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 be 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.
was also 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movements – a style of composition which was outdated in Bach's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.
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 (c.1672-1738), 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.
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.
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'
(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 d
minor Concerto (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
only his choice of tempo is sometimes
unconvincing, so is the use of the buff
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.
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. A considerable
amount of caution is required.
Johan van Veen