem Fulz im Grabe” for Oboe, Strings, and Basso Continuo, BWV 156
8-14: Suite in B Minor for Flute, Strings, and Basso Continuo, BWV 1067
And “piece of fun” it is because once you go Bach you never go back! (Hey, what do you want from me?! I’ve been listening to nothing but Bach for the past week!)
Vladimir Feltsman, Pianist & Conductor – The Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Recorded July 12, 13, and 14, 1993 at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (Musical Heritage Society)
Smooth, clean and by the book, Vladimir Feltsman does a very workmanlike job on the “Keyboard Concertos” (originally written for violin or oboe) of J.S. Bach – though the ghost of Gould lingers.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Tim Page):
Styles change, and it is a relief for those of us who have always enjoyed listening to – and playing – Bach’s music on the piano not to have to make any more apologies for our taste.
I acknowledge that the piano many not have been the instrument for which Bach wrote these pieces – for that matter, the concertos on this disc were not originally intended for keyboard at all – but, in an era where there are any number of “authentic” recordings on clavichord or harpsichord available, why shouldn’t we explore the multiplicity of colors, textures and dynamics intrinsic in Bach’s music that can only be made accessible by a pianist?
As the late Glenn Gould once observed, back in the days when musicological dogma was at its most rigid, if you take the notion of authenticity too far, about the only thing a conscientious musician would be able to play proudly on a modern piano was Rachmaninoff – and even that would have to be played on a turn-of-the-century Bosendorfer or German Steinway!
All of Bach’s keyboard concertos were originally scored for small orchestra and solo violin or oboe. Perhaps the greatest self-transcriber of all time, Bach blithely recycled this music for other pieces (for example, two movements of the Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052, are also to be found in the cantata “Wir muessen durth viel Treubsal,” BWV 146) and then, working at what seems to have been unusual haste even for the man who regularly churned out a cantata each week, he wrote down all of his keyboard concertos in a single manuscript volume, apparently sometime around 1735.
The Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052, is a vast, panoramic structure in three large movements that prefigures the romantic piano concerto to a remarkable degree (indeed, Felix Mendelssohn, who did so much to revive Bach’s reputation in the early 19th century, loved to perform this work).
The violin concerto from which this was presumably transcribed has not survived, but an early version for keyboard does exist; curiously, this was probably arranged not by Bach but by one of his sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
The opening movement, in particular, is one of Bach’s grandest conceptions – an extended tutti in unison leads directly to a flowing, meditative passage for the piano; throughout, Bach seems to be straining against formal strictures even as he is fulfilling them flawlessly.
Likewise, we do not have the original version of the Concerto in E, BWV 1053, but it, too, seems to have been written for violin. In any event, Bach raided it for subsequent cantatas (this time for BWV 49, “Ich geh’ und suche mit Verlangen,”and BWV 169, “Gott soll allein mein Herze haben”) before turning it into this keyboard concerto.
As James Goodfriend, the former music editor of Stereo Review, once observed: “Bach produced both sacred and secular music on demand and, with the pressure of immutable deadlines, borrowed freely from one for the other with no feeling of sacrilege.”
Happily, in the case of the Concerto in D, BWV 1054, we have Bach’s original on hand; the familiar Violin Concerto in E, BWV 1042, one of the treasures of the string repertory. It is not clear why Bach lowered the concerto a whole tone when he decided to transcribe it for keyboard (perhaps to bring the violin part more fully within the range of the harpsichord); the transcription will surprise – and possibly bother – those listeners with perfect pitch who are used to the original.
Critical consensus tends to favor the violin version of this concerto over the arrangement for keyboard, but I find much to admire in the later version, particularly the bracing muscularity of the outer movements. (Ingmar Bergman made unforgettable use of the central Adagio of the violin concerto in his film Persona.)
“Ultimately, for Bach, the process of composition was an unending one,” the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians has rightly observed. “Dynamic markings and indications of articulation would be inserted as he looked through the parts; he would revise and improve a work when he was copying it out, and when giving further performances would make fresh alterations and improvements. He also inserted corrections, already in print. Throughout his life, Bach was his own severest critic. Even in works which went through two or three difference versions… the ‘final’ version does not represent a definitive one but merely a further state in the search for perfection – the central and ultimate concern of Bach’s method of composition.”
Albert Schweitzer, the organist and humanitarian, loved Bach as have few others. Yet, in his two-volume study of the composer, he had some withering words for the keyboard concertos: “Bach needed clavier concertos when he directed the Telemann Society. The arrangements are often made with quite incredible haste and carelessness; either time was pressing, or he felt no interest in what he was going. Violin effects to which he could easily have given a pianistic turn are not remodeled at all; later on he improves them here and there in the score but leaves them as they are in the clavier part…” “We are under no special obligation to incorporate these transcriptions in our concert programmes,” Schweitzer concluded.
Many of us will disagree and I think this disc can stand as eloquent refutation of the good Doctor’s last statement. It was Bach’s habit to work quickly – this is, after all, a man who was capable of producing a whole cantata every week – and if there are signs of haste in the concertos, it is still the haste of an extraordinarily great musician. Some of the material is recycled, to be sure, but that’s certainly no rarity in Bach (who was loathe to waste a good idea by using it just once and some of the passages are not fleshed out for keyboard in the tidy manner that we associate with more academic composers).
Yet the fact remains that these concertos have proven remarkably durable. They are perhaps more popular today than at any previous time; recordings and performances are proliferating and there is no end in sight.
The Concerto No. 4 in A, BWV 1055, seems to have begun life as either a concerto for violin or for oboe d’amore, in either case probably written during Bach’s tenure in Cothen, around 1720; Bach transcribed it for keyboard (along with the other keyboard concertos) more than a decade later. It is a brisk, buoyant work in three brief movements, smaller in scale than several of the others, yet boasting rather more soloistic filigree for the keyboard than was customary for Bach in these works.
The Largo of the Concerto No. 5 in F Minor, BWV 1056, is far and away the most famous movement in any of Bach’s keyboard concertos – most likely due to its use as the theme for the 1972 film Slaughterhouse Five.
Curiously, some commentators have questioned the concerto’s authenticity (at least one musicologist has suggested that it may have been written by Vivaldi, whose music Bach admired and transcribed). I find this unlikely – there is a distinctly Bach-ian mixture of austerity and drama throughout the work; moreover, Bach had already used the Largo as the introduction for one of his cantatas, “Ich steh’ mit einem Fuss im Grabe,” BWV 156 (where the melody is taken up, quite convincingly, by the oboe). Whether originally fashioned for violin, oboe – or even by some other composer – this is a justly popular piece, with the exquisitely calm and centered Largo providing a calm between two highly stormy outer movements.
Bach lowered his Violin Concerto in E, BWV 1042, a whole tone when he transcribed it for keyboard; seemingly following the same philosophy (which has never been fully explained) he transposed his equally successful Violin Concerto in G Minor, BWV 1041, a whole tone to create the keyboard Concerto in G Minor, BWV 1058.
Most scholars prefer the versions for violin, yet there is something enormously exciting about listening to a world-class pianist (or, for that matter, harpsichordist) dash through this music and the very different character it naturally assumes by being played on a keyboard.
The “Italian Concerto”– or, rather, the “Concerto After the Italian Taste… Composed for Music Lovers, To Refresh Their Spirits” – needs no defense from me or from anybody. A work for solo keyboard, it was immediately recognized for what it is – a successful, varied, highly engaging entertainment.
Indeed, the critic Johann Adolph Scheibe, a contemporary of Bach’s, said it was “arranged in the best possible fashion for this kind of work.” “It will doubtless be familiar to all great composers and experienced clavier players,” he added, “as well as to amateurs of the clavier and music in general. Who is there who will not admit that this clavier concerto is to be regarded as a perfect model of a well-designed solo concerto?”
[Tim Page is the chief classical music critic for New York and Long Island Newsday and the author, most recently, of “William Kapell” and “Music from the Road: Views and Reviews 1978-1992”.]
CD No. 1:
1-3: Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052
4-6: Concerto in E Major, BWV 1053
7-9: Concerto in D Major, BWV 1054
CD No. 2:
1-3: Concerto in A Major, BWV 1055
4-6: Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1056
7-9: Concerto in G Minor, BWV 1058
10-12: Concerto Nach Italienischem Gusto
Well, I certainly learned a lot reading those (very long) liner notes. And I must say, how can you not like a Concerto named “Concerto After the Italian Taste – Composed for the Music Lovers, To Refresh Their Spirts”?!
Glenn Gould, Piano – Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Vladimir Golschmann, Conductor). Recorded at 30th Street Studio, New York, 1958 (CBS Records)
Who am I to disagree with Robert Schumann (see below)?
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (uncredited):
In 1837, a noted keyboard virtuoso gave a performance of J.S. Bach’sClavier Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, after which an influential music journalist had the following remarks to make:
“I should like to speak of many thoughts that were awakened in my mind by this noble work… Will it be believed that on the music shelves of the Berlin Singakademie, to which old Zelter bequeathed his library, at least seven such concertos, and a countless number of other Bach compositions, in manuscript, are carefully stowed away? Few persons are aware of it; but they lie there notwithstanding. Is it not time, would it not be useful for the German nation, to publish a perfect edition of the complete works of Bach? The idea should be considered, and the words of a practical expert, who speaks of this undertaking on page 76 of the current volume of the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, would serve as a motto. He says: ‘The publication of the works of Sebastian Bach is an enterprise I hope soon to see in execution – one that delights my heart, which beats wholly for the great and lofty art of this father of harmony.'”
The virtuoso who performed the Concerto was Felix Mendelssohn. The music journalist was Robert Schumann. The “expert” cited was Ludwig Van Beethoven. The quotation was from a letter Beethoven wrote to the music publisher Hofmeister in 1801. So much for establishing the validity and stature of Bach’s clavier concertos as great works of musical art.
To a certain extent, such a validation is necessary for the present-day listener, since Bach’s keyboard concertos differ in many ways from the archetype of the concerto as it was established in the nineteenth century.
To begin with, there is nothing of the heroic drama engendered by the opposition of forces as in the Romantic concerto. In the BrahmsSecond Piano Concerto – to take a random example – the soloist and the orchestra are pitted against each other as adversaries in a titanic struggle.
Not so with Bach. Nor is there, in his keyboard concertos, even much of the opposition and contrast of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century concerto grosso, or for that matter, of the Vivaldi violin concerto. Rather, since the clavier plays even in the orchestral tutti, the works are completely clavier-dominated.
In the worlds of Philipp Spitta, the German music scholar and author of a biography of Bach, “These works are, we may say, clavier compositions, cast in concerto form, that have gained in tone, parts, and color through the cooperation of string instruments.”
In the genesis of Bach’s clavier concertos, we find additional differences. The nineteenth century established originality as a primary standard for judging the artistic merit of a work. But such a standard was, in many ways, foreign to earlier times.
One may see, in early painting and graphics, near-identical layouts of subject material, differing only in the stylistic elements that the artist brought to the execution of the idea (and sometimes not even that).
And in the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and earlier, thematic ideas and harmonic progressions are to be found floating freely from one composer to another; sometimes whole movements or even whole compositions were adapted and reworked; and, certainly, and most commonly, composers refashioned their own materials to fit new forms or fulfill new functions.
The majority of Bach’s clavier concertos fall into this latter category as rewrites of previously existing concertos, mostly for violin. Herein lies a principal reason for the clavier domination of the works, for the part previously assigned to the solo violin is now given to the keyboard player’s right hand, and the left hand, as if it were another instrument, plays a bass part.
In fact, Bach’s usage of the musical material contained in these works did not stop with the concertos themselves. Movements from them can be found re-worked and re-orchestrated and fulfilling a completely new function in the church cantatas he wrote for later occasions.
No antecedent is known for Concerto No. 4 in A Major,although despite being a bit more keyboard-like in figurational detail than most of the other concertos, it is still presumed to have been based on a violin (perhaps oboe?) original.
Two final points remain to be made about the concertos, the first having to do with the occasions for which they were composed. Bach went to Leipzig to become Cantor of the Thomasschule – a fairly prestigious position and one that involved an enormous amount of labor, all of it devoted to sacred music. Since Bach’s musical interests extended beyond the boundaries of the sacred, it is not altogether surprising that, in 1729, he added to his responsibilities the job of conductor of the Collegium Musicum, a purely secular society.
The Collegium Musicum met one a week, in Zimmermann’s coffee house, or, in summer months, in his garden. For those meetings, Bach supplied secular cantatas and instrumental music, including the seven known complete clavier concertos (there exists a fragment of an eighth).
Personnel for an orchestra was invariably present at these meetings, as was something of an audience. And Herr Zimmermann, perhaps impressed by Bach’s reputation as a virtuoso organist and harpsichordist, purchased for the meetings an exceedingly fine, large, double-manual harpsichord. It was a happy combination of factors, for the concertos played at these meetings were probably the first clavier concertos ever written.
The presence, too, of an audience was significant in the history of music, for it signaled, in its small way, the movement away from the church and the court and toward the public concert as a center of music.
1-3: Concerto No. 1 for Piano & Orchestra in D Minor, BWV 1052
4-6: Concerto No. 4 for Piano & Orchestra in A Major, BWV 1055
7-9: Concerto No. 5 for Piano & Orchestra in F Minor, BWV 1056
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during the Leonard Bernstein/Glenn Gould recording sessions. What did they talk about during lunch? Imagine Glenn Gould’s reaction to Lenny’s smoking, drinking and cursing!