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The Three Lives of Johann Sebastian Bach's
Kothen Concertos


Text of the booklet "J.S.Bach OBOENWERKE, volume 1 / ALEXEI UTKIN / HERMITAGE ORCHESTRA"

If you intend to realise what stands behind the words "Johann Sebastian Bach's art" - imagine a fresco on the wall of an ancient cathedral, on which you can see merely the upper, or the most recent, layer of paint, or recall a painting by an old master, which was drawn (due to the lack of a clean piece of canvas) over some previous painting of his that was doomed to remain buried. The like mysteries can be found in the music of the great German composer, since Bach often built his new compositions upon the basement of his earlier works, many of which have not survived in their original form. However, today we regain the music that seemed to have been lost forever.
The four Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) presented in this album may have been created during the Kothen period (1717-1723). For quite a long time, these works had been known to be but the lost originals of Bach's subsequent (dated back to the late 1730s) clavier Concertos-"re-compositions" (in Bach's parlance). While taking into account the key, the range of solo melodies, and the special features of the melodic figures and phrases, musical historians managed to find out what instruments the original versions of those Concertos were composed for - and thus, the scientifically verified "reconstructions" of the original works emerged in the second half of the 20th century. Among those, quite a few marvellous examples of the virtuoso compositions for an oboe with orchestra were found, to the sheer delight of Bach players. It was discovered that the clavier Concerto in E-major (BWV 1053) conceals a Concerto for an oboe (in this album, in F-major), and the Concerto in A-major (BWV 1055) covers up a Concerto for an oboe d'amore (the both Concertos featured in the manuscript including seven complete clavier Concertos and the opening fragment of yet another "re-composition", BWV 1052-1059). Bach composed the Concerto for two claviers in C-minor (BWV 1060) "after" his lost Concerto for an oboe and a violin (in this album, in D-minor). The Concerto for three violins in D-major was reconstructed on the basis of the Concerto for three claviers in C-major (BWV 1064). This opus' transcription for an oboe, a flute and a violin suggested by A. Utkin produces an peculiar artistic effect, a dialogue of the three truly individual characters occurs as opposed to the homogenous "glittering" sound of three violins conceived by Bach. The virtuoso solo parts originally written for other instruments require an exceptional craftsmanship from the musicians.
The reconstruction of these significant works is not only a blissful gift to musicians and music-lovers, but also a good excuse for an unpretentious "investigation". Following in the wake of the modern musical experts, we will take our effort in curious "reconstruction", while rebuilding the pace of events in their historical progression.
So, Bach's first close encounter with the instrumental Concerto genre took place during the period of his stay in Weimar (ca. 1710): the 20-year-old musician got to know the wonderful grand Concertos (primarily, the violin ones) of his great Italian contemporaries - first and foremost, the unmatched Antonio Vivaldi. Educated on the clavier music, an inimitable harpsichord- and organ-player himself, the young Bach learned the art of the Italian violin Concerto by an extraordinary method: he transcribed those violin compositions for his "native" keyboards, literally touching the different music with his own fingers (about two dozens of such transcripts have survived). In all likelihood, Bach composed his first original Concertos in Weimar; however, this genre flourished in his art in the Kothen years, thanks to the fact that the conditions there were favourable, indeed.
The young (nine years younger than Bach) Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Kothen was a devoted music enthusiast. Being not wealthy, he, nevertheless, supported a large instrumental cappella and never lost the chance to play his beloved viola da gamba. It is no wonder that Bach's Sixth Brandenburg Concerto includes rather simple solo parts for two violas (the instruments, by the way, are "at rest" in the middle section of the sequence): capellmeister Bach composed one of them specially for his sovereign and patron.
Alas, so little has survived from that time, one of the most brilliant and fruitful periods in the genius' artistic life! First and foremost, among those are the six Brandenburg Concertos and a handful of violin Concertos. Bach's Concertos of the Kothen period display an extraordinary combination of youthful vigor and experience, daring and craftsmanship. With all the seeming simplicity of the baroque Concerto's rationale, based on the juxtaposition of tutti refrains and chamber intermediate episodes and on the stability of the basic scheme of the movement's sequence (fast - slow - fast), the Bach Concertos are just amazing in their magnitude, inner logic and the diversity of individual, often unforeseen, decisions. By the force of his musical insight, Bach unites a multitude of lesser, inherently contrasting, episodes into larger format sections following the principle: exposition - development - reprise, and yet, he never repeats himself! Sometimes, he builds the sequence on the basis of the balanced symmetrical structure of the aria da capo: the joyous and solemn, totally identical, opening and closing sections appose the lyrical middle section, touched by minor tones, while introducing new, more "sensual", motives (the 1st and 3d movements of the BWV 1053 Concerto). In other cases, the middle section develops the key theme. However, thanks to the dynamically changing harmony, the key image is enriched by many subtle emotional aspects (the 1st and 3rd movements of the BWV 1055 Concerto). Following the larger unstable middle pieces, the reprise is somewhat shifted towards the end of each movement; moreover, Bach was able to "retard", and quite artfully so, the reprise while creating the effect of pleasantly impatient expectance (BWV 1064, 1st movement). Sometimes, the intermezzo music smoothly and obscurely "leaks through" out of the tutti refrains (BWV 1060); whereas, in other cases, the central intermezzos are highlighted in the general flow of music being nothing but brilliant solo cadences (BWV 1064, 3rd movement). And, of course, the impeccable slow middle movements are the genuine pinnacle of Bach's lyrics, divine and pathetic!
Inexhaustible inventor, the "Kothen" Bach created his instrumental masterpieces with ease and artistic inspiration affordable by but few a geniuses. Out of "commonplaces" of the melodic developments, he creates unforgettable individual themes. He experiments with different sets of solo instruments, each time striving for the new and expressive sound of a whole ensemble (let us just recall his Brandenburg Concertos).
Bach is renowned for having a keen ear for each musical instrument's character. There is no doubt that oboe music, for instance, conjured up certain personalized images in his mind. The sound of Bach's oboe - deep and filled with emotion - is strikingly different from the intonation of other melodious instruments common at the time, like the light and dynamic flutes and violins allowing to combine melodic tunes with a player's dazzling virtuosity. Oboe d'amore - the viola-like version of the baroque oboe with a deeper voice - has even a richer and sweet "loving" sound. An oboe's timbre is remarkably consonant with the tone of the Bach Concertos' slow movements marked with their delicate melancholy. In addition, this instrument has enough dynamic range to easily maintain the fast tempo in the side movements of Kothen concertos. Still, even then it sounds unhurried - due to unique character of this instrument. We can guess what considerations Bach had of an oboe's sound judging by the instrumental heritage of his next, Leipzig, creative period - a rich harvest that in many ways was a series of "re-compositions" of his Kothen instrumental Concertos, many of those were re-born in Bach's church cantatas. Moreover, thanks to the combination of the music and the word, the new incarnation of those works helped discover their hidden and concealed meaning.
Thus, the oboe Concerto BWV 1053 was employed by the composer in his two cantatas performed in the autumn of 1726, at a two-week interval. In his Cantata No. 169 "God alone my heart shall master", the Concerto's 1st movement appears as the opening "sinfonia", whereas the music of Part 2 becomes the basis for the viola's aria No. 5. The Concerto's 3rd movement was used as the opening "sinfonia" to the Cantata No. 49 "I go and seek for thee with longing".
Partly, "re-composition" of his previous works was influenced by the tight schedule of Bach's early years of his work in Leipzig when the composer was entitled to deliver a new cantata for every Sunday mass. However, employing his music of earlier years, Bach always took into consideration its expressive features. The first of the above-mentioned cantatas is a reflection on the New Testament lines about "the foremost commandment" - "thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart" (Mark, 12:30). The music of Bach's cantata tells about the tender and divine love for the Lord, which must become the only and all-pervasive human passion. Its central, and the most touching, moment is that same viola's aria No. 5, the re-composition of the oboe's trembling monologue from the Kothen Concerto, rendered in the rhythm of an elegant Siciliana. The imagery of this aria is shrill and mysterious: man dies for the earthly world and he is only aware of the sweet, unfamiliar feeling of the divine love for God ("Die in me world and all of thine affection, that my breast, while on earth yet, more and more here the love of God may practise; die in me, pomp and wealth and outward show, ye corrupted carnal motives"). Quite as remarkable is the second cantata performed in connection with the reading of the parable of the marriage feast (Matthew, 22: 1-14). This cantata called "Dialogus" by Bach, tells about the Bridegroom's (the Lord's) searching for and gaining his once lost Bride (an allegory of the human soul as well as the church). Bach matches the candid imagery of love depicted in the cantata's poetical lines with his languishing and fluctuating harmonies (where the verses poeticise the parted lovers' grief) or with the elegant secular melodies - as in the soprano aria with the oboe d'amore solo describing the joy of the bride at the wedding feast: "I am glorious, I am fair, and my Saviour I've impassioned".
Derived from the Holy Script, the allegorical depiction of the Saviour as the loving Bridegroom and of His coming into the world as the wedding feast looms large in all Bach's church music, including such grand opuses as The St. Matthew Passion and The Christmas Oratorio. The sound of oboe is closely connected with this major theme. The love theme is where the oboe is, and along with the love theme, the wedding theme arises - not only in the allegorical sense. We know Bach as the author of formal wedding music, in which the oboe parts enlighted ("wedding cantatas" Nos. 202, 212). Thus it would be wrong to ignore the fact that Bach's stay in Leipzig culminated in the double marriage. At first the great composer married the woman who was destined to accompany him till his very last day: on the 3d of December of 1721, Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, the daughter of the Weissenfels court trumpeter. And next week, on the 11th of December, Prince Leopold wedded Friederica Henrietta von Anhalt-Bernburg (the young wife obviously did not share her husband's pursuit of music and soon, the financing of Bach's cappella was cut down).
Back to our story, though. We saw Bach in his thirties living in Kothen and then, Bach in his forties, just having arrived in Leipzig; now let us turn to Bach at 50, deep-rooted in Leipzig, the man who has reached the pinnacle of his glory. By that time, around 1738, the composer had completed the clavier re-compositions of his Kothen Concertos - those that helped to accomplish the recent reconstructions. But what was his objective in undertaking that effort? There are a few of hypotheses on the matter.
Bach might have "re-composed" his earlier works either for his musical classes with one of his students (say, his 14-year-old son Gottfried Heinrich who was musically talented, to his father's delight); or for the performances of the Leipzig-based student orchestra Collegium Musicum that were held once a week in the then popular G. Zimmermann's coffee house or at the adjacent garden. Since 1729, Bach directed this ensemble, and in the print announcements of the Collegium Musicum's presentations we can find, for instance, a remark about a harpsichord, "with the sound like you have never before heard". Lastly, some "re-compositions" may be related to Bach's trip to Dresden in May, to attend the wedding of the Princess of Saxony Maria Amalia (yet another wedding appears in our story!). Bach was very much proud of his new honourable title - the court composer - that Elector of Saxony Frederick Augustus II granted him in 1736. So, we cannot rule out that the series of his clavier re-compositions might have been the grateful musician's "offering" to his powerful benefactor.
Anyway, the 1730s clavier "re-compositions" were authored by an older and well-experienced man. At the time, he supported a large household that, according to the old German-guild traditions, consisted not only of his relatives but also his numerous apprentices. Evidently all his relatives turned into apprentices (Bach composed his "Sheet Music Notebooks" even for Anna Magdalena). Therefore, even assuming that his Concertos for one clavier were performed exclusively by the author, those for two and three claviers is a clear reference to the family performances.
The 50-year-old Bach devotes more of his time to clavier music. He is undoubtedly acclaimed for his high expertise in the field. Now, the composer would not even try to create a new masterpiece every week just to amaze Leipzig's political elite. All his experiments and musical escapades were gone.
Bach began his career at the clavier, and returning to the clavier, he once again embarked on a bold creative quest. Re-composed for the keyboards, Bach's former instrumental Concertos, in a way, returned native field, yet losing their individual intonation and sounding in a more "unified" manner. From the vantage point of history, we can look at Bach's latest "non-timbre", i. e. not devised for some particular instrument, works: "The Art of the Fugue" and the major part of pieces in "The Musical Offering". Having reached these snow-white peaks of the pure musical intellect, the aged Bach as if repudiated the material world with its vast diversity of colours and tints.
So, in the end, the story of Bach's Kothen Concertos merges with the fate of their creator. The three lives of these Concertos, each in its new incarnation, are but the three, distinct and different, ages of the composer himself. The recent reconstructions of the Kothen oeuvres are indeed the landmarks of considerable importance. They help to understand better that side of Bach, which we know, perhaps, the least. The composer's image born out of those pieces draws our admiration and lively sympathy.

Roman Nassonov, translation by Oleg Alyakrinsly

Text of the booklet "J.S.Bach OBOENWERKE, volume 1 / ALEXEI UTKIN / HERMITAGE ORCHESTRA"


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