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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Harpsichord Concertos Nos 2, 5 & 6

Andrew Arthur (harpsichord), The Hanover Band Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
Church of St Nicholas, Arundel, United Kingdom
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Paul Crichton
Release date: August 2023
Total duration: 68 minutes 27 seconds

Andrew Arthur and The Hanover Band complete their infectiously enthusiastic traversal of Bach's seven harpsichord concertos, true cornerstones of the repertoire.

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In March, 1721, during his employment as Kapellmeister to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, Johann Sebastian Bach presented an extraordinary manuscript containing six Concerts avec plusieurs instruments to the Margrave of Brandenburg. We do not know exactly when these remarkable and diverse works were penned; some of them may have been newly composed for the dedication, but others most certainly represent re-workings or refinements to earlier existing works/models. The fifth concerto of the set is one such example—its earliest version dating from the late 1710s. The appearance in this concerto of the harpsichord within the solo group (partnered with violin and transverse flute) was a ground-breaking venture: whereas the keyboard was already well-established as a solo instrument in its own right, its role within chamber and orchestral music had hitherto been shackled to the basso continuo section; its appearance here then as a solo concerto instrument was unprecedented and BWV1050 is often thus credited as representing the birth of the harpsichord concerto.

The remaining concertos for solo harpsichord and strings are closely linked to Bach’s time in Leipzig. The principal extant source is that of a rough ‘working’ autograph manuscript dating from c1738 which initially presents a numbered set of six concertos, BWV1052-1057 (i.e. a complete opus) followed by BWV1058 and an additional fragment, catalogued as BWV1059. Although scholarly opinion remains divided, it is generally accepted that at least some of the concertos contained therein are revisions of existing keyboard concertos from the early 1730s or re-workings of other instrumental works and cantata movements featuring violin, woodwind instruments or organ as the solo voice. But whatever their provenance, these works, together with the Triple Concerto, BWV1044, Brandenburg Concerto No 5, BWV1050 and the concertos for two, three and four harpsichords, BWV1060-1065, represent the culmination of Bach’s innovative long-term exploration of the harpsichord’s potential as a concertante instrument.

It seems most likely that the harpsichord concertos were first intended for performance by members of the Collegium Musicum, Leipzig’s famous bourgeois music society founded by Telemann in 1702, whose regular concerts Bach directed (typically from the violin) between 1729 and 1741. The routine indoor setting for these performances—Gottfried Zimmermann’s Leipzig coffee-house on Katherstraße—certainly would have provided an ideally sized space for the harpsichord(s) to be heard successfully in a ‘soloistic’ capacity alongside the single string forces that were typically employed for these events. Moreover, Zimmermann’s sponsorship of the Collegium Musicum stretched to the provision of some fine new instruments—including violoncellos, violones and harpsichords—the latter of which, no doubt, would have provided an impetus to showcase these keyboard concertos alongside other chamber works which featured the harpsichord in an equal partnering obbligato role with the violin, BWV1014-1019, viola da gamba, BWV1027-1029 and flute, BWV1030-1033.

Bach’s harpsichord concertos undoubtedly owe much to the composer’s earlier forays into the instrumental Italian concerto form during his early employment as a court musician in Weimar (1708-17). His patron at the time, Johann Ernst III, Duke of Saxe-Weimar (himself an accomplished amateur violinist, keyboard player and composer), undertook a period of study in Utrecht from where he is known to have had sent back to Weimar a number of collections of new Italian music, including Vivaldi’s celebrated set of twelve concerti, L’estro armonico, Op 3, first published in Amsterdam in 1711. Bach evidently undertook a scrupulous study of these new compositions as, whether through self-motivation or at the behest of his Patron, he set about transcribing, for solo organ and solo harpsichord, several of the concertos from Vivaldi’s Op 3, alongside a number of other Italian composers’ works, most notably those examples by Corelli and Marcello. Whilst these virtuoso transcriptions make no use of accompanying instruments, they nonetheless represent the first examples of solo keyboard music presented in concerto form—models which, no doubt, provided a point of departure for Bach’s original keyboard work, the Italian Concerto, BWV971, published in Leipzig in 1735. And it is surely not too fanciful to suggest that these early keyboard concerto transcriptions may have sewn the initial seeds of inspiration behind Bach’s later concertos for harpsichord & strings; the structural and stylistic influence of the Italian style upon these works is unmistakable and, as late as 1730, Bach completed an ambitious transcription of a further concerto from Vivaldi’s Op 3 collection—this time the Concerto No 10 for four violins, recast here as the Concerto for four harpsichords and strings, BWV1065.

At first glance of the score, the brilliance of the harpsichord writing in the opening Allegro of the ‘Brandenburg’ Concerto No 5, BWV1050, is immediately conspicuous. And yet, despite the complexity of its material compared with that assigned to either of the other solo instruments, the keyboard initially sits quite modestly, from an aural perspective, within the overall musical texture; far from dominating the solo group, the harpsichord’s elaborate figuration serves, more often than not, simply to provide a sequential harmonic back-bone upon which thematic dialogue between the violin and flute progresses. As the movement advances, however, the lively keyboard passagework gains increasingly in both prominence and virtuosity, ultimately culminating in a dazzling solo 'senza stromenti'—a cadenza in all but name—in which the keyboard is audaciously thrust to the centre-stage for nearly one third of the total duration of the movement until normal order is restored at the arrival of the final instrumental ritornello. The Affettuoso in B minor, seemingly based upon a theme by Louis Marchand, features only the solo group (excluding, therefore, a bowed bass instrument). The musical texture alternates between that of a trio sonata (the keyboard returning to its traditional role of providing an improvised figured bass accompaniment) and passages where the right hand of the harpsichord part is assigned obbligato melodic material on equal terms with the other treble instruments, resulting in a sonata a quattro. The exuberance of the final Allegro—a delightfully playful gigue—belies the movement’s contrapuntal complexity and innovative structural design which so effortlessly integrates elements of the ritornello concerto, rondo and fugue within the form of a da capo aria.

It has been conjectured that the Concerto in E major, BWV1053 owes its origins to a since lost woodwind concerto. However, as with the first concerto of the opus (BWV1052), material from all three movements also appears within Bach’s cantata oeuvre—in all cases featuring the organ as the obbligato solo voice: here, the outer movements are employed as the instrumental sinfonias to the 1726 cantatas Gott soll allein, mein Herze haben, BWV169 (in the lower key of D major) and Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen, BWV49. In both cases the solo part in the harpsichord version is developed considerably from these earlier models—a fully integrated imitative keyboard figuration replacing the original, comparatively primitive figured bassline, and the right-hand part becoming far more complex and ornamental. The final sprightly Allegro in particular benefits from far greater rhythmic fluidity than that found in the cantata as a result of the introduction of semiquaver triplets within the melodic material as well as the exhilarating wave-like arpeggios that surge resolutely to and fro across the compass of the keyboard. By contrast, the central yearning Siciliano in C-sharp minor presents the harpsichord in an altogether more tender light; a gently arpeggiated realisation of the harmony accompanies the expressive opening and closing string ritornelli which encase a delicately wrought cantilena—Bach’s skilful adaptation of the second alto aria of BWV169, Stirb in mir, Welt (composed in the lower key of B minor), in which the solo vocal line is entwined with the increasingly chromatic explorations of the obbligato organ part.

The smallest in scale of all Bach’s keyboard concerti, and perhaps the darkest in both mood and sonority, the Concerto in F minor, BWV1056 is thought to be a transposed adaptation of an original Violin Concerto in G minor. It is interesting to note that a fair copy of the keyboard concerto scribed by none other than the composer’s biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, also presents the work in the higher key of G minor—perhaps adding further credence to the work’s supposed provenance. The outer movements share a number of characteristics with those of BWV1053 & 1055: there is an increased frequency of alternation between concertato harpsichord and ripieno than that found in the other three concertos within the opus; a lighter string scoring is also evident allowing, in the final Presto, an occasional equal partnership between harpsichord and solo violin to emerge, recalling the trio-sonata textures explored within the composer’s six Sonatas for violin & obbligato harpsichord, BWV1014-1019. The Adagio is an arrangement of the melodious Sinfonia from the 1729 cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuβ im Grabe, BWV156, in which the oboe is featured as the solo instrument. Here in the keyboard version (whilst the various source materials suggest some ambiguity) Bach appears to call for the use of a pizzicato string accompaniment—a special effect which appears only with the greatest of rarity within Bach’s oeuvre and which here serves to amplify the cantabile quality of the solo melody played in the right-hand of the harpsichord part. Brief pizzicato indications are also evident in the opening movement, creating a dialogue of string timbres perhaps intended to mimic the echo effects displayed between tutti and solo keyboard in the ritornelli of both outer movements.

The Concerto in F major, BWV1057 is a transposed arrangement of Bach’s celebrated Brandenburg Concerto No 4 in G major, BWV1049. Signed off in the 1738 autograph score with the composer’s customary marking 'Finis.S.D.Gl.' ('Soli Deo Gloria'), BWV1057 is the sixth and final concerto of the opus (BWV1052-1057) and is the first to incorporate woodwind instruments alongside the established string ensemble scoring. The extraordinary virtuosity displayed by the solo violin in the outer movements of the original ‘Brandenburg’ Concerto is here recast for solo harpsichord to quite brilliant effect—culminating in the final movement, where the violin’s rapid bariolage is replaced with a sparkling pyrotechnical keyboard figuration of semiquavers dispatched at a rate of some eight hundred notes per minute! In the Sarabande-like Andante Bach redistributes the instrumental roles, here assigning the harpsichord to the echo effects previously offered to the recorders thus further exaggerating the dynamic contrast between solo and tutti forces. The opening ritornello of the final movement presents a five-part fugal exposition; the episodic material which falls between the subsequent tuttis is characterised not so much by new material (indeed, there are only a few places in the entire movement where reference to some aspect of the bipartite fugue subject is absent), but by the seemingly exhaustive contrasts of colour and texture achieved within the available instrumentation: music is composed for harpsichord alone, harpsichord with two recorders, harpsichord with bowed bass, harpsichord with two violins and bowed bass, harpsichord with tutti strings and harpsichord with strings and recorders in dialogue.

Despite the considerable virtuosic demands made upon the keyboard player at various points within these concertos, the harpsichord remains, for the most part, fully integrated as a texture within the overall ensemble, rather than standing out as a ‘soloist’ in the modern sense; the ethos of a concerto keyboard instrument vying for pole position against an instrumental ensemble remained, at this stage, a concept of the future. Indeed, any notion that these works (or recordings of them) should reveal a harpsichord-dominated texture is entirely misplaced; rather, these concertos are chamber music in which the harpsichord emerges to, but also frequently retreats from prominence in relation to the specific nature of the varying instrumental textures, and in which all of the contributing instruments (whether concertato or ripieno) play an equal and complementary role.

Andrew Arthur © 2023

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