In 1711, a collection of violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi was published in Amsterdam under the title, L’estro armonico (“The Harmonic Inspiration”). It was a prime example of the Baroque concerto grosso form, in which a solo instrument, or small group of instruments, engage in continuous dialogue with a larger ensemble. The British musicologist Michael Talbot has called L’estro armonico “perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century.”
J.S. Bach was one composer who was profoundly influenced by the publication of the set. Around 1713 while employed at Weimar, Bach studied Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in A minor RV 522. He transformed it into the Organ Concerto in A minor BWV 593. Then, he proceeded to take Vivaldi’s model in a bold new direction. While Vivaldi’s “Double” Concerto feels open and breezy, with sunny, virtuosic solo lines often soaring above a sonic expanse, Bach’s Concertos are filled with dense, exhilarating counterpoint and layers of intricate moving parts.
This high octane contrapuntal conversation is what we experience in Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043. The first movement (Vivace) springs to life with a vigorous fugue statement, heard first in the second violin, then in the first violin, and finally deep in the basso continuo. The first solo statement spins seamlessly out of the concluding cadence of the opening ritornello (a recurring tutti section). As the vibrant drama unfolds, these spirited instrumental voices seem to be pulling us along on a thrilling adventure. Listen carefully, as themes emerge in one voice, and then are taken up by another.
Violinist Emily Deans describes the second movement (Largo ma non tanto) as “a kind of spiritual love cantilene between the two violins.” Shunske Sato, her partner in the performance below, compares its melodic breadth and dignity to the music of Handel. (Coincidentally, Handel’s majestic aria, Ombra mai fu, begins with the same descending four notes before moving in a much different direction). Propelled forward by the “heartbeat” of the continuo, the movement begins with a sensuous and lamenting statement in the second violin. The first violin’s answer moves the dialogue to a new world, harmonically. These moments of transcendent modulation occur throughout the movement. A new harmonic vista is always opening up.
The final movement (Allegro) explodes with ferocious, unrestrained energy. The solo voices follow closely on each other’s heels in a snarling and playful game of musical “tag.” In the final moments, the solo violins revel in the pure ecstasy of the harmony, while the orchestra lines rise to the forefront.
This performance, recorded on October 7, 2016, features violinists Shunske Sato and Emily Deans and The Netherlands Bach Society:
This clip is part of the Netherlands Bach Society’s ongoing All of Bach initiative. The project will conclude with a complete catalogue of J.S. Bach’s works in time for the Netherlands Bach Society’s centenary in 2022.