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A much-anticipated recording from the Dunedin Consort sees Cecilia Bernardini take a break from leader duties and revel in the spotlight of the sublime Bach Violin Concertos.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Thus, just as he did in other musical genres, Bach cut his teeth in concerto composition by copying and adapting the works of others (in this case primarily Antonio Vivaldi) and learning as he did so. The practice brought acquaintance with many of the useful compositional devices involved, most particularly the ritornello process that Vivaldi did so much to develop. This latter proved one of the most enduring methods Bach was to employ throughout his subsequent career as a composer: it involved writing a clearly recognizable block of music, played by all the instruments to open a movement. This could then be used, entirely or in part, to delineate the pivotal key areas later on, bringing the soloists back ‘to order’, as it were, and, finally, providing the conclusion for the movement as a whole. The similarity with traditional rhetorical structuring of orations is unmistakeable: an idea is fully seeded in the opening utterance, which is brought back at regular intervals in slightly different ways, so as to deepen the implications of the main idea and also to generate a sense of overall coherence.
Bach soon rose in position through the court, and thus had the chance to write concerted music of his own, the first and most obvious fruits being a set of exquisite cantatas spanning the years 1714–16. They contain several movements for instruments alone, such as the sinfonia with solo oboe that opens Cantata 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis. It seems likely that a number of movements from Bach’s later concerto repertory may also have begun life as sinfonias or indeed as stand-alone instrumental pieces. Opportunities for secular music-making were greatly enhanced by the move to the court at Cöthen, where Bach had the luxury of working with a small band that comprised some of the most talented players of their generation. It is here that commentators have traditionally assumed Bach wrote the majority of his instrumental concertos. However, while it is certain that the six Brandenburg Concertos were compiled in Cöthen, by no means all the other concertos (such as the Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV1041, and the Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV1043) show any traces of pre-Leipzig composition. In fact, Bach continued to provide instrumental movements for his Leipzig cantatas; and his leadership of the town’s Collegium Musicum c1729–42 represented a seminal aspect of his music-making in the latter half of his life. The collegium was surely not only the forum for the performance of most of his orchestral music to date, but also the impetus for the composition of new pieces.
The Concerto for violin and oboe in C minor, BWV1060R, survives as a concerto for two harpsichords (in manuscripts dating from the very end of Bach’s life and after his death). The work presumably originated during Bach’s association with the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, since the majority of the autograph manuscripts of the harpsichord concertos can be dated to that period. However, as with all these concertos, there is undoubtedly a lost original composed for another instrumental medium. Since the late nineteenth century, the assumption that BWV1060 was originally a concerto for oboe and violin has barely been challenged. Certainly the disparity between the two parts is unusual in a Bach concerto (the solo violin parts of the D minor Double Violin Concerto, for instance, are identical in texture and figuration): the ‘oboe’ line is generally more lyrical but less agile than that of the ‘violin’. Even if this accepted solution were to be invalidated—some suggest that the original was a concerto for two violins—it is one that preserves virtually all the notes from the ‘authentic’ harpsichord version and thus requires minimal transcription (or rather ‘detranscription’).
The supremely lyrical central movement has much in common with its equivalent in the Double Violin Concerto: both are among the most continuously lyrical melodic arches in Bach’s entire oeuvre. It is interesting to note that he seldom wrote such unadulterated and sustained melody, even for voices; indeed, much of his originality as a composer comes from his ability to combine lines and create a cumulative sense of melody. In the opening movement the thematic ritornello is remarkably adaptable, particularly since the echoes at the end of the opening phrases allow it to be fragmented or extended with great ease. The complete ritornello is heard only at the beginning and end: during the course of the movement Bach teases the listener with partial and modified statements. These always present something new and unexpected while still providing the orientation which is the customary function of the ritornello. Another subtlety is the reuse of some of the intervening episodic material in a new order towards the end of the movement. The spectacular final movement uses a similar principle: but here the ritornello and its associated motives pervade virtually every bar. In music such as this, Bach appears to generate diversity out of a single unit in order to create a musical universe based on the most economical means.
A similar approach, but with completely different musical material, is easily recognized in the opening movement of the Violin Concerto in E major, BWV1042, a work that Bach most probably composed during his years as court Kapellmeister at Cöthen (1717–23). Here the opening triad is particularly memorable, and when the solo violin plays independent material, fragments of the ritornello continually interrupt, as if to reaffirm its dominance. It is tempting to see Bach’s approach as an allegory of his position in court life (which itself was to him a microcosm of God’s wider order): the individual’s expression must be articulated entirely within the hierarchy of the princedom, and only once this relationship has been fully established can the soloist be accorded more freedom, as the piece unfolds. Not only is the opening repeated at the end, but so in fact is the entire first section, as a da capo, in a structural device that Bach was more accustomed to use in his sonatas than his concertos. Thus the increasing thematic independence of the violin is checked by a return to the initial order; or, rather, it is framed and supported by the two outer pillars. In the central movement the violin commands the stage with its long, lyrical lines expressing anything but an outer, objective, courtly order. Nevertheless, this is supported by an ostinato bass pattern, which preserves the same motivic content through virtually every bar of the piece. Thus, the most heartfelt expression is heard only against an unobtrusive, but entirely necessary, bass line, again representing the individual within the context of an indispensable background order. Exactly the same sort of relationships are evident in the final movement, a joyous dance (rondo) whose opening theme returns, with almost mechanical regularity, in the tonic of E, while the violin part develops the episodes with ever increasing virtuosity.
Given that Bach was well acquainted with many of the concertos of Vivaldi, it is interesting to note that the latter’s Op 3, L’Estro armonico (1711), contains two concertos in A minor that are notable for their clarity and incisiveness. Bach undoubtedly sought something of this quality when he wrote his own A minor Concerto (probably soon after taking over the Leipzig Collegium Musicum in 1729). Although he probably did not adhere as rigidly to stylistic and affective associations for certain keys as some scholars would like to believe, the key of A minor is particularly suited to the violin and its performance style since all four open strings correspond to important notes in the scale and its relative C major.
The opening allegro is one of Bach’s most refined concerto movements, its sections seeming to succeed one another and return with an effortlessness that never descends into routine. A particularly interesting feature is the way musical elements are extended into progressively longer phrases, giving the sense of the soloist developing his own voice as the piece proceeds. Equally striking is the way solo and accompaniment are beautifully balanced, the one growing out of, and complementing, the other. To refer to the two contradictory etymologies for the word ‘concerto’—to agree and to dispute—this concerto uses the forces normally associated with disputation (solo versus orchestra) to present a particularly ‘agreeable’ dialogue.
The second movement follows a scheme that Bach seems to have associated particularly with violin concertos, since it is found both in the E major Concerto (as noted above) and in what is most likely a further one, that in D minor, BWV1052 (which survives only as a harpsichord concerto). The use of the ostinato principle here creates something of a mesmerizing effect, and the movement is perhaps more of a ‘state’ than a sequence of events.
The A minor Concerto’s lively, dance-like finale is perhaps Bach’s most animated and carefree movement in the minor mode. Somewhat reminiscent of the rondo form that concludes the E major Concerto, it is in fact a rather more sophisticated affair, with a fugal ritornello that returns in different keys and forms. Although the music seldom falls into the regular phrasing of an actual dance, every bar has the characteristic swing of a gigue. Increasingly, the soloist seems to make attempts to break out into purely virtuoso display, as if threating anarchy within the music form; but the ritornello process ultimately wins out, if seemingly at the last minute.
The Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV1043, also survives as a later concerto for two harpsichords, and like all Bach’s concertos for multiple instruments, it clearly served several functions. The surviving sources suggest that it may have originated in its two-violin version during the early years of Bach’s association with the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, although an earlier origin for some of the music is not impossible. While many have suggested that the harpsichord version (and other concertos for multiple harpsichords) was obviously devised for Bach’s sons, it may well be that they were also among the violinists who could have played this piece: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach had after all studied the violin with Johann Gottfried Graun in Merseburg. Bach himself was also well known as a violinist, at least in his earlier years, so it is quite possible that he too could have been among the concerto’s original soloists.
Whatever its origins, the work was doubtless heard several times during Bach’s collegium years. As ever, it capitalizes on the vigour, momentum and formal pacing of the popular modern Italian concerto, to which are added a more fugal and imitative texture and a constant teasing of the listener as to which elements will be reused, and when. This is also one of Bach’s most richly melodic works, most obviously in the central Largo ma non tanto. The first movement too, greatly benefits from its opening material, a phrase that works both alone and in various forms of imitation and contraction; it also contains its own sense of melodic and rhythmic momentum, one that seems to infect the movement as a whole. The most dazzling moments are saved for the finale, a drama of motives, idioms and contrasting textures held together by an unstoppable harmonic drive. Bach seems to have generated this diversity out of a small number of units, gestures that always sound new and unexpected when heard in the sequence of the movement.
John Butt © 2015