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Bach Piano Concertos

CONCERTO CAMARADERIE: Bach’s Keyboard Concertos

Johann Sebastian Bach was a master of counterpoint not only in the literal sense, but in a stylistic one as well. He regularly drew on traits and techniques from composers outside the Northern European tradition, synthesizing impulses he found in French and Italian composers. Still another type of metaphorical counterpoint comes into the picture when performing Bach: this is what Simone Dinnerstein refers to as “the idea of camaraderie,” of musicians, each with her or his own personality, who “enjoy playing together.”

For this concert devoted to keyboard works by Bach, Dinnerstein is joined by colleagues in performing examples of concertos for multiple keyboards. “This camaraderie is an element of Bach’s music that I usually don’t focus on so much myself when performing as a soloist,” she explains. “But I feel this is something that he also must have thought about during these situations, while making music with colleagues.” Dinnerstein wanted to be joined by fellow musicians “who do not necessarily think of Bach in an academic way but approach these pieces as living music — music that is alive because we are playing it today.”


For One Soloist

Along with his concertos for a single keyboard soloist, Bach’s surviving catalogue includes works for groups of multiple soloists, ranging from two to four. He and his sons may well have played the solo parts in performances of these works at Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig, a venue for secular music- making that offered Bach an opportunity to try out some of his new or reworked instrumental pieces, accompanied by string orchestra and continuo.

Seven solo harpsichord concertos survive from a manuscript Bach copied out in the 1730s (BWV 1052-1058), of which the first six were evidently intended to form a self-standing collection. (Bach kept the seventh separate, and a brief sketch for an eighth, including oboe [BWV 1059], also belongs to this manuscript.) Like almost all of his harpsichord concertos, the Concerto in F minor (BWV 1056) likely originates from pre-existing music. The sources here are thought to be a lost violin concerto (the outer movements) and an oboe concerto (the Largo), which Bach also recycled for one of his cantatas. This slow movement has moreover been recognized as similar to the corresponding movement of a concerto by Georg Philipp Telemann (a friend of Bach’s).


Bach’s Experiments for Two, Three, and Four Soloists

Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who published the first biography of Bach in 1802, remarks: “It almost seems as if Bach at this period had made up his mind to discover what could be done with any number of parts.” While, at one end of the spectrum (as in the Cello Suites and Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin), Bach had written for a single instrument with no accompaniment, he decided to “experiment in dividing his material between as large a number of solo instruments as possible.”

We hear two of the three extant concertos for two keyboards. The Concerto in C minor (BWV 1060) likely reworks a lost double concerto (either for violin and oboe or two violins) that Bach had written during the post at Cöthen — the one preceding his Leipzig position — when he had ample opportunity to focus on instrumental music.

Dinnerstein, who prizes the Adagio as among her favorite Bach movements, emphasizes the element of exibility in Bach’s music, especially as this pertains to the makeup of the concertos. “He was constantly rearranging compositions, so that these pieces are more fluid than is sometimes recognized. Even the approach of playing these concertos on pianos instead of harpsichords mirrors that fluidity. It’s another arrangement of an arrangement Bach made from something in an earlier format.”

The Concerto in C Major (BWV 1061) is thought to represent the only harpsichord concerto that was originally conceived for the harpsichord — rather than as a transcription from a pre-existing concerto for strings or winds. Bach juxtaposes the two solo instruments in an antiphonal manner, allotting a less important role to the accompanying ensemble (which may be a later addition by another hand); indeed, the orchestra is set aside for the slow middle movement.

The Concerto in D minor (BWV 1063) is one of the two existing concertos for three harpsichords and is known to have been played by Felix Mendelssohn and friends (who knew it as “Bach’s Triple Concerto”). Did Bach conceive this as a showcase for himself and his two eldest sons? Or is it a transcription from multiple sources? There is no definitive answer, but the concerto’s remarkable personality — whatever its original purpose and source — is undeniable and was lauded by Mendelssohn’s circle with good reason. Especially notable is the emotional depth of the Alla Siciliano middle movement and the masterful construction of the outer movements.

One name that must not be omitted in any discussion of Bach’s concertos is that of his Venetian contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi. “Bach owed his development not only to his perpetually improving organ technique,” wrote Albert Schweitzer, “but before all to the study of Legrenzi, Corelli, and Vivaldi, whose music was just then becoming known in Germany. Here he learned...clearness and plasticity of musical structure.”

The four-keyboard Concerto in A minor (BWV 1065) pays direct homage to the Italian master by transcribing one of Vivaldi’s Op. 3 set of 12 string concertos (known as L’estro armonico and published in 1711 — the source for several transcriptions Bach made for harpsichord and organ). For BWV 1065, Bach transcribed Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor for four violins (No. 10 from Op. 3). It’s especially interesting to notice how Bach has transformed the musical ideas with maximum effect for his fleet of keyboards (through the use of arpeggios, for example).


Arranging, Adapting, and Rethinking Bach

Simone Dinnerstein explains that after touring this concerto program for a time in Germany, she wanted to add to its color by including “palette cleansers” between the concertos in the form of transcriptions of other Bach pieces. The Hungarian composer György Kurtág has for decades performed with his pianist wife Márta, periodically adding to his piano four hands repertoire with his collection of Játékok (“Games”) and his transcriptions of Bach and other composers. We hear Kurtág’s arrangement of the adagio first movement (“sonatina”) from the cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (BWV 106) (“God’s Own Time Is The Very Best Of Times”), one of Bach’s very early sacred cantatas. Also known as Actus Tragicus, this cantata was likely written for a funeral service.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), a legendary gure from the golden age of composer-pianists, is also recognized as a major contributor to Bach scholarship for his editions of the keyboard works for modern piano. We hear two of Busoni’s transcriptions of music from Bach cantatas: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 62) (“Now Come, Savior of the Heathens”) and Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140) (“Awake, the Voice Calls Us”) — both from early in his Leipzig period. Busoni published these in 1898 as part of his collection of arrangements of ten Chorale Preludes by Bach.

Busoni also philosophized about the project of transcription as a creative act in his 1907 treatise, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, “Every notation is, in itself, the transcription of an abstract idea. The instant the pen seizes it, the idea loses its original form. The very intention to write down the idea, compels a choice of measure and key.”

Dinnerstein additionally has spiced her program of Bach concertos and arrangements with contemporary music influenced by Bach. For example, regarding her colleague Dan Tepfer, she recounts being intrigued by his improvisations on the Goldberg Variations: “The way jazz musicians think about Bach, so different from the way classical musicians think of it, is always insightful.” Tepfer’s Algorithmic Improvisation on B.A.C.H. shows his interest in approaching music “from a logical point of view” — particularly, his interest in the potential of algorithmic music. Pointing out that an algorithm simply comes down to “a process or a set of rules to be followed in the pursuit of some goal,” Tepfer notes that “Bach loved rules. His music wouldn’t exist as it is without the rules of Baroque counterpoint, and in many of his pieces, he went further, imposing specific constraints on himself such as the rules of a canon, or of a fugue. It’s not a stretch to say that his music lives at the intersection of the spiritual and the algorithmic.”

Tepfer has developed “Acoustic Informatics,” a project that mixes computer algorithms with improvisation, he explains, “all expressed through purely acoustic sound. I improvise at a Yamaha Disklavier player piano, the notes I play are communicated to my computer, programs I’ve written there respond immediately with notes of their own, which are then sent back to the piano for it to play on its own. And since I’m improvising, I can’t help but react to the computer in turn. It’s a duet with the machine that constantly draws new music out of me.”

Tepfer has devised an algorithm employing the notes that “spell” BACH in the German convention (i.e., B- at—A—C—H), which J.S. Bach himself encoded in his work (as, say, Dmitri Shostakovich later would do — using D—E- at—C—H as his signature). “To me,” says Tepfer, “it also serves as a reminder of how logical Bach’s thought process was: he loved taking data from one medium and translating it to another, whether it be in his frequent transcriptions or his use of numbers and letters to generate music. Here I’ll be improvising freely but the piano, controlled by my computer, will react in real time with material that is built from Bach’s four-note cell.” 

Dinnerstein has long collaborated with Philip Lasser, a member of the faculty at the Juilliard School. Intermezzo and Fugatine on the E major Prelude and Fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier belongs to a project Lasser describes as follows: “Many years ago, I used to accompany a wonderful violinist who adored the Preludes and Fugues of Bach’s Well- Tempered Clavier. Often, during breaks in our rehearsals she would sit down at the piano and try to play through some of them. As wonderful a violinist as she was, she was not a very good pianist. I suggested to her that I would write counterpoints to the Well-Tempered Clavier for the violin and she could play those on her instrument while I played the actual Bach at the keyboard. What began as an amusing exercise soon became a passion of mine as I realized the complexities involved in composing out materials which could stand alone as elegant and complete mini-works, while lacing in and out of Bach’s notes without changing any one of his.”

To date, Lasser has written 12 of these counterpoints to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. “Most are for a single-line melodic instrument, like the violin or the flute, but a few, as the one we hear tonight, are for two pianos. In those, one pianist is playing Bach’s music, and one is playing a free and independent work which can be played ‘on top’ of the Bach. Thus my Intermezzo and Fugatine can be played both on their own own and simultaneously with Bach’s E major Prelude and Fugue. More than just melodies to the pre-existing Bach, I have come to discover motivic elements which link the Preludes to their Fugues and can be played identically over both. Through writing these counterparts to his music, I have come to discover musical relationships deep within his notes.

Bach’s music is so great that there is little we can do to damage it. I hope that my musical add-ons shed a new light on the magnificence of Bach’s writing.” 


—Notes by Thomas May