Thursday, May 30, 2013

Johann Sebastian Bach: Multiple Concerti

This is another excellent Naxos label recording from 1995 by the Cologne (Germany) Chamber Orchestra of four concerti by the great baroque master, J. S. Bach.  In this case, the use of the harpsichord and recorder provide for original instrumentation that give a close approximation of how this amazing music would have sounded when the composer wrote and performed the pieces over three centuries ago.

Except that  it is not known what instruments were utilized by Bach when these were created, except for the harpsichord.  Existing necrologies, catalogs of the works, only, as the liner notes by Peter Wollny indicate, listed, "a quantity of other instrumental works of all kinds and for various instruments," although a given concerto could include up to four harpsichords.

Bach's works for organ and the harpsichord or other keyboard instruments are far more known than the most ensemble pieces, such as these, though the Brandenburg Concertos are very popular, but he did compose a great many concertos and the author of the notes speculated that the sheer quantity may have precluded specific descriptions of the instrumentation used for them by his son, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricola in their necrology.  Alternatively, he worked much of his life in the employ of German royalty and may have left many of his concerto manuscripts in the places he worked as part of his contracts.

In any case, these are beautiful works, light, stately, filled with gorgeous melodies and harmonic interplay between the instruments.  As pointed out in the notes, one of these, the F Major, was the original version of the famed fourth Brandenburg Concerto, with the original's organ part transcribed for the violin, while the first in the set, the A Minor (also known as the Triple Concerto, because of its instrumentation of harpsichord, flute and violin), is related to the fifth Brandenburg in style.  Moreover, we learn from the liners that the first two movements come from earlier works, namely the Prelude with a Fugue and the Trio Sonata for organ.

The D Minor is for three harpsichords and the orchestra and it was thought by some that Bach wrote this for himself and his two older sons for their development as musicians, though the author of the notes disputes this on the basis of how the solo instruments were scored.

The D Major, of which surviving versions are for either two or three harpsichords and orchestra, but accepted practice is to use three violins or violin and oboe.  Wollny observes that it "is a work of great density and almost symphonic dimensions," which is why an orchestra was employed in those surviving versions.  As he notes, the soloists perform very complex and difficult sections in the first movement and there the allegro tempo is repeated in the third movement, while a very beautiful melodic line comes in the second movement's adagio form.

It is still hard to believe that, in his time, Bach was better known as an organist than a composer, with his reputation in the latter not coming to the fore until over a half-century after his death.  These concertos are great examples of his genius and are well performed by an excellent chamber ensemble and issued by a superior budget label.

Johann Sebastian Bach:  Multiple Concerti  (Naxos, 1995)

Concerto in A Minor  21:56
Concerto in F Major  15:03
Concerto in D Minor  13:24
Concerto in D Major  16:32

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