Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 2: Remarks by Matthew Dirst, performance by Ars Lyrica Houston, with Mario Aschauer (Matthew Dirst, Artistic Director)
Musicians have always collected instruments. They're the tools of our trade. The inventory of Bach's estate lists, among just the keyboard instruments, some five harpsichords, several spinets, and a Lautenwerk, a kind of lute with keys. He likely patronized several different builders, making the Bach harpsichord a somewhat elusive concept, particularly since we don't know very much about any of those instruments. We know a lot, however, about some surviving instruments from his milieu. Bach must have been responsible for a harpsichord delivered in 1719 to the Cöthen court from the Berlin builder Michael Mietke. The two extant Mietke instruments at the Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin have inspired numerous copies from some of our era's finest makers.
Bach was also surely acquainted with some instruments by the Gräbner family in nearby Dresden, one of whom studied organ with him. The Gräbners built all kinds of keyboards: organs, harpsichords, clavichords, even early pianos, and several of their double-manual harpsichords reside today in museum collections.
The American builder John Phillips began making Gräbner-style harpsichords 20 years ago, after careful inspection of the originals. In front of me is his most recent creation, a single-manual Gräbner with characteristic decoration by his longtime colleague Janine Johnson. This instrument has a keyboard compass and a string disposition that allows performance of all the Bach keyboard works, except for a few that require a second manual. Like the surviving original Gräbners, it is iron-strung in the treble, which lends a beautiful singing tone to that part of the compass. Its focused and resonant bass is a reminder that this family also built organs.
In addition to this instrument, we also have available today another John Phillips, a single-manual harpsichord, modeled after the work of the eighteenth-century Flemish builder, Albert Delin of Tournai, a city just south of Brussels. This harpsichord channels the sound of Flemish instruments from the previous century, those of the Ruckers family, especially, while its expanded keyboard compass makes it an excellent vehicle for almost any Baroque keyboard music.
And since they're side by side, a quick harpsichord tasting seems to be in order. Here's the Allemande from Bach's French Suite in G major, with its first half on the Gräbner and the second half on the Delin.
The concerto took Europe by storm in the early eighteenth century. Published collections by Italian composers found an especially enthusiastic audience among German musicians, who put their own stamp on this newly fashionable genre of instrumental music.
Bach absorbed its essence by studying and transcribing Vivaldi, whose violin concertos he re-scored as solo keyboard works during his time at the Weimar court. By 1721, Bach had taken the next step with a work many regard as the first keyboard concerto—this is Brandenburg Five. Its inversion of the typical hierarchy of the Baroque ensemble, with the lowly continuo instrument suddenly thrust into a virtuosic solo role, proved popular with other keyboard players. Handel inserted comparable movements into his earliest operas and oratorios.
Within a few years, Bach had a growing storehouse of keyboard concertos whose solo parts could be adapted to either harpsichord or organ. An autograph from the late 1730s contains musical texts of seven solo harpsichord concertos, with four-part string accompaniment. In addition, Bach left several concertos for multiple harpsichords and strings, while most of the latter are transcriptions from originals featuring other solo instruments.
The C major Concerto, BWV 1061, was originally conceived as a work for just two harpsichords; Bach added the string parts later. From a recent virtual performance of that concerto in Houston, this Tiny Bach Concert includes the central Adagio and closing Fugue. In the slow movement, scored for just the two harpsichords, Bach creates an expressive yet complex texture by developing contrapuntally his initial figure, a languid motive on the model of the Italian siciliano. The fugal exposition likewise begins without the strings, who enter only as the rambunctious finale gathers steam. Bach's powers of assimilation are on full display here in a movement that combines fugal with concerto ritornello procedures. Enjoy!