About this Recording
8.554603 - BACH, J.S.: Violin Concertos, BWV 1041-1043 and BWV 1052

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Complete Orchestral Works
Originals; Transcriptions; Reconstructions
Volume 2: Violin Concertos


It seems that only a relatively small part of Bach's orchestral œuvre has been preserved for posterity. Much has been speculated about the reasons for the above-average losses in this particular field, but up till now no really conclusive reasons have been found. The fact that so few works for instrumental ensemble have survived particularly from the Weimar and Cöthen periods, during which the composer directed so many excellent ensembles, has led many researchers to the hypothesis that Bach was obliged to leave the majority of his compositions in these places when he moved on to another post – a common custom for which much evidence can be found in many eighteenth century documents; other considerations establish a connection with the distribution of Bach's compositions to his heirs after his death. Whatever the case, only one thing is certain: that at the latest with Bach's death a veil of oblivion began to sink over his orchestral works – partly caused also by a profound change in taste which began in the middle of the eighteenth century. Thus great effort was necessary in the course of the Bach renaissance at the beginning of the nineteenth century to win back these works, which by then were completely unknown even to Bach connoisseurs, into the performance repertoire.

Today Bach's orchestral works enjoy an enduring popularity once more. Intensive study of this repertoire, which in spite of the regrettable gaps is in many ways incomparable, has led to the realization that only a part of the works can be regarded as original compositions, whereas many of the concertos in the form in which they are known today represent transcriptions of pieces written earlier. Among the works of the first-named category are the Brandenburg Concertos and the three Violin Concertos, among the transcriptions are all the concertos for one to three harpsichords, which are presumed to be based on lost works for various melody instruments. The Concerto for four harpsichords, BWV 1065 is a special case in that Bach did not take one of his own works as a basis but, exceptionally, a work by Antonio Vivaldi. Comparative studies on Bach's technique of rearranging works have led again and again to speculations about the possible form and structure of the lost works on which the arrangements are based, and as a consequence to attempts at reconstruction which have resulted in pieces which are stylistically convincing and which have proved their worth in practice; within the context of this recording these works are intended to help fill the gaps mentioned above.

The present complete recording of Bach's orchestral works illustrates graphically the enormous musical variety and compositional quality of this sphere of his creative work. We meet the composer for the first time around 1715 on his first pinnacle of mastery (Brandenburg Concerto No. 5) and accompany him for approximately a quarter of a century up to the sublime works of his maturity – the Overture BWV 1067 and the Triple Concerto BWV 1044.

Bach's violin concertos were slow to establish themselves in the musical life of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Audiences whose musical education consisted of the symphonic concertos of the Classical and Romantic composers took exception to their "old-­fashioned" style, and great violin virtuosi doubted whether they could make a brilliant impression with them. Only gradually did one come to realise that the Bach concertos were dedicated to a different aesthetic ideal which was no longer directly comprehensible in more recent times, representing early but by no means imperfect forms of a genre which did not reach maturity until later. Bach's individual treatment of the concerto form which had been taken over from Italy at the beginning of the eighteenth century is based – to put it briefly – on a motivic-thematic integration of the solo part in the ensemble together with a contrapuntal development involving all levels of the musical texture, to which sometimes even the concertante principle takes second place.

The Concerto in A minor BWV 1041 has come down to us in the form of an original set of parts dating from the period around 1730, and it is quite possible that this was the time of composition and not earlier. Consequently the work belongs in the context of Bach's work with the students of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, the direction of which he had taken over in the spring of 1729. The striking aspects of the concerto are the way solo and tutti themes are even more subtly interwoven than in the Concerto in E major, probably written considerably earlier, and the transparent polyphonic texture of the composition. A serious, densely-textured first movement is followed by a harmonically bold Andante, in which an expressive cantilena unfolds over an almost omnipresent bass theme. The final movement is in the form of a fugal Gigue, the character of which is determined by the agitated 9/8 rhythm and the continually intensifying virtuosity of the soloist.

The Concerto in E major BWV 1042 was presumably written, as can be concluded from various stylistic features, during Bach's term of office as master of music at the court of Cöthen (1718-1723). The first movement begins with a concise triadic motif, followed by a series of developing and contrasting ideas. A small but significant aspect of the close association of the solo instrument with the tutti group are the short interpolations of the violin in the introductory ritornello. In the further course of the movement the motifs introduced at the beginning are treated in various different ways and connected with one another – without the euphony and comprehensibility of the composition being reduced in any way. In the second movement a far-reaching cantabile lament on the violin unfolds above a virtually ostinato bass theme, while the third movement, a dance-like rondo, takes up the mood of the beginning again.

The Concerto for two violin, in D minor BWV 1043 is today one of the best-known and most frequently performed works of the composer, above all by virtue of its soulful, song-like middle movement. The customary term "Double Concerto" is only in a limited sense a suitable characterization of this composition, for really it is a group concerto in which Bach realised to a considerable extent the concept of the juxtaposition of all participating parts on a basis of equality and thus also levelled the difference between ritornello and episode. This modification of the concerto concept is already indicated in the original title of the work, in which the composer describes the piece as "Concerto…6". Like the concerto in A minor, the composition is not one of the works of the Cöthen period, but was probably written around 1730 for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum.

The Concerto in D minor BWV 1052 has survived only in the form of a harpsichord concerto, but the figurations of the solo part disclose the fact that this is the transcription of a lost violin concerto. It is not easy to fit this unusual work conclusively into the correct historical context, and in the past doubts about the authenticity of this piece have repeatedly been expressed – certainly unjustly, for as far as we know no other composer apart from Bach cultivated such a concentrated and expressive concerto style in the first half of the eighteenth century. In unrivalled compositional mastery the piece develops musical concepts which had already determined the form and structure of the A minor Concerto: dense contrapuntal texture, motivic development of the accompaniment, a sombre mood almost throughout and a high degree of instrumental virtuosity, which at the same time always takes second place to the idea of the work.

Peter Wollny
Translation: Diana Loos

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