JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685-1750):
Early definitions of the concerto as a musical genre alternatively (and ambiguously) translate the term as “disputation” and “agreement”. Nevertheless, this contradiction does give a useful sense of the formal rhetoric of the concerto: the very differentiation of instrumental forces into tutti and solo groupings generates an immediate sense of opposition, or disputation, but the composer’s task is to render this opposition productive and agreeable. Bach and the composers of his day used the term “concerto” quite promiscuously: it is, for example, one of Bach’s customary generic titles for the works we now call “cantatas” — an acknowledgment of the contrasts between instrumental and vocal, or solo and choral forces, all functioning in “concert”.
Bach’s first essays in emulating the Italian concerto took the form of keyboard transcriptions, or arrangements, of published concertos by Vivaldi and others. The transfer of the idiom from the orchestral originals to keyboard, whether organ or harpsichord, radically narrowed the range of contrast possible between the opposing sonorities, but it still afforded ample experience in manipulating the formal and technical devices of the Italians. Most important among these was the use of ritornello form as a structural principle. (In this type of form, a memorable block of music returns in various guises at strategic points in the piece as an audible musical marker, simultaneously establishing shape and coherence, through repetition, and generating considerable musical tension, by being recalled in various keys.) This principle later informs not only Bach’s grasp of the concerto proper, but virtually every genre in which he composed. Bach’s concerto transcriptions for keyboard arose during his employment as organist, and later Kapellmeister, at the ducal court of Weimar. Upon taking up duties as the Kapellmeister to the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, in 1717, Bach was expected to compose regularly for the court orchestra, and he transferred the concerto style back to its native, orchestral habitat, now in music of his own composition.
Many of Bach’s orchestral compositions have been lost. The surviving repertory represents only a small fraction of his output. Because we know that Bach frequently recycled his own music, traces of lost concerto movements may be found in numerous cantatas, such as BWV 42 (first movement), and other large-scale vocal works, such as the Easter Oratorio (first two movements); and the surviving harpsichord concertos, in particular, are assumed to have been generated from lost originals, that would have used another instrument as the soloist.
While, for a long time Bach scholars assigned most of his chamber and ensemble music to the Cöthen years, it now seems that only the smaller part of the extant, or surviving instrumental ensemble music belongs to the Cöthen period, while the greater part was composed at Leipzig, and principally for the Collegium Musicum which Bach directed from 1729 to the early 1740s. Bach’s concertos for harpsichord were frequently performed as part of the concerts given by the Collegium, an assembly of professionals and advanced students. But the “invention” of the harpsichord concerto dates back to the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, probably composed sometime between 1719 and 1721, and presented in 1721 to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, who lived in Berlin.
The Cöthen court’s well-documented 1719 acquisition of a large harpsichord from the Berlin instrument builder Michael Mietke might well have accounted for Bach’s ground-breaking experiment. That particular instrument was of a scale and sonority that was not previously familiar to Bach. Suitably impressed by its capabilities, Bach decided to incorporate the instrument within the group of ‘concertists’ or soloists of a concerto that also included the transverse flute, a very new instrument in German orchestras at the time. The appearance of the flute was novel enough, but imagine what the court audience must have thought when the harpsichordist—previously relegated to playing chords as a continuo player—began to play solo lines. Those parts would have been essentially inaudible when played on previous incarnations of the harpsichord, but the new Mietke instrument was full-bodied and provided the opportunity for Bach to compose extended and dazzling passages for the harpsichord alone, still cutting through the accompaniment of the ripieno string players. It was only a matter of time before Bach’s propensity for self-borrowing would inspire him to transcribe concertos originally for other obligato instruments to the harpsichord. For example, the Concerto in D minor may very well have first appeared as a concerto for violin, and the Concerto in F major is simply a transcription and transposition of the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto.
The harpsichord used on this recording was made by Joop Klinkhamer of Amsterdam in 1998, and is a copy of one built by Michael Mietke in the early 18th century in his workshop near Berlin. Only three instruments by this builder have survived, two residing in Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin (where Mietke was court instrument builder from 1697) and one fairly recently discovered in Hudiksvall, Sweden. The Swedish instrument is important since it was delivered directly to Hudiksvall from the builder, was signed by him, and has not been altered as so many harpsichords have been. This happy circumstance has led to some clarification of the two Berlin instruments. The Mietke harpsichords have a direct connection to Johann Sebastian Bach since we know that he played on both of the Berlin instruments, and that he was sent to Berlin in 1719 by his employer, the music-loving Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, to take delivery of one of Mietke’s harpsichords. Mietke’s instruments were similar to 17th century French harpsichords, and had thinner than average bentsides, an attribute that may create a more penetrating sound. Like its antecedents, the Klinkhamer Mietke is strung entirely with brass, one of the properties of which is the naturally occurring shifts of timbre from one range to the next, making Bach’s polyphony especially clear.
Jeffrey Thomas, John Butt, and Phebe Craig
AMERICAN BACH SOLOISTS
performing on period instruments
JEFFREY THOMAS, conductor
Michael Sponseller, harpsichord
Joop Klinkhamer, Amsterdam, 1998; after Michael Mietke, Berlin, circa 1720.
Hanneke van Proosdij, recorder
P. van der Poel, Utrecht, 1991; after Stanesby Jr., London, 1725.
Judith Linsenberg, recorder
Fred Morgan, Daylesford, Australia, 1995; copy of P. Bressan, London, circa 1720.
Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin
Desiderio Quercetani, Parma, 1995; after Stradivarius.
Sandra Miller, flute
Rod Cameron, California, 1983; after Rottenburgh, Belgium, 1750.
Katherine Kyme, violin
Carlo Antonio Testore, Milan, 1720.
Carla Moore, violin
Johann Georg Thir, Vienna, 1754.
Anthony Martin, viola
Ægidius Kloz, Mittenwald, 1790.
Kenneth Slowik, violoncello
P. François Grosset, Paris, 1748.
Steven Lehning, violone
Hammond Ashley Luthiers, Washington, 1977; after 17th century European models.
Mr. Sponseller dedicates his performance on this recording
to the memory of Earl Russell.
Producer: Jeffrey Thomas
Recording Engineer: David Tayler
Digital Editing: Hanneke van Proosdij
Digital Remastering (2019): Chris Landen
Cover Art: Photo by Neil Michel (detail of harpsichord by Joop Klinkhamer, Amsterdam, 1998; after Michael Mietke, Berlin, circa 1720; from the collection of the Department of Music, University of California, Davis.)
Recorded March 1–8 1999 in St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere, California