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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "The Italian Connection: Harpsichord Transcriptions"

Vital Julian Frey, harpsichord

rec: November 6 - 8, 2006, Müllheim, Martinskirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88697147182 (© 2007) (69'14")

Concerto in D (BWV 972); Concerto in G (BWV 973); Concerto in d minor (BWV 974); Concerto in g minor (BWV 975); Concerto in F (BWV 978); Concerto in b minor (BWV 979); Concerto in c minor (BWV 981)

The phenomenon of 'transcription' or 'arrangement' was quite common in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are numerous examples of vocal and instrumental compositions arranged in one way or another for a different scoring, sometimes including a transposition to another key. There were many reasons for doing this. One of them was simply to being able to play good music on one's own instrument. And Handel - one of the most prolific arrangers of the baroque era - always looked for top-notch music to use in his own compositions.

Bach also was a keen arranger of music. He used material from his own sacred cantatas for instrumental concertos or for organ works. And his concertos for harpsichord and instrumental ensemble are mostly arrangements of previously composed solo concertos for the violin or the oboe. But he also arranged music by other composers, and the works usually described as 'transcriptions' are examples of this. The originals are all instrumental concertos by either Italian or German composers. There are 17 transcriptions for harpsichord, seven of which are performed here. The concertos on this disc are arrangements of concertos by Italian masters of the time: Antonio Vivaldi (BWV 972, 973, 975 and 978) and the brothers Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello (BWV 974 and 981 respectively). One concerto, BWV 979, is based on a composition by Giuseppe Torelli (1658 - 1709). It is a sequence of six contrasting movements – a style of composition which was outdated in Bach's time. In addition Bach arranged concertos by Telemann, some unknown German composers and by Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar.

It is the latter who encouraged Bach to make these arrangements. Why he did so is not quite clear. In the programme notes Anselm Gerhard suggests Johann Ernst was enthusiastic about Italian music but didn't have the resources to finance an orchestra which could play it. So the arrangements for harpsichord - and Bach made some for organ as well - were a substitute which allowed Johann Ernst to enjoy this music by playing it himself. But there is another explanation which seems more plausible. Johann Ernst had studied at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands from 1711 to 1713. It is quite possible he visited Amsterdam during these years, and heard the blind organist of the Nieuwe Kerk there, Johann Jacob de Graaf (c1672 - 1738), who used to play this kind of arrangements. Johann Mattheson writes about him: "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". If Johann Ernst has heard him play this could have given him the idea to ask Bach to arrange the same kind of music for him. He was a pupil of Johann Gottfried Walther, a distant relative of Bach, who also wrote some arrangements for organ. When Johann Ernst returned to Weimar he had a number of compositions by Italian masters in his luggage. The Netherlands were an international centre of music printing, and many of the newest Italian works were published there. It is very likely Bach became acquainted with the latest Italian music through Johann Ernst's collection.

The concertos played here are usually referred to as 'transcriptions', but that is a little misleading. Bach did much more than merely adapt them to the keyboard: sometimes he transposed them to a different key, he added ornamentation, he changed tempo markings or the harmony. This has led some musicologists to mark them as 'improvements', but it is unlikely Bach saw it that way. He not only adapted the originals to the new medium - the harpsichord or the organ - but also to his own personal style. Anselm Gerhard refers to Bach's later arrangement of Pergolesi's Stabat mater, which he enriched by a part for viola, making it considerably more contrapuntal - a reflection of Bach's personal preference.

These arrangements bear the marks of the originals, as they contain contrasts between solo and tutti. And most listeners will recognize them since the original concertos belong to the standard repertoire of baroque orchestras. But one also can enjoy them as independent compositions, comparable with Bach's own Italian Concerto in F (BWV 971). They are just fine harpsichord pieces which also must be a joy for performers to play. Vital Julian Frey is a brilliant player with an impressive technique and considerable amount of virtuosity. There are definitely things to enjoy here, for instance the ornamentation. I also like the slight slowing down in tempo in some movements which enhances the tension. But on the whole it is the choice of tempi which bothers me. Some fast movements are far too slow, like the first allegro of the Concerto in D (BWV 972). The allegro of the Concerto in g minor (BWV 975) is even too slow for an andante, and where an andante is indicated, like in the first movement of the Concerto in d minor (BWV 974), Frey plays it like an adagio. I have really no idea why he is doing this: in the booklet nothing is told about the reasonings behind the decisions which Frey has taken.

Not only his choice of tempo is sometimes unconvincing, so is the use of the lute stop in the left hand in the adagio of the Concerto in d minor (BWV 974). In the largo of the Concerto in G (BWV 578) the solo part moves over an accompaniment of staccato chords. These chords certainly can be arpeggiated, as Frey is doing here, but he plays them in such a way that the gaps between the chords are completely filled in. As a result the staccato character of the accompaniment has completely disappeared.

I hope these decisions are not just a way to make his interpretation more interesting or to show his self-will. The result is rather unconvincing, and that is particularly disappointing as there are not that many recordings of these concertos available. Therefore I can only recommend this disc with a considerable amount of caution.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Vital Julian Frey

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