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"Baroque Organ Concertos"

Kei Koito, organ

rec: July 1 - 3, 2015, Groningen (NL), Der Aa-kerk
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88875163622 (© 2016) (72'54")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Bach
Scores Walther

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Concerto in D (BWV 972) (larghetto); Concerto in g minor (BWV 985); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Concerto in F, op. 4,5 (HWV 293); Suite in F (HWV 427) (adagio); Suite in g minor (HWV 453) (overture; entrée) - Air in g minor (HWV 466) - Suite in B flat (HWV 440) (saraband in g minor) - Sonata (larghetto) in g minor (HWV 580) - Concerto in G (HWV 487) (allegro in g minor); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto in D (RV 206) (grave in b minor); Concerto in a minor (RV 356) (largo); Johann Gottfried WALTHER (1684-1748): Concerto in c minor (LV 136); Concerto in F (LV 126); Concerto in a minor (LV 140); Concerto in b minor (LV 133);

The catalogue of Bach's oeuvre includes five organ transcriptions of concertos by Antonio Vivaldi, Alessandro Marcello and Prince Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar, and sixteen of concertos for harpsichord, which can also be played at the organ. 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. There 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". Both Bach and his cousin Johann Gottfried Walther, who was Weimar's town organist, made transcriptions of Italian concertos. It seems that Walther was the first to do so; he was also Johann Ernst's teacher. He may have encouraged Bach to follow his example. The transcriptions by Bach and Walther were the starting point of the present disc.

Michael Talbot, in the article 'Concerto' in the Oxford Composer Companions' book on Bach (ed. Malcolm Boyd, 1999), states that there is a difference between the kind of concertos Bach and Walther chose as the subjects of their transcriptions. "[Whereas] nearly all of Walther's arrangements concern the first (pre-Vivaldian) generation of concerto composers, those by Bach are of works by Vivaldi and his contemporaries". The latter is true, the former is debatable. It is correct as far as the extant concertos are concerned, but it seems that Walther has made many more transcriptions than have come down to us. In a letter he mentioned that he had transcribed "a total of 78 altogether". It is quite possible that some of them were also arrangements of the newer type of concerto, comparable with those Bach transcribed.

Another question is why exactly Walther and Bach made such transcriptions. Arranging music was a way to become acquainted with a particular piece or its style. Bach, for instance, arranged a trio sonata by Johann Adam Reincken for harpsichord during his formative years. However, Reinhard Goebel, in his liner-notes to the present disc, comes up with another explanation, referring to the fact that among the transcriptions were also concertos in the Italian style by Johann Ernst himself. "[Neither] Walther nor Bach needed to transcribe the concertos of the prince, despite his decent compositional talents, to better grasp the meaning and purpose of the new concerto form. Rather, these works most likely resulted from peculiarities of the situation at the Weimar court where the prince's much older uncle and elder half-brother "called the shots", marginalising the young Prince Johann Ernst and bullying the servants. Hence, the concerto transcriptions should be understood as having been heard in the private apartments of the young and already moribund prince, as his uncle and brother kept him from the court chapel." Obviously this only regards the transcriptions which were intended for a keyboard instrument without pedalboard, as it is unlikely that the prince had an organ with a pedalboard in his apartments. Goebel states that the organ transcriptions may have been intended for public organ concerts, and he refers to Amsterdam and Lübeck. However, it is probably not known how widespread this practice was. In the end, we don't know for sure whether these transcriptions were really intended for performance.

As I wrote, the transcriptions by Bach and Walther were the starting point. Kei Koito has selected one of Bach's transcriptions and the slow movement of a second concerto, whereas she chose four of Walther's transcriptions. That is just as well, as these are less known than Bach's (they are part of a complete recording of Walther's organ oeuvre by Simone Stella for Brilliant Classics, to be reviewed here shortly). Notable is that two of Walther's concertos are transcriptions of works by his colleague Telemann, who was not a great admirer of the Italian style, and generally preferred the older type of concerto, in four movements.

The programme opens with a sequence of pieces in the key of g minor by Handel. Strictly speaking these are not transcriptions, as all of them are originally composed for the harpsichord, although some of them - in particular the overture - may have been Handel's own transcriptions of orchestral pieces. Handel was famous as a player of and improviser at the organ, but he has left very few original pieces for the instrument. The main exception are his concertos for organ and orchestra. John Walsh published some of them in versions for keyboard solo, and one of these is included here.

The practice of playing transcriptions of instrumental concertos still exists in our time. The Italian organist Francesco Tasini arranged some of Vivaldi's concertos, and two slow movements from these transcriptions are recorded by Kei Koito.

She considered the idea of recording various types of concertos, but wondered whether the right instrument for such a programme was available. She found the appropriate organ by coincidence, when she was invited to give an organ recital in Groningen, a town in the northern part of the Netherlands. The Der Aa church owns an instrument, built by Arp Schnitger in 1702, and restored in 2011. It is an instrument which offers "both a rich palette of sound and a wide variety of timbre", as she states in her notes about the recording. It results in a compelling and varied recital which not only demonstrates the quality of the concerto arrangements - mostly more than just transcriptions - but is also a nice portrait of an organ, built by one of the main German organ builders of the baroque era. Kei Koito is a outstanding player, who plays these concertos with great panache.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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