Borletti-Buitoni Trust
31 August 2011

Bach revisited

by Erik Bosgraaf

As I am writing this I am taking a small break listening to the first edit of my new CD Bach: Concertos for Recorder.

Wait a minute… Concertos for Recorder? Is this a recorder player suffering from ‘arrangitis’ [1]? Well, interestingly enough most of the harpsichord concertos by Bach are in fact arrangements made by and for himself as a soloist.[2] The concertos were performed by the collegium musicum in informal settings like Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig. In those works, Bach elegantly transformed instrumental and vocal movements from cantatas into movements for his own use. He also used movements from now lost concertos for unknown instruments most likely from his period in Cöthen. The lack of information about the pieces Bach used for his reworkings has led to a lot of speculation. The concerto BWV 1055 (known as the harpsichord concerto BWV 1057) is claimed by oboists[3] to be for the oboe d’amore. However, substantial evidence to support this has not been found. Bach has never written similar demanding material for this instrument in his cantatas, making it hard to believe that it was ever intended for that instrument. All movements of concerto BWV 1053 can be traced back to aria’s and sinfonie from cantatas but the original tonality and instrumentation remains in shadows. And BWV 1059, known in its most common disguise as an oboe concerto, survives as a harpsichord concerto only in the first 20 bars.

But why then play them on the recorder?

Well, first of all because, just like Bach, I love to have great music for my own instrument. Apart from that, Bach as a composer, was very familiar with the recorder using it extensively in numerous cantatas, two concertos for multiple instruments[4] and the Matthew Passion (very briefly though). In addition, it is widely assumed that many of his orchestral and chamber works have been lost. So what if Bach had a recorder player available which ignited his fantasy so much as to make a version for recorder?[5] This hypothesis has been taken one step further by Thiemo Wind in producing a fully new concerto based on cantata movements with a likely instrumental origin or a real potential for successful reworking. Who said musicology was boring?

The small sample on BBT’s YouTube channel here is a recording the BBT made during the ceremonial concert for the Dutch Music Prize. It is an arrangement of Bach’s ornamental organ choral BWV 622.

Listen to excerpts from the Bach Concertos CD on the BBT website.

[1] Arran’gitis (noun) chronic disease. Patients suffering from this syndrome are not able to control the urge to arrange every single piece they can lay their hands on. Although single cases have been reported as to have miraculously cured from the syndrome, most never fully recover from the symptoms.

[2] Bach single-handedly invented the form of Harpsichord Concerto, in a similar way Handel invented the Organ Concerto. Not surprising Handel also composed them to be played by himself.

[3] And the Neue Bach Ausgabe, Bärenreiter.

[4] Of which one is actually another reworking by Bach for his own instrument. I am talking about his reworking of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G for solo violin, two recorders and orchestra into the Concerto for harpsichord, two recorders in F BWV 1057.

[5] Not only that, brief browsing over the internet showed that musicians recorded concerto versions for oboe, oboe d’amore, traverso, bassoon, trumpet, piano, organ, harpsichord (BWV 1059), viola but not for recorder!