Johann Sebastian Bach is the simple but fitting title of a new album by 31-year-old Polish pianist Rafał Blechacz. The recording, released in February, features Bach’s Italian Concerto, Partita Nos. 1 and 3, Fantasia and Fugue In A Minor BWV 944, and the seldom-heard Four Duets BWV 802-805. (Blechacz offers this description of the Duets). British pianist Myra Hess’ arrangement of Jesus, Joy Of Man’s Desiring rounds out the disk.
Bach’s Italian Concerto in F Major, published in 1735 as the first half or the Clavier-Übung II, is based on the model of the sunny Italian concerti grossi of Vivaldi and Corelli. (Bach made keyboard transcriptions of at least nine of Vivaldi’s concertos. Here is one example). The concerto grosso is built on the interplay of the full baroque orchestra and small groups of instruments. Here, Bach captures all of the drama, dynamic contrast, and dialogue of the orchestral concerto in music written for a single two-manual harpsichord. In 1739, the composer and critic Johann Scheibe wrote:
Finally I must mention that concertos are also written for one instrument alone… There are some quite good concertos of this kind, particularly for clavier. But pre-eminent is a clavier concerto of which the author is the famous Bach in Leipzig. 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? It would take as great a master of music as Mr. Bach to provide us with such a piece, which deserves emulation by all our great composers and which will be imitated all in vain by foreigners.
The Italian Concerto‘s second movement is filled with a quiet, haunting sense of mystery. A single, lamenting voice rises above a solemn ostinato bass in D minor:
The Presto final movement explodes with joyful, sunny exuberance. It’s a rich, yet compact, drama which unfolds through multiple, conversing voices: