BBC National Orchestra of Wales – Mark Elder, conductor (BBC Music)
Recorded: Live at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, Wales – January 11, 1992
For some reason, I thought Bluebeard was a pirate story – but, in reality, he is a violent guy who keeps marrying and murdering his wives – and then brings the next potential wife to his castle (think Sweeney Todd with less of a motive).
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES:
The early years of this century witnessed radical developments in Hungarian music and literature. Endre Ady and Bela Balazs achieved significant reforms in poetry and drama, and Bela Bartok joined forces with his friend Zoltan Kodaly to explore the riches of Hungarian folk music.
Balazs dedicated his one-act play Bluebeard’s Castle to both Bartok and Kodaly, but it was Bartok who responded more readily to Balazs’s potent symbols and storyline.
The idea of male secrecy challenged by female curiosity must have greatly appealed to him: he was, after all, a profoundly private individual whose life was underscored by powerful infatuations and deep-rooted relationships.
All three of Bartok’s stage works – Bluebeard’s Castle, The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin – deal with some aspect of man’s relationship to woman.
Bartok wasn’t the first composer to set the story of Bluebeard to music: Gretry, Offenbach and Dukas preceded him. But the Bartok/Balazs collaboration is unique – in its narrative simplicity, the psychological force that lies behind the characters and in its very personal symbolism.
The drama is internalized, its outward manifestations merely the guides to a whole range of repressed conflicts. The descriptive power of the music equals, indeed surpasses, most other works of its kind; seven doors and seven meaningful spectacles behind them, all reflected in orchestration that is so startlingly graphic that a physical stage set hardly seems necessary.
It is for this reason that Bluebeard’s Castle relies less on its theatrical production than on its musical interpretation.
Although its musical language is firmly rooted among the somber woodlands of Debussy’sPelleas, Bluebeardhas its own spicy tang and graphic impact.
Bartok revised his original score before the 1918 Budapest premiere and continued in effect minor changes up until the Thirties.
In its final form, Bluebeard’s Castleis unquestionably one of the century’s most magnetic operatic masterpieces.
1: Prologue: auguries of darkness and desire [3:16]
2: The arrival [15:21]
3: First Door: the torture chamber [4:41]
4: Second Door: the armory [4:17]
5: Third Door: the treasury [2:17]
6: Fourth Door: the garden of flowers [4:52]
7: Fifth Door: expansive domains [6:46]
8: Sixth Door: the lake of tears [13:52]
9: Seventh Door [9:47]
It’s pretty dark, disturbing stuff – now some of those pictures of Bartok (from previous blogs here and here) make a little more sense.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra – Sir Georg Solti, conductor (London)
Recorded: Orchestra Hall, Chicago – January 1981
Yeah, now we’re talking – that’s SIR Georg Solti to you, buddy – close personal friend of Mr. Bartok!
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES:
Bela Bartok, A Personal Note (Georg Solti, London, 1981):
“When I was studying music in Budapest, I was lucky enough to encounter Bela Bartok in very varied circumstances. He was a calm and introverted man, who spoke little, but who greatly enjoyed the company of young people and who was enormously touched by their admiration. Above all things he hated intolerance, dictatorship and fascism, which drove him from the native Hungary he so loved.
First of all, I was in his piano class for a short time. He was a marvelous teacher, who never interrupted his pupils, but let them play through to the end and then took their place to show them how the piece should be played!
A little later, as a member of the jury for the Liszt Academy’s composition examinations, he had occasion a number of times to judge my compositions, which must have been particularly horrible to him!
In 1938, I turned pages for him at the first public performance of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, which he played with his wife. This took place at the Budapest Opera, but sadly only the young people in the audience applauded the work and saw the true importance of such a masterpiece.
It was also at the Budapest Opera that I was able to watch him while he was supervising the production of The Miraculous Mandarin. He was very meticulous and I remember how he would stand in the hall, his metronome in his hand, checking the tempi.
When preparing these two works for the recording, I was determined that the tempi should be exactly as Bartok wrote and this led me to some extraordinary discoveries, chief of which was in the second movement of the Concerto for Orchestra. The printed score gives crochet equals 74, which is extremely slow, but I thought that I must follow what it says.
When we rehearsed I could see that the musicians didn’t like it at all and in the break the side drum player (who starts the movement with a solo) came to me and said “Maestro, my part is marked crochet equals 94,” which I thought must be a mistake, since none of the other parts have a tempo marking.
The only way to check was to locate the manuscript and through the courtesy of the Library of Congress in Washington, we obtained a copy of the relevant page, which not only clearly showed crochet equals 94, but a tempo marking of Allegro scherzando (the printed score gives ‘Allegretto scherzando).
Furthermore, Bartok headed it ‘Presentando le coppie’ (Presentation of the pairs) not ‘Giuocco delle coppie’ (Game of the pairs). I was most excited by this, because it becomes a quite different piece.
The programme of the first performance in Boston clearly has the movement marked ‘Allegro scherzando’ and the keeper of the Bartok archives was able to give us further conclusive evidence that the faster tempo must be correct.
I have no doubt that thousands of performances, including my own up until now, have been given at the wrong speed!”
BARTOK: CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA (Notes by: Lionel Salter):
While Bartok was ill in the USA in 1943, Koussevitzky came to his hospital room to offer him a commission for an orchestral work; in reality this had been urged by Szigeti and Fritz Reiner in an effort to alleviate the composer’s impoverished condition and his feelings of frustration, though this had to be kept secret from him, as his pride would not have allowed him to accept anything that smacked of charity.
The outcome was the Concerto for Orchestra – his last orchestral work except for the Third Piano Concertoand the unfinished Viola Concerto– which was completed in eight weeks and called for a very large orchestra, instruments often being treated “in a solostic manner,” as he said in his initial analysis.
Its first performance in Boston on December 1, 1944 was an instant success. The gratified composer wrote in a letter, “Koussevitzky is very enthusiastic and says it is “the best orchestra piece of the last 25 years’ (including the works of his idol Shostakovich‘).” The last words refer to Bartok’s pique that, while he himself had been neglected, Shostakovich’s“Leningrad” Symphony, with its “ridiculous” march theme, had, owing to wartime feelings, been widely welcomed: the Concertobears evidence of his understandable reaction.
The andante opening of the Introduzionebegins mysteriously with a characteristically Hungarian theme in the bass, built up on the interval of the fourth (which is to pervade the entire work and assume basic importance). A rhythmic theme of declamatory character develops from a flute phrase, and a rising five-note scale spanning a tritone appears, persists, and turns into the opening bar of the ensuing Allegro vivace, which is in orthodox sonata-form.
The first subject contains, in addition to the tritone scale, two rising fourths; and these (the second filled in with the intermediate notes) become the basis of a trombone theme, which is later to be taken up in two fugati.
The actual second subject, first heard on the oboe over a string drone, vacillates between two notes in a curious way. The movement as a whole is full of ingenious contrapuntal resource – including elaborate strettos and canons both forwards and in reverse – and culminates in a blazing statement by the brass of the early trombone theme.
The gay scherzo, in the printed score entitled Giuoco delle coppie, is in fact, int he composer’s manuscript, headed Presentando le coppie. A side drum without snares (in a rhythm about which the autograph reveals that Bartok had at first been undecided) ushers in the instruments, which trip on in pairs; the bassoons in sixths, the oboes in thirds, the clarinets in sevenths, the flutes in fifths, and the (muted) trumpets in major seconds.
The brass, accompanied by the side drum, then pronounce a benediction over the couples in the form of a short chorale (the opening notes of which are ingeniously derived from the closing line of the first movement) after which the instruments return in the same order as before, but this time fructified by additional instruments of their own (or similar) kind pattering along beside them, mirroring their activities or interlocking with them. A final cadence combines all the original instruments, in their initial relationships into a single chord.
The Elegiaharks back to the start of the Concerto, and uses among its kaleidoscopically-presented, folk-like material both the motif in fourths and the “declamatory” theme from the Introduzione.
The scoring is impressionistic – an example of the “night music” which consistently obsessed Bartok – and at the end of the solo piccolo’s repeated single notes recall the repeated xylophone notes in the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.
The fourth movement is basically an Intermezzoin which two folk-like melodies of flexible, wayward shape alternate. But halfway through comes a rude interruption. The clarinet forgets itself so far as to wander into a burlesque of the notorious march-tune in Shostakovich’s“Leningrad” Symphony (with a half-recollection of The Merry Widow at the back of its mind): it is greeted with jeers and catcalls from the orchestra, which then strikes up a German-band oom-pah bass over which the violins join in with the tune and are rowdily mocked by the wind; the tuba gives a final elephantine echo of the clarinet’s original lapse of taste.
Order being restored, the serene Intermezzois resumed and, after short flute cadenza, ends with fragments of the first theme.
The Finale, the most considerable and brilliant movement of the Concerto, begins (after a brief horn-call) with a bustling perpetuum mobile in the strings, and throws off numerous thematic motifs, the most important of which is a trumpet theme that is extensively developed: it becomes the subject of a fugue, and is treated in inversion, stretto, augmentation, diminution and every other contrapuntal ingenuity.
There is an abbreviated recapitulation, and the movement ends with a short coda after the trumpet theme has been hammered out in triumph by the full brass.
BARTOK: DANCE SUITE:
The Dance Suite dates from exactly twenty years earlier. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the amalgamation of the towns Buda and Pest, works were commissioned from three Hungarian composers (each in his forties at the time).
These were played at a concert on November 19, 1923, which began with the Festival Overture by Dohnanyi, who conducted on that occasion: his piece has sunk virtually without a trace, but the other two works stand among the brightest jewels in their native repertoire.
Kadaly’s masterpiece, the Psalmas hungaricus, besides evoking a period of tragic strife in his country’s history, also expressed something of his own bitterness at his treatment by politically-motivated adversaries; but Bartok, who had suffered similarly from hostile attacks, and who moreover was in the midst of emotional crises in his domestic life, rose above these to produce a composition whose joyousness and immediacy of impact – not to speak of its brilliant construction – have ensured its lasting popularity.
It was soon taken up very widely – in Cincinnati, Prague, London (at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert) and throughout Germany – and when Vaclav Talich conducted it with his Prague orchestra in Budapest in 1926 the entire work, at the public’s insistence, had to be encored.
1-5: Concerto for Orchestra [I – 9:00; II – 6:05; III – 6:30; IV – 4:01; V – 9:30]
6: Dance Suite [15:52]
If you read through that (very informative, I thought) you definitely don’t want to read anything further from me. Go on with your lives! A brilliant recording and ANOTHER 88!
Maurizio Pollini, Piano – Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Claudio Abbado, Conductor) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Recorded: Chicago, Orchestra Hall, February 1977
After nothing but a diet of Bach for the past couple of weeks, a little Bartok at his chaotic best is just what the doctor ordered – this is an excellent recording.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Paolo Petazzi – translation, Gwyn Morris):
Bela Bartok’s first two piano concertos, dated 1926 and 1930/31, belong to two different stages of the period when he was formulating the musical language of his advanced maturity – a synthesis in which an original reassessment of certain aspects of the European cultural tradition (Bach, Beethoven, Debussy) combined with stimuli and influences resulting from the study of Hungarian and Balkan folk music: in assimilating rhythmic and melodic elements foreign to Western classical music, Bartok did not use them in an ornamental, “exotic” way but as an integral part of a new language.
Concerto No. 1, composed between August and November 1926, immediately follows other important piano works like the Sonataand the “Out of Doors” Suite, to which it bears a strong affinity; these works mark a revival of Bartok’s creative activity after three years of almost total silence.
In a famous statement he made to the musicologist Edwin von der Null, Bartok himself stressed the presence of new stylistic characteristics in the Sonataand the First Concerto, pointing out the fruits of his interest in Baroque music, such as a more striking use of counterpoint than was apparent in his previous compositions.
Concerto No. 1 can also be seen as Bartok’s personal response to certain trends in the 1920s, from neo-classical objectivism to the vogue for solid construction and Bachian counterpoint. But Bartok’s style remains alien to the ironic taste for “pastiche” and “square-cut music”: in its harsh, severe, rigorous conception, Concerto No. 1 reveals a unity and force that are quite singular.
In the solo part, the more strictly percussive aspects of Bartok’s piano style predominate in a quest for violent sonorities, biting harshness, combinations of sounds conceived more as blocks than chords in the traditional sense.
And already in the First Concerto this type of piano writing spurs Bartok to probe the potentialities in the relationship between piano and percussion: in this respect there are clear anticipations of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937).
The use of ostinatos, insistent motor rhythms sustained by constant propelling energy, are what chiefly link the Concertoto other experiments of the ’20s; but Bartok’s way is a highly personal one, a deliberate choice of discourse in the first person (and thus poles apart from Stravinsky and neo-classicism).
The balance between soloist and orchestra, only theoretically akin to that of the Baroque concerto, is brought about within a severe conception in which the orchestral colour is mainly sober and tends more to an essential chiaroscuro (excluding, therefore, innovations in sonority) than to a wide variety of colour, in keeping with the compact form of the entire work, its obsessive unity and the violent, barbaric energy which bursts forth from the harsh, hammering writing.
In the introduction to the first movement, which immediately defines some essential characteristics of the music, there emerges a basic melodic cell to which a great part of the material of the composition is related.
Immediately after the introduction, the soloist states the first theme, the only one which stands out strongly in relief; those that follow are less broad and more like brief thematic nuclei. Hence, even if one recognizes in the first movement sonata-form construction (exposition-development-recapitulation), the logic which determines it is profoundly different from the Classical conception, in its combining and elaborating of the thematic material within a closely-knit, contrapuntal web and its frequent use of the ostinato technique.
The Andante, where the strings are silent, begins with a dialogue between piano and percussion. New and subtle relationships of timbre in this austere meditation open up regions of astonishing originality and profundity.
In the central section of the Andante, clearly constructed in A-B-A form, the piano repeats an ostinato figure which acts as a background to a crescendo traced by the woodwind. A brief transition with grotesque trombone glissandi links the second to the third movement, which is more animated and lively throughout.
A string ostinato accompanies the statement of the first theme; the successive ideas which support a structure tending to the episodic are all variations of a single nucleus. It is possible to detect connections between the thematic material of the first and the third movements, even though these are not constructed systematically as in Concerto No. 2.
In an article which appeared in 1939, Bartok wrote: “My First Concerto… I consider it a successful work, although its style is up to a point difficult, perhaps even very difficult for the orchestra and the public. And so I decided, a few years later, in 1930/31, to compose my Second Concerto with fewer difficulties for the orchestra and more pleasant themes. This aim of mine explains the more popular and easier character of the greater part of the themes…”
This statement should not be taken too literally, but it points to the different style of the two concertos. In the roughly five years that separate them, Bartok had written, among other works, masterpieces like the Thirdand Fourth Quartets and the Cantata profana, and their proximity is discernible in the inspiration of the Second Concerto.
Here, there are certainly no compromising concessions to “easy music,” but it is true that the thematic material presents a more clearly recognizable profile and the quality of expression is more fluid in comparison with the harsh tension of the First Concerto.
Similarly, the orchestral writing provides a greater variety of colours, more lively and vivid – especially in the third movement, the only one in which the whole orchestra is featured (in the first movement, the strings are silent; in the Adagio, the woodwinds are excluded from the first and third sections).
The relationship between soloist and orchestra is also one of slightly less rigorous integration, allowing space for cadenzas in the first movement. The overall construction of the Second Concerto is similar to that of the Fourth Quartet: the first and third movements, with their internal similarities, are symmetrically placed around the central movement, which itself has a ternary construction – Adagio-Presto-Adagio.
In the Allegro, the first theme is obviously inspired by Stravinsky: the melodic shape of the first notes corresponds to the beginning of the horn theme at the start of the finale of The Firebird. Other analogies can be drawn with Petrushka. Such occasional affinities can also indicate how differently Bartok and Stravinsky – in his Russian period – used popular themes.
In Bartok, we note an underlying sense of moral conviction, of familiarity bred of a long and intense study of folk music – in other words, an involvement leading to results far removed from those produced by Stravinsky’s dry stylization.
In any event, Bartok turns to advantage in a most personal way the “Stravinsky” theme in the Second Concerto.
In the sonata-form construction of the first movement (where the recapitulation presents the inversion of the themes in the exposition), there is a lavish variety of invention and modes of expression.
The Adagiois another specimen of “night-music” based on a completely different range of timbres from that of the Andantein Concerto No. 1. In a kind of tense and mysterious dialogue, we hear by turns a slow-paced chorale rendered by the pallid sonorities of the strings and the meditative comments of the piano with arabesques of intense evocative force.
After the first Adagio, a real Scherzo(Presto)leaps into action, light and pungent, with extreme and fantastic mobility; then, the opening episode returns and the Adagiofades away in an atmosphere of uncertainty.
In the third movement, the first theme – with its incisive energy, its hammering, barbaric force – seems to lead back to the mood of the First Concerto.
It is the only really new thematic element in this section, and acts as a refrain whose appearances frame the other episodes, all based on variations of the thematic material in the first movement (it is not difficult, on listening, to recognize the transformations of the “Stravinsky” theme); the movement takes shape as a fantastic, animated and richly coloured sequence of changing inventions articulated in an incisive, synthetic and energetic fashion.
1-3: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 [9:06; 7:52; 6:23]
4-6: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 [[9:37; 11:45; 6:04]
There is some truly frightening moments in these pieces and must say, I got a little scared listening to this late night alone in my office. There is something about piano and percussion that just makes a person a little jumpy.
New York Philharmonic – Leonard Bernstein, conductor (CBS Records)
Come on, it’s good – it’s just another one of those ‘Greatest Hits” packages from the vaults – not quite sure why I filed this one under ‘B’ – I suppose for Samuel Barber.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (uncredited):
Although four of the five works presented here were written in the twentieth century, it is not incorrect to entitle this album “Romantic Favorites.”
(A correction is perhaps due because the full orchestra, and not just strings, performs the Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves.’)
The lush string lines and harmonic and melodic fluidity in many ways fall well within the flavor of the Romantic era, and certainly each work has long been popular with concert audiences.
Composed in 1936 by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), originally as a slow movement of a string quartet, the “Adagio” is built on a single lyric subject stated at the outset of the movement. Canonic treatment follows, leading to a fortissimo climax and tranquil close.
This piece was chosen by Arturo Toscanini for its first performance in 1938 and again for programs during a South American tour, the only American work to be so favored by the Maestro.
Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) completed his First String Quartet in D Majorin February 1871, and it was premiered that month in Moscow. The second movement, “Andante cantabile,” was the main reason for its great popularity and was Tchaikovsky’s first composition which incurred wide success outside of Russia.
In 1876, a special concert was held at the Moscow Conservatory to honor Tolstoy, who was moved to tears by the movement.
The “Andante cantabile” is in three-part form and is based on the Russian folk tune “Vanya Sat on the Divan” that Tchaikovsky obtained from a carpenter in Kamenka, Russia.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) completed his five-movement Fifth Symphony in 1902. The brief fourth movement “Adagietto” (only 103 bars long), marked Sehr langsam (very slowly), is scored for strings and harp. It is in great contrast to the more turbulent music heard before it in the Symphony.
After its premiere in Cologne in October 1904, Mahler wrote to his wife, Alma, “Performance excellent! Audience immensely interested and attentive – despite all their puzzlement in the early movements! After the Scherzoeven a few hisses! Adagiettoand Rondoseem to have won the day.” The “Adagietto”is perhaps the most immediately accessible of all movements from Mahler’s symphonies.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrong Fantasia on “Greensleeves”in 1929 for his opera Sir John with Love, based on Shakespeare’sThe Merry Wives of Windsor.
“Greensleeves”was a hit song of the late 1570s, and Shakespeare mentioned it more than once in his plays. It was even rumored to have been written by Henry VIII, a composer of many similar tunes. The Fantasiaalso incorporates as a middle section another English folk tune, “Lovely Joan.”
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis:Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was one of the most distinguished of early English musicians, a predecessor both of William Byrd and John Wilbye.
Tallis wrote a set of eight tunes (found in the Metrical Psalter of Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury), one on each of the ecclesiastical modes. These date from 1567. The theme utilized by Vaughan Williams is the third in the sequence, in the Phrygian mode.
According to Vaughan Williams’s wife, Ursula: “He took this tune as a theme for a fantasia, using the strings of the orchestra grouped as a solo quartet, a small string band, and a larger body of players: with the Norman grandeurs of Gloucester Cathedral in mind and the strange quality of the resonance of stone, the echo idea of three different groups of instruments was well judged… The audience in the Cathedral that September evening had come to hear Elgar conduct Gerontius, but before that work Ralph stood in front of them, looking taller than ever on the high platform, dark haired, serious, inwardly extremely nervous, and the grave splendour of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was heard for the first time.”
1: Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 [9:56]
2: Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis [18:12]
3: Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on “Greensleeves” [4:56]
4: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: “Andante Cantabile” from String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 [9:24]
5: Gustav Mahler: “Adagietto” from Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor [11:05]
This is indeed one of those lights-down-glass-of-wine (or four) discs that we all love to play once or twice a year.
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!
Isaac Stern, English Chamber Orchestra – Alexander Schneider, Conductor (CBS Great Performances)
One of the best recordings of J.S. Bach’s music ever made (as long as you ignore all the annoying audience noises in the background).
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (uncredited):
Most of the concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1759) – including the six Brandenburgs– were composed in the years 1717 through 1723, the period of his tenure as court organist and director of the orchestra for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen.
Apart from his prowess as organist and conductor, Bach was an accomplished violinist who had, according Albert Schweitzer, “learned from Vivaldi the perfect violin technique, the art of writing ‘singably’… For him there was really only one style that naturally suggested by the phrasing of the stringed instrument – and all other styles are for him only modifications of this basic style.
In view of Bach’s predilection for the violin, it is all the more disappointing that only three of his works specifically written for the violin have been left to us.
On the often inaccurate basis of stylistic analysis, scholars have postulated that the majority of Bach’sharpsichord concertos are arrangements of concertos originally written for the violin.
True or not, we have to content ourselves with the two Concertos for Violin and Orchestra and with the Double Violin Concerto.
However, this can scarcely be regarded as a hardship. The Double Violin Concerto is a masterpiece, and the two solo violin concertos are like twins divinely blessed.
The very fact that there are only two has worked in their favor. We do not have to contend with the disappointing knowledge that there are some 350 others, equally good and not strikingly dissimilar, vying for our attention – as in the case of Vivaldi, who, legend says, composed violin concertos even during meals.
And it was Vivaldi who was probably the moving force behind Bach’s violin concertos. Bach had already paid the Venetian master the not inconsiderable compliment of transcribing a number of his published concertos for solo keyboard, and, further, he turned a Vivaldi concerto for four violins into a concerto for four harpsichords.
Curiously, all these transcriptions show Bach rethinking idiomatic violin music in terms of the keyboard. When he came to compose his own violin concertos, the harpsichord – with its self-sufficient contrapuntal possibilities and its quick, unsustained brightness – was entirely forgotten.
Bach’s violin concertos are not virtuoso showpieces, as Vivaldi’s tend to be, but are conceived completely in violinistic terms.
In form, Bach takes over Vivaldi’s characteristic three-movement, fast-slow-fast pattern. The final movements of both solo concertos, as with Vivaldi, are giguelike dances. The slow movements are again a favorite Vivaldi device – long candilenas over a recurring ground bass.
Only in his first movements does Bach depart somewhat from the practice of Vivaldi and his fellow composers. The general form is the same.: The orchestra is given a distinctive theme, heard at the beginning and end of the movement and also, in abbreviated form, throughout its course; this orchestral ritornello alternates with passages for solo violin.
But while the solo passages in Vivaldi are often merely brilliant displays of virtuosity with small relationship to the ritornello, in Bach the soloist fully shares the thematic material with the orchestra.
The A-Minor Concerto opens with a playful melody, aerated with well-calculated pauses. In this movement, the solo violin is also lighthearted, moving through a rather conventional series of sequential passages with enviable bounce and aplomb.
The Andanteis an ostinato piece. The ground bass constantly returns to its thrice-repeated low C, giving it an earthbound quality in contrast to the floating solo violin.
The final giguehas a French grace about its endlessly spun-out triplets. The soloist is given real opportunities here in whirling-dervish speedups of the basic rhythm.
The Violin Concerto in E Majoropens with an Allegroin the solid commanding style of the Brandenburgs, with three proclamatory chords that echo persistently throughout the movement. The soloist plays in real dialogue with the orchestra; there is no rigid separation of tutti and solo.
The Adagiobegins and ends with the low strings stating a long, rather melancholy, ostinatobass. Over this, the violin sings a tender song in phrases that seem endless and are virtually devoid of cadential points.
The Allegro assaiis one of Bach’s business-like finales – staid, self-assured, rather “fat” in instrumental texture. The movement, with its alternation of ritornello and solo, comes closer to the Vivaldi ideal of Baroque concerto writing than does the first movement.
The Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and Orchestra was also written during Bach’s Cothen period when the nature of his appointment forced him to concentrate on instrumental music.
It holds a unique position among the many compositions that he wrote for the Court band of some eighteen pieces, for the possibilities of contrasting two solo instruments removed this work substantially from the customary concerto type.
This is particularly true of the slow movement, in which the discourse of the two violins reduces the orchestra to a very subordinate position.
Back too full advantage of the aptitude of the violin for melodic beauty. He set the two instruments against each other in a veritable dialogue, with the orchestra providing harmonic and rhythmic background.
As in many of Bach’s concertos, the slow movement is the point of gravity of the entire composition, flanked by two fast and more or less conventional sections.
1-3: Concerto in D MInor for Two Violins and Orchestra, BWV 1043
4-6: Concerto No. 1 in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra, BWV 1041
7-9: Concerto No. 2 in E Major for Violin and Orchestra, BWV 1042
(Sorry, I found no video of the Isaac Stern / Itzhak Perlman recording. Those two hacks above will have to do.)
The “Double Concerto” is featured in one of my favorite movies – Woody Allen’s “Hannah & Her Sisters.” The opening strains of the piece take me immediately to the scene where Sam Waterston is giving Dianne Wiest and Carrie Fisher an architectural tour of New York. This CD is a great workhorse classic and has many of Bach’s “hits” that most people will recognize immediately. It is a well-earned “88” on my piano scale!