Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday January 21, 2010

Bach Keyboard Concerto No. 2 in E major, BWV 1053


Bach Selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846-893

orchestration: solo piano

Bach Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052


In contrast to many composers, Bach did not compose for the ages. He composed for his students, for his jobs, for his family. I doubt very much if he envisioned the fame he would achieve after his death, and because of this, many of his works were not published during his lifetime. Bach’s surviving works comprise an impressive oeuvre, even though many of his works have been lost. Bach also reworked some of his pieces for different ensembles. His Keyboard Concerto No. 2 in E major, for example, was most likely an arrangement of a concerto for oboe or perhaps oboe d’amore. I say most likely, because the original concerto has been lost, but we speculate that Bach composed it while working in Cöthen in 1717–1723. We do know that Bach made the arrangement in about 1738 for the performers of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum.

There are three movements in the Concerto. The first features the keyboard taking long solo digressions while the ensemble accompanies. The soloist is performing double duty here as both soloist and continuo player, and it is an impressive show. The overall structure of the movement seems to be in a traditional three-part da capo form (the outer sections are similar, while the middle has a contrasting character), a structure that was likely more fashionable in 1720 than it was when Bach arranged it in 1738. The contrasting middle section ends in a minor key, but sets up the recap of the opening theme beautifully. The third section allows Jeffrey Kahane to show off his virtuosity in passages that sound improvised.

The second movement is marked Siciliano, a designation that suggests a lilting compound meter—the beats are broken up into three subdivisions rather than the duple subdivisions of simple meter—often slow and in the minor mode. The Siciliano often features dotted rhythms, which add to the feeling of forward progress. Music in compound meter has been used historically to illustrate flowing rivers or spinning wheels because the continuous rolling of the triplets suggests perpetual motion. The theme in this movement is stated by the violins at first, but is soon taken over by the harpsichord. The center section of the movement has the harpsichord playing with only the barest of accompaniment from the rest of the ensemble. Typical of Baroque melodies, the main melody here seems to be spun out endlessly.

Bach composed the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722 when he was working in Cöthen. (A second volume followed 20 years later.) He wrote Book I for students who were learning how to play, but especially for students who already possessed some skill. It is a methodical exploration of each key in the well-tempered tuning system. In this system, the 12 half-steps of the octave are tuned at a near-equal distance, resulting in a system where every key was said to sound “in tune.” (Our modern ears are used to so-called “equal temperament,” an even more precise division of the 12 half-steps.) The meantone tuning of Bach’s time made some keys sound different, and consequently less desirable to composers. The well-tempered tuning system, therefore, allowed a composer to write in any of the possible keys. Bach composed a prelude and fugue for each of the 24 keys. Each prelude is freer in structure, while the fugues are structured around strict imitation.

Although manuscript copies of The Well-Tempered Clavier were passed around musical circles, the work wasn’t published formally until 50 years after the composer’s death. Bach’s style had been out of fashion for some time because the first Classical composers favored simpler melodies and less counterpoint, but composers like Haydn and Mozart carefully studied The Well-Tempered Clavier and gradually brought more complexity and even counterpoint into Classical composition. Mozart went so far as to transcribe some of Bach’s three- and four-part fugues for string trio and quartet. These are the versions we will hear tonight. We will hear a selection of the original preludes played by Kahane on the keyboard; interspersed with these will be various fugues from Mozart’s string transcriptions. The advantage of such arrangements is that they allow us to hear how each voice behaves, something that is hard to distinguish when all of the “voices” are played on a single instrument. In this form, we can follow the main theme as it is stated, imitated and developed by the different parts. The complex structure of the fugue becomes clearer as does Bach’s genius for counterpoint. Mozart’s version of The Well-Tempered Clavier is just one in a long line of analyses and reconstructions of the piece by composers and musicians enthralled by its mystery, complexity and its sheer beauty.

Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor seems to be based on a lost violin concerto that also provided material for an organ concerto and pieces of two of Bach’s sacred cantatas. Because the source material had a single-line instrument as soloist, and because the keyboard can play many notes simultaneously, Bach’s work in transcribing the original was very likely adding complexity and left-hand harmony to the keyboard part. There are three movements, the first and third of which are faster in tempo and have a comparable overall structure.

The first and third movements begin in D minor and change to a closely related major key. There are a few more key modulations, and then we return to D minor in the final section when the main theme comes back. The first and third movements also feature quick passagework in both the keyboard and in the ensemble. There is an intensity to this Concerto, a seriousness and relentless drive that comes to a brief rest only in the middle movement. The soloist must have incredible endurance to play this piece because the activity never stops. It is the quintessential high Baroque concerto: virtuosic, rigorous and unrelenting.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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