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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Italian Concertos - transcriptions for organ"

Matthias Havinga, organ

rec: Sept 14 - 15, 2010, Kotka (Finland), Lutheran Church
Brilliant Classics - 94203 ( 2011) (74'56")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Concerto in G (BWV 592); Concerto in a minor (BWV 593); Concerto in C (BWV 594); Concerto in C (BWV 595); Concerto in a minor (BWV 596); Concerto in d minor (BWV 974); Fugue in d minor (BWV 539,2)

The catalogue of Bach's oeuvre includes five transcriptions for organ of concertos by Antonio Vivaldi, Alessandro Marcello and Prince Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar. Another concerto (BWV 597) is considered spurious and is usually omitted from recordings. Bach made these transcriptions during his time as court organist in Weimar. It is very likely that the orchestra had various Italian concertos in its repertoire as the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar, Bach's employer, was a great lover of Italian music. Moreover, his half-brother, Prince Johann Ernst, went to study in Utrecht in the Netherlands, and purchased many collections of Italian concertos which were printed in Amsterdam. He sent them to Weimar or brought them along when he returned from the Netherlands.

The whole idea of transcribing instrumental concertos for keyboard could have found its origin in Johann Ernst's visits to Amsterdam. Here the blind organist of the Nieuwe Kerk, Jan Jacob de Graaf, used to play the newest Italian concertos. The German composer and theorist Johann Mattheson reported about his playing: "He knew all the latest three- and four-part Italian concertos, sonatas and such by memory, and was able to perform them in my presence with great clarity and splendour". It is quite possible that Johann Ernst was so enthusiastic about this practice that he encouraged Bach to make transcriptions of such concertos as well. Interestingly, Johann Gottfried Walther, Bach's cousin and Weimar's town organist, did the same. He was also the music teacher of the Prince. It has been suggested that Bach's transcriptions could be his way of becoming more acquainted with the Italian style. That is certainly possible but then the question is why Bach also arranged two concertos by Johann Ernst, whose pieces were in fact just 'imitations' of the Italian style.

These concertos are more than mere transcriptions. They could probably better be called 'arrangements'. One of Bach's adaptations was necessary: notes which crossed his organ's compass had to be transposed downwards. In some cases he went even further and rewrote complete passages. Bach also changed note values and rhythms, and made changes in harmony. Moreover he added notes or even complete voices, often in the interest of counterpoint, as well as ornaments. What is rather surprising, though, is that he kept those passages intact which are very idiomatic for the violin, but are rather uncomfortable for the organ, such as the frequent repetition of the same note. That is in particular striking in the most brilliant piece, the Concerto in C (BWV 594), an arrangement of Vivaldi's violin concerto Il grosso Mogul.

Bach not only arranged music by others, he also transcribed his own music. The Fugue in d minor (BWV 539) is an example, although it is by no means certain that Bach himself made the transcription. The original is the fugue from the Sonata No. 1 in g minor (BWV 1001) for violin solo. The downward transposition means that the highest note is c''', which was probably the compass of many organs at the time, such as the instrument which Bach played in Weimar. In the Schmieder catalogue of Bach's works (BWV) it is preceded by a prelude, but that wasn't originally intended. The fugue is receiving here an outstanding performance by Matthias Havinga, who underlines the rhythm through a very precise articulation and stressing the 'good' notes.

The concertos are also well played. Havinga manages to keep the character of the originals intact, including the contrast between solo and tutti. A matter of interest is the registration. As most concertos are for strings, should the organist avoid using reed stops? That probably goes a bit too far. After all, these are organ pieces, and that is a good argument to use the full range of colours of the organ. On the other hand I have the impression that the character of these concertos comes off best when reed stops are largely avoided. In this recording the bass of the Concerto in G (BWV 592) seems a little too present. I am also not sure whether it was a good idea to use reed stops in Il Grosso Mogul. In the fast movements of this concerto I would have preferred a slightly faster tempo, but it is quite possible that the acoustic of the church would make that rather inconvenient. The Concerto in d minor (BWV 974) is a transcription of the famous oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello. It was originally set for harpsichord, but can also be played at the organ. In his registration Havinga conveys the original scoring quite well, with a nice realisation of the solo part.

The organ is a modern instrument built in 1998 by Martti Porthan organ builders. It is clearly inspired by the organs of the 18th century and is well suited to the repertoire on this disc. In this same church Matthias Havinga, born in the Netherlands in 1983, won first prize in the International Organ Competition in 2009. The booklet doesn't mention the fact that this disc is the direct result of him winning the competition. It is his debut, and a very fine one it is. Havinga provides engaging and compelling performances.

N.B. For this review I have made use of an article by Vincent C.K. Cheung, 'Bach the Transcriber: His Organ Concertos after Vivaldi'.

Johan van Veen ( 2012)

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Matthias Havinga

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