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.
I’ve been listening to these four pieces much too long without a report, so this one is a bit abbreviated from the format I started with the Brandenburg Concertos. It’s been very hectic around here because we’re looking to buy a house, sell our current house, and move. All within the next month and a half. Even though nothing official has happened yet and we’ve only just started getting our house ready for sale, the whole thing has taken a remarkable toll on us. We’re not sleeping well, stress is high, and we can’t stop thinking about what we should be doing right now. Today I brewed beer and not only did I forget one of the ingredients when I went to the beer store on Thursday, I forgot to add another ingredient while I was brewing. It won’t be quite the same beer I’d planned on.
The third and fourth CDs from the Orchestral Works and Chamber Music section are the four Orchestral Suites Bach composed. They’re performed by La Stravaganza, an Italian (based on their web site country designation, anyway) orchestra led by Andrew Manze. They were recorded in 1994. Each CD has a Sinfonia from one of Bach’s Cantatas separating the suites from each other. The full Cantatas appear later in the CD set, but the Sinfonia from Cantata 29 is very familiar. I’m discovering as I go through these CDs that the things I find familiar were on the records Wendy Carlos made on the Moog synthesizer in the late 60s (Switched-On Bach, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer). Strange that a pair of synthesizer records my parents owned would have made such a strong impression on my musical mind. The Sinfonia from Cantata 29 and the second part of the third Orchestral Suite (Air “on the G-string”) are both familiar from a Wendy Carlos record.
All of the suites follow the same basic form, which (according to the liner notes) is an initial movement called an Overture with a slow beginning, and a faster fugal middle that leads back to the start. The remaining movements are dance forms.
I like the playful nature of the Orchestral Suites. They’re very entertaining to listen to, and Bach has filled them with great melodies and lots of interesting bits. They don’t really hold together very well, though, and even after repeated listening, I wasn’t able to identify what Suite a particular movement was from (except for Air on a G string, which is so recognizable that it’s distracting). But that’s just part of what an Orchestral Suite is: a collection of music in a lighter style, often bits and pieces pulled from a composer’s other works; a sort of greatest hits collection to entertain the masses. This is really clear on these particular CDs because of the Sinfonia that separate the Suites on each CD. You can immediately tell when you hit the Sinfonia because the style is so different from the Suite that preceded it.
Next up: the Violin Concertos.
The first section of the Bach: Complete Works on CD are Orchestral Works and Chamber Music, and the first two CDs in this section are the six Brandenburg Concertos. They're performed by Musica Amphion, a Dutch baroque orchestra conducted “from the harpsichord” by Pieter-Jan Belder, and were recorded in May and June 2006. Although I’m not an expert, I can’t find anything in the recording or playing to complain about. All the instruments are bright and crisp and there are no sound artifacts I can hear. Occasionally I can hear someone playing a wind instrument breathing, but I don’t think that’s unusual in recordings of small groups of musicians.
All together, the concertos are very different from each other, and none use the same set of orchestral or solo instruments. The variety in instrumentation, different musical styles, and the unique flavors make them really entertaining to listen to. Each one has something to recommended it, something that sets it apart from the others. I think it’s an excellent way to start off the collection.
Concerto Number 1 in F major, BWV 1046
Solo instruments: oboe, violin piccolo, horn.
Other instruments: two violins, viola, cello, basso continuo, harpsichord.
I wasn't very familiar with this concerto, but I've now listened to it more than any of the others because it’s the first one and I keep starting there and not finishing the whole set. The third movement is especially impressive with all the solo instruments charging in and out. One thing that surprised me is the strong rhythm in the piece (the whole set of concertos, really). I don’t usually associate toe-tapping with classical music (Waltzes excepted), but here it’s pretty strong in places.
Concerto Number 2 in F major, BWV 1047
Solo instruments: trumpet, oboe, recorder, violin.
Other instruments: two violins, viola, cello, basso continuo, harpsichord.
From the very beginning of the second concerto you know you’re listening to something very different because the instrumentation is so different, featuring a trumpet right out front. The second part is quieter and the conversational interplay between the recorder, oboe, and violin is very clear if you’re listening for it. The final part returns to the strong solo trumpeting from the first part. I don’t know whether Musica Amphion uses a traditional valveless trumped or not, but it sounds like it’d be difficult to play even on a modern trumpet. The recorder really compliments the trumpet in this part, sometimes mirroring the trumpet, and sometimes as a counterpoint.
Concerto Number 3 in G major, BWV 1048
Instruments: three violins, three violas, three cellos, basso continuo, harpsichord.
The third concerto is one I’ve heard a lot of in the past, and the melody in the first part is very familiar. I remember it as being played more slowly than what’s recorded here, but the rapid pace makes it seem more urgent and emotional than it would played slower. It really moves along, and has several very dramatic sections. This one only had stringed instruments, which is another variation from the previous pieces. There are parts that seem like solos, but the group is playing together and supporting the overall melody a lot more than in the first two concertos.
Concerto Number 4 in G major, BWV 1049
Solo instruments: violin, recorder.
Other instruments: recorder, two violins, viola, cello, basso continuo, harpsichord.
The fourth concerto is another familiar one, but I don’t think the versions I’ve heard in the past used the recorder. Bach apparently wrote “echo flutes” on the score, which is commonly interpreted to be the recorder, so I’m not sure what instrument I’ve heard in the past. The solo recorder, and the light and whimsical nature of the music brings a happy Disneyesque medieval countryside (Pylea, perhaps) to mind.
Concerto Number 5 in D major, BWV 1050
Solo instruments: traverso (modern flute), violin, harpsichord.
Other instruments: violin, viola, cello, double bass.
The fifth concerto was thought to have been written both to show off Bach’s new harpsichord, as well as for a competition with another composer and organist Louis Marchand, who didn’t show up for the competition. It’s also one of the first harpsichord concertos. The flute solos are quite prominent, but at times the harpsichord takes over completely with no other instruments playing. It’s a good opportunity to hear what a harpsichord really sounds like because it’s in the background for the rest of the concertos, and I’m far more familiar with classical music played on modern instruments where the piano takes it’s place. There are obvious differences in tone and richness between the harpsichord and piano, but one thing I can hear in the harpsichord is that the two hands seem to be able to separate their parts more clearly. During the harpsichord solo near the end of the first part, it really sounds like two people playing, and I think they’d blend together on a piano.
The second movement has just the solo instruments playing, and it seems thinner and less interesting than the rest of the concerto, which makes me wonder what Bach’s other chamber music is going to sound like and whether I’ll be able to appreciate it. Luckily the goodness returns in the third movement. Still, this one is my least favorite of the bunch.
Concerto Number 6 in B flat major, BWV 1051
Solo instruments: viola, viola da gamba, cello.
Other instruments: base, cembalo, harpsichord.
The sixth is another concerto that has only stringed instruments, but it’s unusual because it has no violins and so the sound is deeper and more open. I’m not sure if it’s the instrumentation or the recording here, but this concerto sounds like it’s on a larger stage than the previous concertos. The overall effect of the music and instrumentation makes it seem more serious and mature than the other concertos, and really expands the variety of the entire set.
Conclusions? Since the Brandenburg Concertos are so popular, I haven’t discovered anything new here, but listening to them more critically and with an eye toward what each instrument is doing has significantly improved my appreciation of them.
I got some of the information for this post from the Wikipedia page for the concertos, as well as Benjamin Chee’s introduction. As I mentioned in my introduction to this listening project, I have no particular expertise in classical music, so I’m hoping there will be enough information on the Internet to lead me when I’m not sure what I should be paying attention to.
I recently got Bach: Complete Works, which is a 155 CD box set on the Brilliant Classics label (yeah, I’ve never heard of them either). The amazon reviews were surprisingly favorable, and it’s very reasonably priced. But until you’ve seen it in person, it’s hard to comprehend how massive 155 CDs of music is. I tried weighing it on my kitchen scale, but the scale tops out at 6 pounds and the collection Errored the scale (seen on the right). Next I tried hanging it from the ceiling with my antique hanging bullet scale. Eight and a half pounds. Or somewhere between four and seven days of music if listened straight through.
The collection is organized by musical category, not in order, as I was expecting. Twenty-three CDs for Orchestral Works / Chamber Music, 23 for Keyboard Works, two sets of Cantatas (60 CDs total), 32 CDs of Vocal Works, and 17 Organ Works CDs. They appear to all be performed on historic instruments (harpsichord instead of piano, most notably), and each category of music is done by a different group of artists.
I may regret the attempt, but I think I’m going to try to tackle these in order, hopefully writing a blog post about each CD or set of CDs. If I do a couple CDs a week, it’ll only take me 18 months to get through all of it. Lucky for me, and my relatively uneducated ears, the collection begins with the Brandenburg Concertos, which I’m already quite familiar. If I wind up getting tired of a particular category I may skip around a bit, since I may have trouble getting through all of the vocal parts without some instrumental breaks.
After that, perhaps the 170 CDs of Mozart!