Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 11: Remarks by Erinn Knyt, performance by Victoria Suchodolski
In his four-volume Clavierübung, compiled during the last two decades of his life, Johann Sebastian Bach tested the limits of contemporaneous compositional practices and keyboard instruments. His Concerto after the Italian Taste, BWV 971, a vigorous three-movement work, was published in the second volume of the Clavierübung in 1735, together with the somber eight-movement Overture after the French Manner, BWV 831. This particular volume reveals Bach’s masterful understanding of both the harpsichord and Italian and French Baroque styles and forms.
Although indebted to the Italianate tradition in its form, virtuosity, and lyricism, Bach’s “Italian Concerto” also differed from the concertos by Italian composers such as Antonio Vivaldi and Alessandro Marcello that Bach encountered in Weimar in terms of the counterpoint and the blurring of orchestral and soloist roles. Bach began the first movement by mimicking traditional contrasts between orchestra and soloist roles on a solo keyboard instrument, with the first orchestral tutti section establishing the main key area of F major and the segmented main thematic material at a forte dynamic level, but he also blurred the roles after the first soloist section. Moreover, if the thematic and harmonic material of the final movement remains fairly simple, Bach transformed the scalar thematic material contrapuntally in the third movement, placing it in augmentation, diminution, inversion, and other permutations. Even in the second movement, Bach created two lines out of the deceptively simple accompaniment in the bass.
Bach conceived this virtuosic work for two-manual harpsichord, that is, a harpsichord with two keyboards, and this facilitated the dramatic evocations of full orchestra and keyboard solos. It is probable that Bach also had a German-built double manual harpsichord in mind when he composed the piece, and many such instruments feature a more powerful bass range and sound than contemporaneous French or Flemish instruments. Although we do not know the specific instrument Bach had in mind when composing the piece, he did have access to a double manual harpsichord made by Zacharias Hildebrandt at Zimmermann’s Coffee House, where he directed weekly concerts in Leipzig in the 1730s. When he died, Bach was also in possession of a number of keyboard instruments. Based on their estimated value, Robert Marshall has suggested that four might have been double manual harpsichords.1
A contemporary of Bach, Johann Scheibe, praised the “Italian Concerto” in 1739, stating: “Who is there who will not admit at once that this clavier concerto is to be regarded as a perfect model of a well-designed solo concerto?”2 Yet the recent reception of the “Italian Concerto” has been mixed, with some scholars noting more conventional formal elements than some of Bach’s earlier concerti, such as the opening and closing tutti sections of the first movement.3 Federico Garcia has maintained, however, that the piece is not necessarily regressive, since the second and third movements, which he claims were composed later, feature a stunning use of complex counterpoint and represent a more distinctively original approach.4
Bach’s “Italian Concerto” is frequently programmed and recorded. It is also beloved by many audiences. It is interesting to note that women played an important role in the early recording history of the piece. Wanda Landowska created what is believed to be the first recording on a cylinder in 1908 (movement one only). The first acoustic recording of the complete composition in 1927 was by Violet Gordon Woodhouse, also on harpsichord. Around the same time, both Arthur Schnabel (1924) and Vladimir de Pachmann (1926) created piano rolls of the piece.5 By the 1930s, it became common to perform and record the piece on either instrument, despite the fact that pianos have only one manual. Pianists must rely on a variety of touches to create the same type of contrasts possible on a double manual harpsichord. In the 1990s, reworkings, arrangements, and transcriptions of the piece also began to abound on a variety of other instruments, including saxophone quartet, guitar duo, accordion, and recorder quartet, among others. In addition, it was set by the Mark Morris dance company for five dancers, and it has also been used in film scores: Mr. Ripley, 1999; Harvard Man, 2001; Bridgerton, 2021.
In the following recording, Victoria Suchodolski chose to record the “Italian Concerto” on a double manual harpsichord by Peter Fisk built in 2010 in a Flemish style. In this particular performance, Victoria plays the outer movements with the manuals coupled, which means that both sets of strings are linked for a richer and fuller sound. She plays on the lower manual with the coupling to get the full orchestral sound for the parts marked forte, and on the upper manual for the parts marked piano. In the middle Andante movement, she still plays on the lower manual for the forte parts. Victoria aims for a stately and grand affect in the first movement. In the second, she imagines the right hand as a lyrical solo violin playing over an accompanimental continuo part. She plays the final movement in a fast two, but chose a more moderate tempo than some recordings, because, as she states, the acoustics made that the best choice: “In my space a faster tempo would have made it sound unclear. I would say this is true for the harpsichord in general, in my experience.”6
Please enjoy the performance of Bach’s “Italian Concerto” by Victoria Suchodolski.