Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications. He
has written program essays for organizations and ensembles throughout the U.S. and Europe and for recordings
ranging from J.S. Bach to Kati Agócs.
Simone Dinnerstein’s conception in bringing together this music and these performers is a celebration of musical friendships mirroring the circumstances and spirit in which many of these pieces were originally presented. The concertos here were all created for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a society of professional and amateur musicians founded by the great German composer Georg Philipp Telemann in 1702. Johann Sebastian Bach was its director from 1729 until the early 1740s (with a couple of breaks), and his concentration on keyboard concertos during the 1730s was a direct result of the Collegium’s activities. In Bach’s time, the Collegium gave concerts weekly—Wednesdays outdoors during the summer, Fridays typically at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house during colder months. In addition to other composers, the group played works by Bach himself, among them the Coffee and Peasant cantatas, chamber music, and concertos, including the works on this program.
Connecting this occasion further to that Leipzig tradition of communal music-making, the concert opens with a transcription for piano 4-hands of Bach’s setting of the Lutheran hymn O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (“O innocent Lamb of God”) by the prominent Hungarian composer György Kurtág (b. 1926). Performed by Dinnerstein and Awadagin Pratt, Kurtág’s transcription was originally made for Kurtág and his wife Márta to perform together for recitals integrating transcription and homage (Bach, Schumann, Debussy, and others) with works from Kurtág’s own expansive, open-ended Játékok (“Games”) series.
Both of the two works for solo keyboard—the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and movements from Die Kunst der Fuge (“The Art of Fugue”)—represent Bach’s lifelong fascination with counterpoint’s expressive possibilities. (It is largely this facet of Bach’s compositional technique, unrivaled in any other composer, that sets his concertos apart from their Italian models.) The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue was probably composed at about the same time as Bach’s Brandenburg concertos and the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier in the city of Köthen in the late 1710s. The piece is in two big sections. The improvisatory, virtuosic Fantasia, which establishes the work’s wide harmonic range, serves the purpose of the introductory prelude that precedes virtually all of Bach’s fugues (e.g., the 48 in the Well-Tempered Clavier; the preludes in the solo violin sonatas). The fugue subject, or theme, is anchored on a series of four rising half-steps. Bach simultaneously amplifies the chromatic sonority introduced by the Fantasia and illustrates its value within the fugue’s structural elegance.
Along with the Goldberg Variations and A Musical Offering, Die Kunst der Fuge is the culmination of Bach’s mastery of counterpoint. The surviving, incomplete manuscript of Die Kunst der Fuge includes fourteen fugues and four canons of increasing complexity. The posthumously published version incorporates four more pieces, concluding with the most elaborately conceived movement, an unfinished four-subject fugue with the composer’s B-A-C-H (B-flat–A–C–B-natural) musical signature as a countersubject. All of the pieces are built upon the same D minor theme, sketching out a D minor arpeggio followed by a turning scale ending again on D. The three selections here illustrate three levels of contrapuntal intricacy. Contrapunctus I treats the theme only in its original form in a four-voice fugue. Contrapunctus IV uses a quicker version of the fugue, inverted, or flipped over: the rising fifth of the original becomes the falling fifth of the inversion, the rising scale a falling one. The fast Contrupunctus IX begins with a fugue on a new subject, to which Die Kunst der Fuge’s main subject (the one heard prominently in Contrapunctus I) is added as a slower-moving second theme. These layers of increasing complexity define the nature of Die Kunst der Fuge as a whole.
The concerto was a relatively young genre at the start of the 1700s, becoming a central concern for German composers outside of Italy with the astonishing success of the Venetian violinist Antonio Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico, a collection of twelve concertos for stringed instruments published in Amsterdam in 1711. Bach took up Vivaldi’s models for his own study of the genre and in time created a parallel repertoire for solo keyboard instrument with orchestra. In fact, he is credited with inventing the keyboard concerto with his Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (ca. 1721). The concertos he wrote during the 1730s greatly enhanced this new repertoire and became the models for later generations.
Most of these keyboard concertos —those for solo keyboard and accompaniment, BWV 1052–59, and those for multiple keyboards and accompaniment, BWV 1060–64—are based on lost earlier works by Bach himself for solo instruments other than keyboard. The concerto for four keyboards, BWV 1065, is based on a Vivaldi concerto for four violins and ensemble. Bach’s process in reimagining these works was fairly straightforward: he first wrote out the original solo part nearly in its entirety, then made changes, some of them extensive, to accommodate the line for the harpsichord, filling in the left-hand parts as well. He would accommodate the limit of the harpsichord’s upper register compared to the violin by lowering the key by a step. In the 1720s, when his primary duties in Leipzig included composing for church services, Bach had already revisited some of his early concertos by incorporating them in whole or in part into his church cantatas. Some of these were, in turn, recomposed for the secular, instrumental performances of the Collegium.
The two-keyboard Concerto in C minor, BWV 1062, has as its basis the well-known Double Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV 1043, composed for the Collegium Musicum around 1730. The keyboard version dates from about 1736. The quick first movement is in constant motion, a rising sixteenth-note scale that gets passed around, fugue-like, before the soloists begin their episodes featuring contrasting, falling scales. The orchestral accompaniment primarily provides sharp punctuating commentary. The E-flat major second movement, Andante e piano (slow and calm), is a double aria, or singing melody, in a sedate 12/8 meter. The finale, Allegro assai, bounces short figures between the orchestra and the soloists, creating the tension and energy that propels the movement. Scholars surmise that the F minor concerto for single keyboard and ensemble, BWV 1056, is based on an earlier work in G minor for either solo violin or solo oboe. A version, featuring solo oboe, of the middle movement of the concerto is the opening Sinfonia of Bach’s Cantata 156, Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, from 1729. In addition, the first two bars of this movement are identical to the first measures of a Telemann flute concerto (one of several instances of musical sharing between Bach and Telemann).
The F minor concerto is in three short movements: fast (no tempo marking), slow (marked Largo in one version, Adagio in another), fast (Presto). The opening movement features a thematic idea shared by the piano and orchestra; by itself, the piano “echoes” the end of each phrase, an idea revisited in the finale. To the relatively square, two-beat theme are contrasted the expansive, triplet-based solo excursions.
The slow middle movement in A-flat major is justly famous for its singing, ornamented melody and its expressive excursions into minor keys. Ensemble accompaniment is sparse. The Presto finale, in 3/8 meter, features a rising theme with a syncopated detail throwing the dancing meter off balance. The second half of the theme, predominantly falling, inverts and balances the first half, and the violins’ phrase-ending echoes complement the soloist’s in the first movement. (In a further reminder of the integrated nature of Bach’s music throughout his life, these little echoes may remind one of the “echo chorus” in the fourth part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, also composed in the 1730s, and in the oratorio’s source cantata, Hercules at the Crossroads, BWV 213.)
The Concerto in C major for three keyboards, BWV 1064, is likely based on an original in D major for three violins. The manuscript of the keyboard version is lost; the earliest copy, not in Bach’s own hand, dates from later in the decade. Because of its buoyancy and the paucity of repertoire for three keyboard soloists, this became a bit of a party-piece through the years, with adherents including Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Clara Schumann in the 19th century. The opening Allegro is lofty and elegant, offering ample opportunity for varieties of texture from tutti to single soloists trading brief figures that one can follow from one keyboard to the next. The bittersweet Adagio in A minor features intricate contrapuntal exchange among the three soloists along with substantial orchestral passages and poignant harmonic dissonances. The final movement’s impulsive rhythmic drive derives from its rising initial melody and extended sequential passages. Each of the soloists has an extended opportunity to take the limelight.
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