About Concertos for Violin & Orchestra BWV 1041-1043 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
About Concertos for Keyboard & Orchestra BWV 1052-1065 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
The French Ensemble Cafe Zimmermann, conducted by violinist Pablo Valetti and harpsichord player Celine Frisch, is renowned throughout the world for the clarity and precision of its interpretations and its extraordinary collective virtuosity. This recording is the fourth volume of Bach's complete orchestral works, a series which was initiated by Alpha in 2001.
This disc offers balanced repertoire, virtuosic performances, life-like sound, and beautiful cover reproduction. As in the previous three recordings of Bach's concertos by Cafe Zimmermann, the program here balances soloists and tonalities for maximum effectiveness. The disc starts with the moving Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041; follows it with the cheerful Concerto for two harpsichords in C major, BWV 1061; follows that with melancholy in the Concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord in A minor, BWV 1044; and concludes with the joyous Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 for trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin in F major (BWV 1047). And as with the group's previous discs in this series, the performances are everything one could hope for. A 12-piece chamber orchestra playing on period instruments, Cafe Zimmermann has the strength, agility, and intuitive cohesion of a great jazz band, and its performances here rival the finest ever made for insight, affection, and excitement. Listeners familiar with the label's sound and cover reproductions will be unsurprised at their high quality; anyone unfamiliar with them will likely be astounded by the sound's clarity and immediacy and astonished by the cover's rich colors and vivid details. In short, anyone who enjoys great Bach, great playing, great sound, and great covers will surely enjoy this disc as well as with the previous three in this series.
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Bach: Four Concertos
Concertos for several instruments, vol. III
The Violin Concerto in A minor BWV 1041 dates from the period Bach spent as Konzertmeister of the principality of Anhalt-Coethcn, from December 1717 to May 1723. The ruler of that small state with a population of some four thousand five hundred souls was a young man who loved and understood music. After studying in Berlin, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Coethen had made the Grand Tour, visiting cities from London to Rome and from Paris to Venice, during which time he had received lessons from Johann David Heinichen, amongst others. We are told that he returned with a fine singing voice and as an accomplished violinist, violist and harpsichordist. His favourite instrument was the viola da gamba, which he would play with his musicians at the daily concerts given by his court orchestra. He had gathered together seventeen virtuosos to form an ensemble that was particularly noted for its strings, and he wanted Bach to be its conductor.
Bach, who was held in very high esteem at the court of his young friend and patron, provided the orchestra with a considerable amount of chamber music, sonatas and concertos for various instruments. And he participated actively in the concerts himself, conducting from the harpsichord or, more often, while playing the violin. His second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, wrote: 'He liked best to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness. In his youth, and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and thus kept the orchestra in better order than he could have done with the harpsichord. He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments. This is evidenced by his solos for the violin and for the violoncello without bass.'
Unfortunately we must assume that most of the originals of the dozens of concertos that Bach wrote for Coethen have been lost. Later, when he was at Leipzig, the musicians of his Collegium Musicum were not as experienced as those he had worked with at Coethen, with the notable exception of the harpsichordists, that is to say, himself and his sons and pupils. Consequently he adapted for the harpsichord many of the concertos he had composed for Coethen. But fortunately three violin concertos, two for solo violin and one for two violins, have survived in their original form. All of them are clearly Italian concertos. The Concerto in A minor, shows how Italian music influenced Bach, although it bears his unmistakeable stamp. In the elaborate and densely textured opening movement, he smoothes out the contrast between the subtly interwoven soli and tutti. In the impressive Andante a slow march is heard over a majestic repeated bass figure, while the soloist develops a marvellously ornate melody. The final movement is a wild, vigorous and very virtuosic gigue: we can imagine Bach himself playing it at court, while simultaneously conducting the orchestra.
The six concertos that Bach presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721 also date from the Coethen period. Partly based on earlier pieces, these six works illustrate the great diversity and originality of Bach's art as a composer. His Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major BWV 1047, in the form of an Italian concerto, features an unusually disparate grouping of solo instruments: trumpet in F, recorder, oboe and violin. Although the trumpet sometimes appears to take the lion's share, Bach sets the four instruments on an equal footing. Rather than blending their timbres, he sets up a very varied dialogue between them and with the ripieno, as in the Corellian concerto grosso. Still respecting the three-movement structure, the concerto opens with an intricately constructed and very busy Allegro in which the soloists develop small secondary elements, while the ripieno repeats the introductory motif. The following Andante in D minor, a short, lyrical contemplation, possibly comes from an earlier sonata. The trumpet rests here, while the other soloists indulge in an admirable dialogue a trois: the main melodic idea, short and simple, is introduced by the violin, then taken up by the oboe and finally by the recorder, over a gently moving continuo bass. The acrobatic virtuosity of the trumpet dominates the fugally treated final movement, Allegro assai. With brilliance the instrument declaims a lively melody, which is then developed contrapuntally, with concision and volubility, by the other three soloists and the strings of the ripieno: there is a regular build-up of intensity, with first the soloists, then the dialogue soli-tutti, and finally all the instruments together.
As the many contemporary copies in existence show, the Fifth of Bach's Six Brandenburg Concerto soon acquired great popularity. One of those copies, made by Bach's pupil and later son-in-law Altnickol, indicates that it was probably initially intended for household concerts in the Cantor's Leipzig home, and for the Collegium Musicum concerts at Zimmermann's Coffee House. Bach's oeuvre includes a later, lesser-known piece for the same three instruments: the Concerto in A minor for flute, violin, harpsichord and strings BWV 1044. Unlike the earlier masterpiece, which shows Bach at the height of his achievement, the Concerto BWV 1044 is a piece based on earlier compositions, and its authenticity as a work by Bach has been challenged.
This concerto is known through a manuscript in the hand of Johann Gottfried Muthel (1728-1788), a late (possibly the last) private student of the composer in Leipzig, who, like Altnickol and Kittel in particular, made copies of some of his master's works. But is this a copy of a Bach original? If we look at it closely, the style is noticeably different from that of the other concertos dating from the Coethen period: the extended first-movement theme and the ornamentation are not typical of Bach. A high F appears several times in the second movement, a note that was not possible with the more limited range of Bach's keyboards. Furthermore, musicians who play this work tend not to feel Bach's very distinctive style. Such elements have led musicologists to doubt Bach's authorship, although they could indicate that the work dates from much later. The A-minor Concerto is nevertheless based on works by Bach: the keyboard Prelude & Fugue, also in A minor, BWV 894, and the Trio Sonata in D minor BWV 527. So if Bach himself, who often adapted his own works, was not the author of this 'triple' concerto, then who was? One of his older sons perhaps, or (why not?) Muthel himself, maybe working under his master's supervision?
Whoever the transcriber was, the result is remarkable. BWV 1044 adopts the three-movement pattern of the Italian concerto. The Prelude and the Fugue of BWV 894 are used for the outer movements - Bach himself carried out a similar process several times - and, while adapting the keys to create a coherent whole, the author has inserted between them a slow movement borrowed from BWV 527 (second movement) or its prototype, with the addition of various reprises. The keyboard Prelude on which the first movement is based was written at Weimar, when Bach, keenly interested in the Italian style and wishing to learn from it, copied, transcribed and adapted works by Vivaldi and others. The original Prelude already has a concerted structure, with contrasting soli and tutti, but this is by no means a quick adaptation or a simple 'orchestration'; the whole has been so carefully reworked that the transcriber has created a new piece from the existing material. The structure has been strengthened by the use of a ritornello based on the first bar of the original prelude. The harpsichord part breaks free, becoming gradually more liberated as the movement proceeds, until, as in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, which may have served as a model, it gives out bursts of demisemiquavers, which we find, of course, in the original, but which are more impressive here, in the concerted context. Furthermore, exactly as in Bach's transcriptions for solo keyboard based on Italian concertos for orchestra (but here the other way round), the transcription pays particular attention to the elaboration of new melodic parts for the solo instruments, making full use of the motifs found in the original: garlands of semiquaver triplets and vigorous dotted figures, which enrich the discourse considerably and make it into a pure concerto allegro movement. The second movement is identical to that of the Trio Sonata No. 3 for organ, Adagio e dolce, and it is likely that both stem from a trio sonata, now lost, dating from the Coethen period. The writing, for the three solo instruments only, is enriched by the addition of a fourth voice, in the form of ascending and descending arpeggiated chords shared and played alternately by the violin and the flute. The author proceeds differendy in his transcription for the final Allabreve of the BWV 527 Fugue. The original material is dissected and entrusted to the solo instruments, while new tutti sections are added, at the beginning, middle and end, and also at strategic points in the movement to structure its flow. As in the first movement, the harpsichord part with its brief cadenza requires the very nimble fingers of a fine virtuoso. Why not those of Bach himself?
Of all the concertos for one harpsichord or more and strings, the Concerto in C major for two harpsichords and strings BWV 1061 is, as far as we know at the moment, the only original clavier composition. Unlike the others, it appears to date from the end of the Weimar period, when Bach discovered the Italian concerto, rather than from Leipzig. Little is known about its gestation. Its two keyboard parts exist in autograph, assisted, completed and revised by Bach's wife Anna Magdalena, but the string parts are not preserved in Bach's own hand. Thus it seems quite likely that it was first composed as an unaccompanied duet for two harpsichords, and that the orchestration was added later, perhaps by someone other than Bach. The strings are not heard at all in the middle movement, a melancholy siciliano, marked Adagio ovvero Largo, and they participate only briefly in the last movement, an admirable fugue in four distinct sections. The lively first movement is contrapuntally dense. Forkel, Bach's first biographer, writing in 1802, found this concerto 'as new as if it had been written yesterday; it may be played entirely without the stringed instruments and still be admirable in its effect.'
- Gilles Cantagrel (translation: Mary Pardoe)