FL 2 3093

J.S. Bach: Inventions & Sinfonias, Fugue on a Theme by Albinoni

Release date September 21, 1999
Album code FL 2 3093
Periods Baroque

Album information

In 1720, while at Cöthen, Johann Sebastian Bach—who by the age of 35 had already acquired consummate compositional mastery—composed a Clavierbüchlein (Little Clavier Book) for the instruction of his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, then aged 10. A few years earlier, it should be noted, Bach had composed the 45 chorales of the collection he called Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book). The second part of the Clavierbüchlein consists of fifteen short pieces designated as Præambulum and of fourteen others, also quite short, entitled Fantasias. These are the same works found in an autograph manuscript dated 1623—along with a fifteenth piece that was missing in the Clavierbüchlein—and now bearing the titles Inventions and Sinfonias. This is the complete cycle of what is today commonly known as the Two- and Three-Part Inventions. This manuscript bears an elaborate title in Bach’s hand that deserves to be quoted here in full: “A proper introduction, whereby lovers of the Clavier and especially those with thirst for true knowledge, are shown a clear way not only of learning to play cleanly in two voices, but also with further progress to proceed with three obbligato parts correctly and well—at the same time not only receiving good ideas [i.e., inventions] but also utilizing them for the development of a cantabile style of playing, and for the procurement of a thorough foretaste of composition.” Hence, Bach wishes here to propose works that are both technical exercises and compositional models, illustrating for him two inseparable facets of a musician’s craft. This explicit didactic intention, however, should not lead us to consider these works—as well as the 45 organ chorales, the 48 Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier or the later Counterpoints from the Art of Fugue—as mere academic or abstract compositions. On the contrary, this pedagogical design on Bach’s part only commanded from him a greater obligation to perfection and superior beauty. One could, and indeed should, ask oneself what advice Bach would have given those who perform his works. Well, Bach’s quoted introduction gives us a good clue in the two key words ‘cleanly’ (‘reine’ in the original German) and ‘cantabile’ (or ‘singing’). In other words, the music should be played with the utmost faithfulness, transparency and clearness, while doing so in a singing manner—that is to say with expression, sensitivity and feeling. One cannot overstate the importance, the skilfulness, the wealth of thematic and contrapuntal invention, the art and the surpassing variety of these short pieces. In the words of Karl Geiringer, taken from his fine book Johann Sebastian Bach: the Culmination of an Era (1966), to which I refer music lovers for an excellent analysis and description of the Inventions, “No other composer had hitherto imbued clavier works of such small dimensions with a content of such significance;” and, “In considering the Sinfonias as a separate unit, we again see the striking variety in expression and structure which exists between the individual numbers. New artistic vistas seem to be revealed in each succeeding piece.” To the best of my knowledge, the Inventions have never been recorded on the organ; myself, I had not intended initially to include them in the present recording project. The reasons that in the end prompted me to include them—clarity and intelligibility of the polyphony and contrapuntal writing; better perception of dissonances, particularly in the case of harmonic suspensions; variety of colours through registration, thus admitting a greater differentiation and characterization of each piece; and finally, the occasion to apprehend them in a new light and give them new life—are certainly no less valid for this collection than for the other keyboard works already added to my recordings of the Complete Organ Works (Well-Tempered Clavier, Art of Fugue, Goldberg Variations). I also saw this as a welcome occasion to confer to the organ an image that is far removed from that of an instrument which arrests the listener through sheer power, with its booming bass register and various mixtures and reeds, that may well produce a massive, brilliant sound, but not always a very transparent one. I have aimed here to give the organ an intimate, chamber music quality and the refined, delicate colours and touch rivaling those of a fine harpsichord. And I have especially sought to show through these sublime miniatures the organ’s capacity to articulate clearly and to render the rhythmic and agogic inflexions. There was sufficient space on this disc to add yet another keyboard work, the Fugue on a theme by Albinoni BWV 951, probably composed in Weimar around 1710. This work is admirably suited to the organ; moreover, its atmosphere and writing is very similar to two other fugues on themes by Italian composers written explicitly for the organ: the Fugue on a theme by Legrenzi BWV 574 and the Fugue on a theme by Corelli BWV 579. This last piece is in B minor, the same key that inspired Bach so many great works, such as the Flute Sonata BWV 1030, the great Prelude and Fugue BWV 5, the Partita BWV 831, and of course the B-minor Mass. Bach undoubtedly relished this beautiful, expressive theme—that includes a descending chromatic tetrachord—as well as the work he wrought from it, for he later created a second, much more elaborate version that, in the words once again of Geiringer, “exhausts the contrapuntal potentialities of the theme far beyond its original composer’s intent, and it imbues the fugue with an intensity of feeling quite different from the calm serenity of Albinoni’s music.”

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