Note: I started this post way back in July, and after moving into our new house I let it get away from me. I do still hope to continue listening to the whole of the Bach Edition, but as this long delay shows, it’s probably going to take a lot longer than I thought if I’m going to say much of anything about each disc. Yesterday I got Christoph Wolff’s one volume biography of Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, and even though it’s not an analysis of his music (anyone have any suggestions for such a book?), it’s insights into the man may help me in understanding the music. I also got The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection, and the Violin Concertos are one of the discs that make up the “350 essential works.” The NPR book looks to be pretty good at answering the question of which pieces a classical newbie should listen to, but the CD recommendations themselves aren’t going to be very useful for me. eMusic has a fantastic classical selection, but the major record labels aren’t on there, so I’ll need to find the best from BIS, Naxos and other great independent classical labels.
The fifth CD in the Bach Edition set is a collection of Bach’s violin concertos: BWV 1041, 1042, 1052, 1056 and 1064. The BWV numbers are a way of thematically categorizing (instead of chronologically, like Opus numbers) Bach’s works, so it’s something of a surprise that the numbers aren’t consecutive on this disc. According to this Wikipedia page, BWV 1041, 1042 and 1056 are violin concertos, but BWV 1052, 1057 and 1064 are all categorized with the harpsichord concertos. As noted below, this is because evidence suggests that the harpsichord concertos were written from violin concertos which have been lost (and reconstructed here). This CD doesn’t include BWV 1043–1045, which are classified on the Wikipedia page with the rest of the violin concertos. I’m sure I’ll run into them as I work my way through the corpus but the disconnect is surprising.
Most of the pieces were recorded in 1992 by Camerata Antonio Luco, with Emmy Verhey on violin. The last piece, Concerto for 3 violins, strings, and basso continuo in D Major (BWV 1064) was recorded by the Amsterdam Bach Soloists in 1988.
Concerto for violin, strings and basso continuo in A Minor, BWV 1041
The liner notes for this CD say that this concerto follows a three movement “Vivaldi form” of fast-slow-fast, but that Bach improved on Vivaldi by better integrating the three parts into a unified form. I don’t think I’m a refined enough listener to see what they’re talking about, but I like the comparison to Vivaldi because it’s got the sort of fast pacing and interplay between the instruments that makes Vivaldi enjoyable. The piece starts out with a very lively tempo with different instruments playing against each other. The second part is slower and less remarkable (the liner notes call it a “cantilena”), but the final part returns to the faster rhythm with the soloists alternating with the full ensemble.
Concerto for violin, strings and basso continuo in E Major, BWV 1042
This is a very familiar concerto. The first movement starts with a “tutti theme” repeated throughout the piece, which means that all the instruments play together, rather than individual parts carrying the melody as is common in other sections. The slower second movement is carried by the solo violin, accompanied by a few instruments, harpsichord especially. Both the NPR guide and the liner notes mention how lyrical the solo line is in the second movement. The final movement is in “rondo form”, which the Wikipedia tells me means the principle theme is repeated with contrasting themes interspersed between. For me, I think it’s this form more than anything else that says Baroque to me when I’m listening to Bach. Here, the offsetting main and secondary themes switch back and forth rapidly (four or five times in the three minutes of the movement), keeping the listener interested in the piece without being distracted.
Concerto for violin and strings in D Minor, BWV 1052 (reconstructed from a harpsichord version that Bach arranged from this, missing, original)
Lots of Bach’s music has been lost, and the three remaining pieces on the disc are reconstructed from works for other instruments. The first one, Concerto for violin and strings in D Minor (BWV 1052) is reconstructed from a harpsichord version that exists but which Bach arranged from the original violin version which is no longer around. I suppose that with so much music available, an expert can see how Bach re-wrote is other pieces, and apply the same techniques to reconstruct music that is known to have existed.
I like the first movement of this one a lot. It seems to range wildly around, but always returning to the same melody with different instruments taking it up. And all throughout the movement, there are striking moments where a larger group of musicians plays the same theme. The movement also has an unusual sounding section in the middle where a pair of violins are playing melodies that sound dangerously close to being out of tune. The main melody intrudes a few times, and the movement eventually returns back to normal by the end. I’m sure there are terms for these things, and I’m going to have to figure out what they are so I don’t keep repeating the same awkward phrases over and over again.
The Adagio is much slower (which, it turns out, is what adagio means…) and on initial listens, it seems like there’s a lot less going on. But the slower sections allow the solo violin running through the movement to really carry a lot of emotion. The final movement returns to the faster tempo and interesting interplay between instruments.
Concerto in G Minor (reconstructed from the concerto for harpsichord and strings in F Minor, BWV 1056)
This short concerto is reconstructed from a harpsichord and strings concerto. The second movement also exists as the Sinfonia of Cantata number 156. The second movement also features the string players plucking their instruments behind the solo violin, which lends a very different sound to the piece, and keeps the focus more on the solo violin than if the strings were playing a melody with the bow.
Concerto for three violins in D major (arrangement of the concerto for three harpsichords and strings in C Major, BWV 1064)
The final work is another reconstruction based on evidence that Bach wrote his Concerto for three harpsichords using a version for three violins and strings that no longer exists. It’s a really bright concerto with a quick melody that sounds more like Mozart than Bach to me. Very enjoyable.
Next up would normally be two CDs of Harpsichord Concertos, including a different version of BWV 1056 I heard in the violin concertos. But I think I may jump into the Cantatas for a change of pace from all this orchestral music. I was originally going to listen to the whole thing in order, but I it may be more rewarding to jump around.