Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday January 22, 2009

Bach Concerto for Keyboard No. 3 in D major, BWV 1054


Bach Concerto for Keyboard No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056


Bach Suite No. 4 in D major, BWV 1069


Keyboard music was a very important genre in the Baroque period. The predominant keyboard instruments of the day were harpsichord and organ, and each could be used as solo instruments and as harmonic support. Because they are capable of having more than one note sound at a time (unlike, say, the flute), keyboard instruments carry great responsibility in an ensemble. For soloists, keyboard music in the High Baroque period consisted of sonatas, concertos, suites and various short pieces, both sacred and secular. There was an enormous variety of forms, with composers in each country gravitating toward particular types of pieces.

In France, composers like François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau wrote some of the most enduring keyboard music of the Baroque era. Couperin’s Pièces de clavecin (1713–1733) is a brilliant collection of dance movements, passacaglias and other works for solo clavecin, as the harpsichord is called in French. Passacaglias featured repeating patterns over which composers would write complex variations, while suites were collections of danceinspired music (such as minuets, gavottes, bourées and gigues) that gradually became separate from their practical purpose as
accompaniment for actual dancing, taking on the life of a stylized art form. JS Bach’s Suite No. 4 is an orchestral suite of dance forms that demonstrates this principle.

In Italy, figures like Durante and Marcello wrote toccatas and divertimentos. Toccatas (from the word for “touch”) were works that allowed players to show off technical virtuosity, and divertimentos were light entertainments meant to be played at occasions like parties. In England, Handel published a book of suites for harpsichord. He also wrote more than a dozen concertos for organ that were meant to be played during the intermissions of his longer oratorios. In Germany, Telemann published fugues and other small-scale keyboard works. JS Bach followed in the footsteps of composers like Telemann, as well as organ master Dietrich Buxtehude, who influenced the later master with his organ toccatas, preludes and fantasias. Preludes and fantasias often served a purpose similar to that of a toccata, and were sometimes improvised and sometimes planned out meticulously beforehand.

Unlike his contemporary, Handel, Bach published little of his output during his career. It was not that he didn’t have music to share, just that his focus was not on gaining international renown. He was simply concerned with creating music for his job and taking care of his family. Bach wrote more than 250 works for organ, including fugues, toccatas and chorale preludes. He also wrote keyboard concertos for harpsichord and organ, and though it was not customary at the time to specify which instrument to use, Bach often broke with tradition and made it clear which he wanted. Today, many players opt to perform these works on the piano.

The keyboard in the Baroque ensemble has a unique role, and when it is the solo instrument, this role must be addressed. The harmonic basis of a Baroque ensemble is the basso continuo, which consists of a chordal instrument, like a keyboard or lute, and a bass instrument, like a cello or bassoon. The basso continuo is the glue that holds the ensemble together, providing a cohesive base under the melodic instruments. Orchestras performing a Baroque keyboard concerto generally have two options: separating the solo and continuo parts by adding a second keyboardist to play the solo only (as LACO did in January 2007 when we performed a Bach keyboard concerto with pianist Peter Serkin), or asking the keyboard member of the basso continuo to cover both roles, fading in and out of the foundation and periodically emerging to play in the foreground (as Jeffrey Kahane will do tonight). When the latter method is used, Bach’s keyboard concertos allow the soloist to shine in prominent passages, but also require the player to show his skills as a team player. It is an amazing feat to balance these two duties and to do them equally well.

Bach’s Concerto for Keyboard No. 3 in D major is based on the Violin Concerto No. 2 in E major, which Jeffrey Kahane and LACO recorded with Hilary Hahn in 2003. Aside from the key, the differences between the two versions include performance practices idiomatic to each of the solo instruments. Because the harpsichord and piano (even with pedal) cannot sustain long pitches—in contrast to the violin, which can sustain a pitch as long as the player bows—the keyboardist must use trills and other ornaments or arpeggios (“broken chords”) to maintain the sound of the melody. Such accommodations are found prominently in the lyrical second movement.

The keyboard concerto, in Bach’s hands, was a display of both virtuosic skill and fine melody. The first movement usually takes ritornello form, in which the musical material is played by both solo instrument and ensemble, before the soloist and ensemble alternate sections. The ripieno (accompanying orchestra) plays simpler material, often taken directly from the opening music, while the soloist plays more complex passages. The second movement is often slower, perhaps improvisatory, like the second movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (discussed in detail on p. 39). The second movement always provides a contrast to the lively first and third movements, as can be clearly heard tonight in Concerto for Keyboard No. 5 in F minor. The last section usually allows for a similar give-and-take between soloist and ripieno, as we see in the first movement. The music is often vivacious, engaging the two factions of the ensemble in a complex conversation.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD