No other composer in the history of Western music compares to J.S. Bach. He excelled in virtually every genre — except opera — and invented quite a few himself, including the keyboard concerto.
Although the piano has dominated the concerto literature for more than 200 years, the keyboard came late to the ranks of concerto soloists. Baroque composers generally regarded the harpsichord as a “utility” orchestral instrument; one that filled in harmonies as opposed to presenting melody. Even Vivaldi — who composed more than 500 concertos — never wrote one for the harpsichord. (He did, however, manage to compose one for the lute.)
Bach was probably the first to compose concertos for the harpsichord. But even these are re-workings of his compositions for other instruments, usually “melody” instruments like the violin or oboe.
As it does every year, the festival brought together an impressive roster of performers and scholars. In addition to Founding Artistic Director Karen Flint, the event featured harpsichordists Davitt Moroney, Arthur Haas, Luc Beausejour, Janine Johnson, Leon Schelhase and Joyce Chen.
Accompanying them were Martin Davids and Edwin Huizinga (violins), Amy Leonard (viola), John Mark Rozendaal (cello), Heather Miller Lardin (bass), Rainer Beckman and Lewis R. Baratz (recorders). John Phillips provided care and tuning of the harpsichords.
The true stars of the event were the harpsichords, as Moroney stated in his pre-concert remarks. Instruments from the Flint Collection included two by the famous Flemish manufacturer Ioannes Ruckers (Antwerp, 1627 & 1635), one by Nicolas Dumont (Paris, 1707) and a recently acquired representative by father-and-son harpsichord builders Nicolas and Francois-Etienne Blanchet (Paris, 1730). Filling out the quarter was a representative by Joannes Goermans (Paris, 1748) on loan from a private collection. The instruments were chosen because they contain d’’’, the highest note of Bach’s harpsichords, explained Moroney.
Oddly enough, the event opened with a performance of the Concerto in A minor for 4 harpsichords, BWV 1065, a faithful transcript not of a Bach composition but of Vivaldi’s B minor Concerto for Four Violins (Op. 3/10). Bach, however, makes it his by expanding both the counterpoint and harmonies and imbuing the solo parts with greater complexity and clarity. Of particular interest is the middle movement where each soloist — Moroney, Flint, Johnson and Chen — produces a different kind of arpeggio on a central propulsive fragment.
Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056 is believed to have been based on a lost violin concerto in G minor. It is unusual in that it sets the soloist off rhythmically from the orchestra, with the strings playing in strict 2/4 time and the soloist playing almost exclusively in triplets. The lovely second movement provides a lyrical respite before a return, with only a slight pause, to the rhythmic vitality of the final movement, replete with felicitous echoes between soloist Luc Beausejour and the orchestra.
Arthur Haas and Leon Schelhase joined together to perform the Concerto in C minor for two harpsichords, BWV 1062. Bach’s well-known Double Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV 1043 provided the basis for this transcription. The opening and closing movements feature much contrapuntal weaving of themes. As for the middle movement, the orchestra takes a back seat as the soloists engage in a kind of Baroque vocal duet. This beautiful movement seems both intense and calm at the same time and one could easily see the emotional involvement on the faces of violinists Davids and Huizinga.
The mood brightened as Karen Flint offered the Concerto in A major, BWV 1055. As always, Flint’s playing was flawless. The outer movements of this concerto are lovely but the middle movement is unbelievably beautiful for its extremely long musical lines which weave so deftly when played, as here, at the proper tempo.
The highlight of the evening, though, was the less hummable — but most frequently performed — Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052. In this virtuosic tour-de-force, Janine Johnson and the accompanying strings wholly delivered on the drama and high-speed prowess of the outer movements, while reaping all poignancy of the middle movement.