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EXPLORING MUSIC: Volume II of the Complete Harpsichord Concerti by Johann Sebastian Bach

The MHS Review 384 VOL. 11, NO. 6 • 1987

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David M. Greene

You must remember that Bach was not "with it": he was a musical conser­vative, more given to retrospect and summation than to invention...Until someone discovers how to obtain even greater "authenticity," you'll do very well with these interpretations.


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Someday someone will explain to me in words of one syllabic the virtues and advantages of stretching a five-record set over three widely separated releases. Meanwhile, I am left with the problem of having to triple the length of my remarks. Since, as was revealed to me more than a decade ago, these remarks should be largely limited to explaining to the membership what it was being offered, rather than providing a detailed critique of the works, I sometimes find myself hard put to supply the requisite padding. Hence I hope I may be forgiven my too-frequent digressions.

Anyone who has spent an ivy-covered year in an American college knows what scholarly prose is. It is what ap­pears in the Sacred Books of Academe: The Journals. It is a dialect (presumably of English) so impenetrable as to turn many would-be scholars and professors to organic gardening as a preferable means of survival. Its purpose is not, as is pretended, to disseminate knowledge, but to exclude from it all but the chosen.

If the story about Andrew Carnegie is true, the origin of scholarly style seems clear. In philanthropically arranging a pension fund for American professors, it goes, he found that he would have to impose some limitations, and so decreed that the eligibles must work in a college department that boasted at least one holder of the Ph.D. degree-a ruling that may account in some part for its subsequent popularity. But Ph.D.s in those days were available mostly in Germany (where they did not cost half the suffering that their modern counterparts do). Thus numerous scholars were introduced to the opacities of German and felt that they must somehow duplicate them for the home-folks.

All this is not irrelevant to this featured selection. The brochure that came with the original Telefunken release contains a long scholarly article auf Deutsch on the Bach clavier concer­ti, written by Ludwig Finscher, a musicologist of standing. It is accom­panied by what purports to be an English translation (sensibly anonymous). Its intricacies (dependent on the original) are aggravated by an obvious unfamiliarity with English grammar and syntax. But it has some useful things to say and, being able, as one of the elect, to decipher it, I shall try to summarize it for you in the small space I've left myself.

You must remember that Bach was not "with it": he was a musical conser­vative, more given to retrospect and summation than to invention. But he apparently did invent the keyboard concerto. He did so because cir­cumstances made it hard not to. In the first decades of the 18th century the newfangled Italian concerti from the likes of Albinoni and Vivaldi became a European craze like the Charleston and bebop in a later America. At Weimar, where he was employed in 1708, Bach was put in collegiality with his cousin J.C. Walther, and the two amused themselves making solo-keyboard transcriptions of Italian and Italian-style concerti, whether to amuse themselves or their employer. At Cothen, at whose court he worked from 1717 to 1723, the prince was a Calvinist and so Bach was freed from the burden of writing church music and could concentrate on instrumental composition. In Leipzig, where he ended his days, he found an avant-garde orchestra initiated by Telemann, whose directorship he in­herited, and realized that he had a household of virtuosic young Bachs who needed to try their fingers out in public. So it was inevitable that he write (or transcribe) clavier concerti to meet the need.

This volume contains three more single-keyboard concerti, the remaining two for two keyboards, and the one for four (a reworking of Vivaldi's four­ violin concerto, op. 3, no. 10). S. 1054 and 1058 come from the two surviving solo violin concerti, and 1057 is a revi­sion of the Fourth Brandenburg Concer­to. The two C-minor works for two keyboards (S. 1060 and 1062) derive respectively from a lost concerto for violin and oboe (several times recorded in "reconstruction") and the two-violin concerto. Until someone discovers how to obtain even greater "authenticity," you'll do very well with these interpretations.

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