Programme notes: JS Bach Concerto for 2 violins


Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor BWV 1043

1. Vivace

2. Largo ma non tanto

3. Allegro


The two surviving violin concertos and this concerto for two violins were all written between 1717 and 1723 at Cothen, during a period in the composer's life when he was at his happiest whilst in the service of the enlightened Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen, who placed at Bach's disposal an establishment of eighteen talented musicians. The six Brandenburg concertos also date from this period.

During his earlier years at Weimar, Bach had come to admire the Italian style of concerto as composed by Vivaldi. Indeed, he had paid the Venetian master the tribute of transcribing a number of his many published violin concertos for solo keyboard and had also arranged a Vivaldi concerto for four violins as a concerto for four harpsichords. Although these transcripts show Bach rethinking idiomatic violin music in terms of the keyboard, when it came to his own violin concertos the influence of the harpsichord, with its self-sufficient contrapuntal possibilities and quick unsustained brightness was entirely forgotten.

Bach's violin concertos are not virtuoso showpieces, as Vivaldi's tend to be, but are conceived completely in purely violinistic terms. With the need to display the skill of two soloists, Bach substantially reduces the orchestral contribution in this work. Once the extended opening tutti has established the mood, the weight of the first movement falls upon the soloists in two long episodes, the tutti returning briefly both in the middle and at the end. The soloists also have the responsibility of opening the finale and again dominate that movement.

Between these two outer movements lies one of Bach's greatest and most sublime creations, an eloquent duet of overlapping and imitative phrases punctuated on four occasions by a gentle downward four-note fragment that each time seems to lead to an intensification of the poignancy and depth of feeling of this wonderful dialogue. Further analysis, in the memorable words of the Bach scholar Frank Howes, seems akin to vivisection.