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Hyperion Records

CDA67306 - Bach: Italian Concerto & French Overture
A Panoramic View of Rome from Monte Mario (detail) (1749) by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765)

Recording details: October 2000
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: January 2001
Total duration: 71 minutes 5 seconds


'Hewitt remains today's finest exponent of Bach's keyboard music' (Gramophone)

'One of the most convincing Bach pianists at the present time. These performances rate highly in my league table and deserve ‘benchmark’ status' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This enticing collection once again confirms Angela Hewitt's reputation for playing Bach on the piano' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'This disc is one of the finest volumes in Hewitt’s continuing Bach cycle, with marvellous engineering to match. Highly recommended' (International Record Review)

'Captivating' (The Times)

'Hewitt's playing radiates joy, wit and profound understanding of the composer's keyboard style. This series is one of the record glories of our age' (The Sunday Times)

'Stunningly beautiful … interpretations that are winning in every way. Not a note is slighted, not a phrase undernourished. She possesses a wonderful command of the music's overall architecture and wastes no time in letting us know what it is all about.' (Fanfare, USA)

'Hyperion’s good sense in signing Angela Hewitt deserves yet another round of applause. Hot on the heels of her superlative account of the Goldberg Variations comes another disc that proves her status as one of today’s finest Bach interpreters' (International Piano)

Italian Concerto & French Overture
[untitled]  [3'41]
Andante  [5'38]
Presto  [3'25]
Arioso  [1'58]
Andante: Fugato  [1'09]
Adagissimo  [3'17]
Ouverture  [12'09]
Courante  [2'27]
Gavotte I  [1'23]
Gavotte II  [1'25]
Passepied I  [1'09]
Passepied II  [0'56]
Sarabande  [4'00]
Bourrée I  [0'52]
Bourrée II  [1'03]
Gigue  [2'32]
Echo  [2'25]

Angela Hewitt's recordings of J S Bach's keyboard works are rapidly being seen as the definitive modern survey on the piano. Such is her natural affinity for Bach's style, her aliveness to his dancing rhythms and her sensitive use of the modern instrument, that she is the natural successor to a prestigious line of great Bach pianists.

This disc includes works from the second and third volumes of Bach's Clavierübung (Keyboard Practice). In the Italian Concerto and French Overture Bach demonstrates not only his skill as translating to the keyboard two of the most popular orchestral genres of the time, but also his natural assimilation of their respective national characteristics, while remaining true to his own style. These are among his happiest inspirations. The Italian Concerto brims with joyous thematic invention and allusions to solo and orchestral contrasts, while the French Overture (often called a Partita) is a lively dance suite. The Four Duets, rather like more mature Two-part Inventions, and the youthful Capriccios complete a sunny and inspirational disc.

Other recommended albums
'Bach: Goldberg Variations' (CDA67305)
Bach: Goldberg Variations
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67305 

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
It wasn’t until 1731, the year he turned forty-six, that Johann Sebastian Bach published his Opus 1, the six Partitas for solo keyboard that make up the first volume of his Clavierübung (Keyboard Practice). It proved to be such a success (we know of at least two printings) that four years later a second volume appeared bearing the title page:

Second part of the Keyboard Practice,
consisting of a Concerto after the Italian Taste and
an Overture after the French Manner,
for a harpsichord with two manuals.
Composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits,
by Johann Sebastian Bach,
Capellmeister to His Highness the Prince of
Saxe-Weissenfels and Directore Chori Musici Lipsiensis.
Published by Christoph Weigel, Junior.

By choosing to write both an Italian Concerto and a French Overture, Bach not only demonstrated his skill in translating to the keyboard two of the most popular orchestral genres of the time, but also showed how marvellously he had assimilated the prevalent national styles of composition and performance, yet always sounding unmistakably like himself. The musical battle between the French and Italians goes as far back as Charlemagne, who returned from Rome with a group of Italian musicians, much to the displeasure of their French colleagues. Quarrels were still raging when Italian musicians were brought to Paris to sing in operatic productions in the early 1700s. Mattheson, the German composer and theorist, wrote in 1713: ‘The Italians may well boast as they please of their voices and of their arts, but let them try to write a real French overture, and in its true character at that … This means that French instrumental music has something particular to itself; although the Italians make the greatest efforts to excel in their sinfonias and in their concerts, which, truly enough, do not lack beauty, one has to prefer, however, a lively French overture.’ Not everybody stood up for the French. In 1753 Rousseau made the provocative remark: ‘The French have no music and cannot have any, but if they ever do, it will be all the worse for them.’ He also stated that ‘French singing is like an uninterrupted and unbearable barking’.

In the midst of these rivalries, German music was neglected. Le Cerf de la Viéville wrote that Germany ‘was not great in music, their compositions being as harsh and heavy as their genius’. Handel was no doubt the first German composer to be presented in France, but not until 1736. Bach was ignored. The latter faced criticism closer to home when Johann Adolf Scheibe wrote in his journal Der Critische Musicus (1737): ‘The great man would be the object of admiration if he possessed more pleasantness and made his compositions less turgid and sophisticated, more simple and natural in character.’ Bach was very hurt by this attack, and asked a friend, J A Birnbaum, professor of rhetoric at the University in Leipzig, to reply. The battle went on for months and ended in a stalemate. Yet in 1739 Scheibe published a review of Bach’s Italian Concerto that seemed to reverse his earlier decision: ‘… pre-eminent among works known through published prints is a clavier concerto of which the author is the famous Bach in Leipzig … Since this piece is arranged in the best fashion for this kind of work, I believe that it will doubtless be familiar to all composers and experienced clavier players, as well as to amateurs of the clavier and music in general. Who is there who will not admit at once that this clavier concerto is to be regarded as a perfect model of a well-designed solo concerto? But at the present time we shall be able to name as yet very few or practically no concertos of such excellent qualities and such well-designed execution. It would take as great a master of music as Mr Bach, who has almost alone taken possession of the clavier.’

Scheibe was a follower of the new ‘Art Galant’ which favoured the more melodic style of Bach’s sons rather than the formal counterpoint of their father. Perhaps that is why he was so taken with the Italian Concerto, as it leans more in this direction. All through his life, Bach learned by copying out works of other composers, among them Vivaldi, Albinoni, Corelli and Marcello. He was particularly drawn to the concerto grosso and transcribed many by Vivaldi for keyboard. Writing for a two-manual harpsichord gave him the opportunity to distinguish between tutti (full orchestra) and solo passages, indicating them with the words forte and piano. A pianist, having only one keyboard, must do this by changing dynamic level and tone colour. This distinction, however, is far from clear-cut all the time, and still requires a great deal of imagination on the part of the player. Often one hand is marked at a different dynamic level from the other.

The opening bars of the Italian Concerto, which could not be more affirmative, are immediately repeated in the dominant key, and separated by rests that are too often cut short by the anxious student. In the solo passages, the right hand generally takes the role of soloist, with the left accompanying and occasionally adding some more melodic material. The jewel of the piece is the slow movement, marked Andante (so not too slow). A rhapsodical melody of great beauty soars freely over a highly organized and at times sequential bass which, except for the two cadential bars, constantly repeats the same rhythmic figure. This movement is perhaps the closest to its Italian models, although its florid embellishments are completely written out by Bach rather than left to the performer’s fancy. Again Bach was criticized by Scheibe for this: ‘Every ornament, every little grace, and everything that one thinks of as belonging to the method of playing, he expresses completely in notes; and this not only takes away from his pieces the beauty of harmony, but completely covers the melody throughout.’ In his defence, Birnbaum makes the point that only very few performers have a sufficient knowledge of ornamentation not to spoil the composer’s intentions, and that Bach is fully entitled ‘to set the wanderers back on the right path by prescribing a correct method according to his intentions, and thus to watch over the preservation of his own honour’. How fortunate for us that he did! To conclude the work, Bach writes a high-spirited Presto, combining all his brilliance at the keyboard with a sense of fun. In the episodes the melodic material jumps from one hand to the other, allowing no let-up whatsoever. Pianists especially tend to let this movement run away completely, forgetting that even in a Presto Bach is agile enough to dance!

The one area in which French supremacy went undisputed was the dance. Its ideals of order, balance, grace, discipline, the beauty of body and spirit combined, and a certain majesty were mirrored in the music of Lully and Couperin. French court dancing was very popular in Germany in Bach’s time, and necessary for anyone moving in aristocratic circles. The young Bach no doubt had his first experience with French music and dance when he attended St Michael’s School in Lüneburg (1700–2). Adjoining his school was a residential academy for young noblemen, the Ritter-Academie (‘Knight’s Academy’) where French language, etiquette and dancing were taught as part of the curriculum. The dancing master, Thomas de la Selle, was also employed by the Duke of Celle who had a secondary residence in Lüneburg. The latter was well-known for his orchestra consisting mainly of French musicians who no doubt performed frequently in the castle. Bach made sure he was able to hear them, and thus became acquainted with their compositions and manner of performance. He also got to know the organist of the largest church in Lüneburg, Georg Böhm, who introduced him to the music of Lebègue and Dieupart. If the Italians were first in singing, the French were ranked above them as instrumentalists. Quantz wrote: ‘Because they execute their pieces with such infinite neatness and clarity one is sure that, at least, they will not alter the composer’s ideas … therefore it is advisable for all instrumentalists and especially for harpsichordists to begin their studies in the French manner.’

The French Overture, BWV831 (or Partita in B minor as it is often called), exists in an earlier version in the key of C minor, written in the hand of Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena. The transposition down a semitone was no doubt to provide more contrast with the Italian Concerto in F major. The only other real difference between the two versions is in the opening movement, also marked Ouverture. In the later version, Bach is much more precise in his notation of the dotted rhythms and ‘tirades’ (upbeat flourishes) that open the piece, shortening them in accordance with the performance practices of the time. These jerky rhythms (‘saccadé’ was the word used in French) give the French Overture its essential character of grandeur and pomposity. As was customary, there is a second section in a faster tempo which is fugal in nature but including more homophonic episodes. Here Bach again uses the words forte and piano for dynamic contrast. More unusual is the return to the slow tempo for an extended passage at the end, and the repeat taking us back to the Allegro. This makes the first movement of this suite very imposing, in contrast with the other, more delicate dance movements.

These dance movements follow, beginning with a Courante (the usual allemande is omitted). The first thing to remember here is that the French dance of this name is very different from the Italian corrente. The latter is almost a virtuoso showpiece; the former is ranked with the sarabande as one of the slowest triple-metre dances in the suite. Its qualities are described as serious, solemn, noble and earnest by the theoreticians of the time. It is also marked by rhythmic ambiguities in its 3/2 metre. Bach brings this out beautifully in the left hand of this Courante, which lands on every other beat in the opening two bars. Then we have two graceful Gavottes, the first using semiquaver ‘tirades’, the second restricting itself to the lower register and demanding a change of colour. One of the most attractive dances of the suite comes next – the Passepied. Again in a pair, the first of these opens with an energetic trill that propels us to the end of the phrase. The usual definition of a passepied as a ‘fast minuet’ ignores its more vigorous accentuation and off-beat accents (such as in the alto voice of bars 5 to 6 and 29 to 30). The second Passepied is much calmer, resembling a musette with its drone bass. Mattheson described the passepied as frivolous, but pleasant – ‘just as many a female who, though she is a little inconstant, nevertheless does not therewith lose her charm’.

The core of the suite is occupied by a beautiful Sarabande. This dance, besides being noted for its noble character, is also intense, passionate, and meant to disturb the tranquillity of the mind. A certain ‘nonchalance’ was required to dance it: impeccable carriage of the head and body, but at the same time being alert and ready to execute any movement. A description dating from 1671 gives us some idea of the effect it made: ‘Now and then he [the dancer] would express anger and spite with an impetuous and turbulent rhythmic unit; and then, evoking a sweeter passion by more moderate motions, he would sigh, swoon, let his eyes wander languidly; and certain sinuous movements of the arms and body, nonchalant, disjointed and passionate, made him appear so admirable and so charming that throughout this enchanting dance he won as many hearts as he attracted spectators.’

In this particular Sarabande, Bach clearly adopts the French tradition of accenting the second beat of the bar, making it the high point of the phrase. It is also very contrapuntal, with unusual dissonances and swift modulations. A perfect legato without the use of the pedal is needed to do it justice.

Bourrées are often played far too quickly. Although energetic and joyful (lustig), they still need to be danceable. While the first of another pair in this suite uses the characteristic two-note upbeat and syncopation in bar 4, the second is unorthodox in using three notes as an upbeat. Again the range is considerably lower than its partner. The French Gigue that follows is a perfect example of what it should be: lightly skipping, sprightly, with the constant use of the ‘sautillant’ figure. It should not be anxious or frenzied. The phrases can be clearly marked to make it more intelligible to the listener. Only towards the end does the left hand become more involved, rather than just accompanying, with extra ‘tirades’ adding to the excitement.

The work could end here, but it doesn’t. Instead Bach gives us his pièce de résistance, the Echo, to top it all off. Though obviously orchestral (we think of the famous Badinerie concluding the B minor Orchestral Suite), Bach makes dramatic use of the two keyboards by writing in echoes that require a rapid change of manual. On the piano, of course, this is a bit less dramatic, but the effect must still be there. The actual echoes do not always simply repeat what has gone before but often ornament it, adding that extra stroke of genius. Scheibe declared that Bach’s music ‘is exceedingly difficult to play because the efficiency of his own limbs sets his standards’. Fortunately Bach made no compromises!

Far removed from the world of the Italian Concerto and French Overture are the Four Duets, BWV802–805. They are curiously included in the third volume of Clavierübung, published by Bach himself in 1739. This is otherwise a collection of works for organ, and certainly their two voices (hence ‘Duets’) sound just as well on that instrument as on any other. They resemble the two-part Inventions, but are much more characteristic of Bach’s later style. Written in ascending keys, the first in E minor opens with a scale but then tacks on an awkward figure that can be very clumsy to play. It reminds me of the A minor Prelude from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, with its chromaticisms and invertible counterpoint. The second in F major starts out happily enough, but then proceeds to a middle section almost entirely written in canon and with quite a wild subject. The third in G major is perhaps the most immediately attractive with its lovely pastoral rhythm in 12/8 time. Finishing in the key of A minor, the fourth duet is rather rugged and angular, with two chromatic sequences bringing some startling harmonic progressions. To the usual dedication ‘for music lovers to refresh their spirits’ Bach adds ‘and especially for connoisseurs of such work’. These four duets are definitely ‘musicians’ music’ which, despite their beauty, makes them relatively obscure.

The two Capriccios take us back to the teenage Johann Sebastian – most likely to the year 1702. Bach was orphaned at the age of ten, and was placed in the care of his brother Johann Christoph, fifteen years his senior. The latter was organist at the church of St Michael in Ohrdruf, some twenty-five miles from the family home in Eisenach. As was the custom in the Bach family, he became responsible for his younger brother’s musical education, and taught him the keyboard. He was also the owner of a collection of pieces by Froberger and Pachelbel which Johann Sebastian eagerly wanted to become acquainted with, but to which access was denied. Not one to be easily discouraged, Johann Sebastian found a way to extract them from the lattice-front cabinet, and in the middle of the night copied them out by moonlight. When his nocturnal work was discovered, his treasured copy was taken from him, only to be returned years later. After five years in this household, Bach was expected, at the age of fifteen, to go out and earn a living, and so went to Lüneburg where, apart from attending St Michael’s School, he earned twelve groschen a month singing and playing various instruments.

The Capriccio in B flat major ‘on the Departure of his Beloved Brother’, BWV992, was always thought to have been written in honour of another older brother, the oboist Johann Jakob, who went off in 1704 to join the band of the Swedish king, Charles XII. Christoph Wolff, in his book Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (New York, 2000), puts forward the theory that for various reasons the farewell was more likely for a friend, no doubt Georg Erdmann, with whom he set out for Lüneburg. This would bring the date forward by two years to when Bach was seventeen years old. It is his only piece of programme music (one with a specific story attached to it), and shows an already imaginative and skilled composer. The six movements outline the story: in the first a tender, supplicating melody paints a picture of his friends trying to dissuade him from leaving. In perhaps the least inspired musical moment of the piece (a short fugue), they then warn him of misfortunes that could arise on his journey. Having failed in their efforts, his imminent departure is then lamented. Marked Adagissimo, this movement is in the form of a passacaglia and requires the interpreter to fill in a figured bass. The key of F minor is prophetic: he would later use it for some of his most sorrowful, expressive music. The fourth movement (where some embellishment is also surely required at the beginning) shows the friends giving in to what is inevitable, and saying goodbye. Then the postal coach arrives, blowing its horn (translated into music by a downward octave leap). The piece then ends with a fugue combining two motives: the subject suggesting trumpets, and the countersubject imitating the posthorn. Hubert Parry called this Capriccio ‘the most dexterous piece of work of the kind that had ever appeared in the world up to that time’. It is certainly unique in Bach’s output.

Bach must have briefly returned to Ohrdruf before moving on to his next post, even if it was only to gather up some of his belongings. The Capriccio in E major, BWV993, bears the subtitle ‘in honorem Johann Christoph Bachii Ohrdrufiensis’, and might possibly have been presented to his elder brother in thanks for his guardianship and formative musical education. Not a capriccio in the true sense of the word (‘whim’ or ‘fancy’), it is rather a long fugue more in the style of Frescobaldi. The definition put forward by Furetière in 1690 is more appropriate here: ‘Capriccios are pieces of music, poetry or painting wherein the force of imagination has better success than observation of the rules of art.’ Certainly the wonderful sense of direction that we encounter in his later fugues is lacking in this early work, but it is not without charm. There are extended episodes in two-part writing and some modulations into what were then very remote keys (for example, D sharp minor). An unexpected bravura passage closes the work, with some treacherous leaps in the left hand which would be considerably easier on a pedal harpsichord. The young Bach was certainly out to impress in every way he could. He had an open mind, a driving ambition, high intelligence, all the necessary gifts, and an extraordinary capacity for work. When asked later on in his life the secret of his success, he simply replied: ‘I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.’

Angela Hewitt © 2001

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