FL 2 3004

J.S. Bach: Italian Concerto and Fantasias for Harpsichord

Release date August 14, 1995
Album code FL 2 3004
Periods Baroque
Genres Piano et autres claviers

Album information

In the context of the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach, harpsichord music occupies a place of choice. Indeed, when Bach chose to publish his own compositions (a rare occurence), he included the four monumental volumes of the Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Exercises), of which three are intended for the Harpsichord. It is the second book of the Clavier-Übung (published in 1735) which contains, among other works, the Concerto in the Italian Style and the French Overture, written, to quote the title page, for the “recreation of the minds of music-lovers.”

The two works bear witness to foreign influence on 18th-century German music, in this case Italian and French orchestral styles seized by Bach and conveyed in harpsichord idiom. By the time he had established himself in Weimar in 1708, Bach had already produced a number of solo harpsichord transcriptions of concertos by Italian masters such as Vivaldi and Marcello; thus after years of copying and adapting these models, he was ready to compose an Italian concerto on his own terms. The Concerto in the Italian Style begins and ends with fast-paced, vigourous movements, framing an exquisite Andante whose melody un-folds over an ostinato-like bass line. Baroque orchestral effects such as the dialogue between instrumental sections and the play between tutti and solo (ƒorte and piano in the score) are rendered on the contrasting manuals of the harpsichord.

The third book of the Clavier-Übung, published in 1739, is frequently called the “German Organ Mass” or “Musical Catechism.” It comprises a collection of organ chorales, four “Duette,” and the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major (BWV 552), whose two parts frame the whole. The Duetto III in G major (BWV 804) is thus placed with its three counterparts before the triple fugue which ends the book. Written in a style similar to the two-part Inventions, but of greater breadth, the four Duette are the only pieces in Clavier-Übung III not directly related to Lutheran hymn tunes. Although they are intended for performance on the organ, they are equally beautiful when played on the harpsichord.

The admirable Prelude and fugue in A minor (BWV 894) was probably composed at Weimar around 1717. Bach rewrote it as a triple concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord (BWV 1044) to comply with the Collegium Musicum of Leipzig’s request for a piece on short notice. The original, however, stands on its own as a work of considerable virtuosity, and it is precisely this quality that made it amenable to transcription. The term “fantasia” was originally used to describe a polyphonic work with strong imitative traits, constituting what could only be considered a carefully worked-out piece of music. Over time, however, “fantasia” came to mean not so much a form but a relatively free style of writing. Indeed, the four fantasias presented here differ in structure one from the other, a fitting illustration of the freedom with which even the term was used.

In the Fantasia in C minor (BWV 919), written during the Weimar period, we find the embodiment of two-part imitative composition to such an extent that the Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska considered the piece to be as great an achievement as the better-known Inventions, and unjustly neglected by performers.

A later composition, the Fantasia in C minor (BWV 906) moves closer to the sonata-allegro form and challenges the performer with rapid arpeggiation, florid ornamentation and hand-crossings reminiscent of the sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. The sheer pleasure of brillant writing of this kind is tempered in Bach by his characteristic rigor and contempt for the superfluous in music. An accompanying fugue remained unfinished.

The Fantasia and Fugue in A minor (BWV 904) was composed during the mature Weimar period or perhaps even as late as the Leipzig period. Some sources point to an organ performance because of the indication manualiter, while other sources designate the piece to the harpsichord (pro cembalo). Its concertato style features tutti ritornellos alternating with lighter episodes in three and four voices. An impressive double fugue begins with the unfolding of a substantial subject using leaps and repeated notes, a direct contrast to the descending chromatic subject of the second fugue. The two opposing forces are then combined at the end of the piece to create the effect of an unshakable musical edifice. The toccata (from the Italian toccare, to touch) is a genre that does not adhere to any formal rules and, as implied in the name, is meant to exploit the resources of the keyboard. Early toccatas were conceived in a single unified movement. By the late 16th century and into the 17th century, they incorporated free style and fugal sections.

The Toccata in D major (BWV 912) might be perceived by the listener as a single, lengthy and continuous movement; it is in fact made up of six sections of varying length: a virtuosic and improvisational opening Presto, an Allegro in concertato style, an Adagio whose meditations are disturbed by tremolo chords, a chromatic fugato movement followed by a fifth section marked by surprising modulations, then on to the final fugue, written in the spirit of a gigue. There are two versions of the three-voice Fugue in B minor (BWV 951).

This work is based on a theme of Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1750), from the second movement (Allegro) of his Sonata a Tre, op. 1. The first version adheres more closely to its model, while the second goes further afield in expanding on the original. Here Bach reveals himself in a new light: introspective, detached, yet lyrical. Albinoni’s Allegro is thus transfigured into a profound reflection by Bach’s masterful use of the resources of counterpoint.

Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, wrote that the astonishing Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (BWV 903) remains “unique and unparalleled.” Even today, this most singular work is recognized for its originality. The Fantasia is a brillant improvisation divided into three sections: a succession of rapid scales and broken chords, a recitative “dramatic scene” (Spitta), and a third section which achieves a synthesis of virtuosity and recitative elements. Then comes a three-voice fugue that dispels the chaos of the opening tableau, sometimes yielding to two-voice passages in freer style and sometimes reinforced by chords and octaves that enhance the dynamics of the harpsichord. The abundance of copies of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, of which only one bears a date (December 6, 1730), testifies to the interest this legendary piece had already aroused in Bach’s entourage.

Luc Beauséjour (translation: Rachelle Taylor)

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Luc Beauséjour
AN 2 8871-2 Rencontr3s / Rencontres

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