1738: Bach: Concerto in D Minor, age 53

You will see this called a concerto for piano and for harpsichord, but it is highly unlikely that Bach intended it for piano. That does not keep it from sounding great on piano. But more important, we now think that he wrote it for violin and changed his mind because it was too hard. It’s no longer too hard today, so here you have not two but three choices.

Shunske Sato, violin, Netherlands Bach Society

This is not in D minor, and it’s not even in C# minor, which is what we usually hear today for this music when it’s pitched lower for older instruments. It’s in C minor, but not quite, and I can’t explain that. If you want to know why perfect pitch is destructive, this is a perfect example.

First of, check this out HERE, because this a man who is extremely gifted and also incredibly articulate. Because he is so musical I would listen to anything he says about anything he’s playing, and he is one of a group of musicians who is so young and so original that I think he is helping change everything. He was already famous and doing great things while still in his 20s. My first thought was: Why is a violinist trying to make us re-imagine something for harpsichord for violin? But after hearing this, I’m convinced. Yes, this could very well have been written for violin, then later give to other instruments because there was no one around at that time who could do it justice. Where this especially shines is in the 2nd, slow movement, where for me harpsichord doe not work at all, and even piano is less effective. Note that pitch is low, but not a complete 1/2 step, and this is part of the mystery of how people today are now tuning. No one agrees on standard music for music of this period, and with good reason. It did not exist.

Glenn Gould

This is in D minor, which we expect today. He plays slower, with incredible articulation. There is nothing to see, and the sound is not at spacious as later recordings, But I always come back to this as the model of what I think this piece should sound like on piano, or at least very close to the best it can sound.

Polina Osetinskaya, Anton Gakkel

This for me rivals Gould, and the recording is excellent. It’s also in D minor.

I like everything about this performance. Note the pianist is using music. There is never a reason to play without music except to impress non-musicians – except to play things without music that you can’t play with it, and for this piece that’s not a factor. So if you are less impressed because she is using music, rethink how you are listening to music and make sure you are not listening with your eyes. She’s a pure musician. No throwing the hands around, no constipated facial expressions, just pure quality playing. It’s a joy to both see and hear.

Not what we expect today…

Concertos by the time of Beethoven and later composers were usually written for big groups and many instruments to back them up. There is no question about what instrument – or instruments – concertos were written for. But here there are only strings, and no one knows for sure what solo instrument Bach would have preferred if he could have heard what modern performers are able to do today.

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