Happy Birthday, Johann Sebastian Bach
By John Stone
The vernal equinox is upon us, dividing night and day into equal halves. It is also the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, born March 21, 1685. How fitting that this endlessly creative and perennial composer should have been born on the first day of spring; his music is deeply imbued with a sense of renewal, alternating with poignant and uplifting frequency between contrasts of dark and light, melancholy and cheer. In recognition of Bach's birthday, I've chosen to concentrate on his violin concertos, works filled with enormous feeling and exuberance of spirit with movements emerging out of the darkest depths of winter into worlds bubbling over with optimism, freshness, youthful zeal: life.
Bach composed these concertos during his Weimar and Cöthen periods (running from 1708-1723). Written in the ritornello form (indicating the repetition of thematic statements), Bach's violin concertos weave incredibly rich tapestries of sound, seamlessly intertwining the melodic lines of the soloist with those of the orchestra (tutti). Whereas contrast that pits soloist against the orchestra is built into the Romantic conception of the concerto, Bach's organization of the individual and collective is figured as one of integration and mutual support.
Contrast, for Bach, rather comes into play in the fast-slow-fast form of the three-movement Baroque concerto. Immediately, one notices a difference in the emotional contrast between the tempi (central, lyrical adagios sandwiched between dynamic, propulsive allegros). We have music of unutterable poignance and pathos like the Largo of the Double Violin Concerto in D Minor or the Adagio from the Concerto in A Minor pitted against the driving, relentlessly coursing movements that frame them.
Each concerto also reveals contrast through the juxtaposition of movements composed in varying degrees of contrapuntal complexity. In general, the central slow movements are far more free-ranging, employing long and languidly unfolding solo melodies over the ostinato walking bass of the tutti, whereas the outer movements tend toward more complexly imitative forms including gigues, fuguettas, and so on. This alternation between the more strict, rigorous symmetry and complexity of the fast movements and the more discursive, organic form of the slower ones is deeply satisfying on visceral, intellectual and emotional levels. It is as though Bach were framing the asymmetrical beauty of a flower on a backdrop of geometric perfection. Another simile: Leonardo Da Vinci's famous Vitruvian Man, framed within a circle and square.
Bach seems to be proposing two kinds of order: the divine and human, the perfect and the imperfect. The outer movements, with their cyclical repetitions and more strict application of contrapuntal laws dictating the tight organization of harmony (being an outgrowth of multiple independent lines), could be seen as prefiguring divine perfection. Embedded within the fold is man, imperfect, reaching, ever unfolding from a starting point to an ending one. Abstracting the argument further, one might say we have an open spiral framed by two closed circles.
Whether one accepts the terrestrial/celestial analogy (and I do not think it too farfetched considering Bach's supreme devotion as a Lutheran, and in light of some of the more speculative scholarship surrounding Bach's instrumental works), I hope at least to impress this one idea: the music sets in complementary juxtaposition two systems, the closed (stasis/geometric) and the open (dynamic/organic). Aesthetically, the combination is extremely rewarding: each system perfectly balances the other, giving us the sense that they require their opposite for ultimate power. Philosophically, this dynamic synthesis of oppositions- this dialectic of forms- is profound in its implications about the interdependency of the systems. Wallace Stevens arrived at a similar conclusion in the poem Sunday Morning, in which he asks:
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Bach's violin concertos, along with much of his music, ask us the same questions, if only obliquely: how can the finite and infinite, closed and open, perishable and geometric coexist? And we find that the music answers us with continued listening and investigation, its creative resources inexhaustible. Among the myriad possible answers, one leaps out for me beyond the others: as with the seasons, there is endless change, but in the repeated cycles of death and renewal, changelessness. This is music for an eternal spring.
On Harmonia Mundi's J.S. Bach: Solo & Double Violin Concertos, we encounter two of the world's finest period instrument violinists, Andrew Manze and Rachel Podger of England, performing German Baroque music that was inspired by the Italian concerto tradition headed by Antonio Vivaldi and Tomaso Albinoni. With risk of diminishing the impact of my words via superlatives, I will say that this is music of the highest order, transcending all nationalities and genre categories, performed by soloists and an orchestra who perfectly convey the genius of the compositions with their exquisitely wrought performances.
This budget recording, needless to say, is well worth the small price. Among my more than 1,000 Bach recordings on CD, this is one of my top ten. Historical (period) instruments have perhaps never been given a better name (they still suffer a reputation as screechy and thin). Andrew Manze directs The Academy of Ancient Music, magically organizing the ensemble and soloists (Podger and himself) into a perfect vehicle of communication and expression. The sound balance is also a marvel of recording engineering, managing to retain the depth of field of the small band of musicians while isolating the independent instruments. The recording includes the complete single and double violin concertos (including the arrangement for two violins of Bach's own double harpsichord concerto in C minor). Manze's liner notes are both instructive and entertaining, providing a helpful context for these works while going into some detail about Bach's history of arrangements.
I offer my highest possible recommendation for this recording.