Review Summary: Bach delivers perfection... with a side-serving of awesomeness.
The harpsichord was a popular instrument in the western classical tradition for only a couple of hundred years before being outmoded by the vastly superior piano, and it’s easy to see why. The difficulty of controlling dynamics, the quick fade of sound and plucky timbre gave way to a much smoother sound, and mechanics allowing easier sustainability and full, immediate control of dynamics. However, one could argue that, irrelevant of the quality the platform provides, all that really matters is the quality of the creative content. How many gaming companies rely on inferior sequels of far superior games made on superseded consoles? The harpsichord became a neglected instrument… but it had its era when great composers were composing for it, and amongst those great composers was one of the greatest: Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach made the most of the harpsichord’s clunky sound, the clarity of sound available from the lack of sustainability and gave this now antique instrument its due with his stunning first concerto for harpsichord in d minor.
The first movement starts with a dramatic opening theme in a minor key, enthralling the listener with a dark and memorable passage that repeats with variation between many hysterical frenzies of skilful harpsichord madness. It’s here that Bach utilises the plucky timbre of the harpsichord to create brilliant suspense through lightning-fast ornamentations and dissonance whilst the underlying strings add to the tension. After a section in the major key to give the listener a breather, Bach plummets the listener back into flares of contrapuntal complexity, packed with thrills and trills as the harpsichord and accompanying strings fight for attention - eventually compromising to end the movement as one with the final statement of the original theme.
The second movement brings down the pace from the hectic first movement, and also presents a change in texture as well. With all instruments moving at the same time, Bach maintains a solemn progression between all instruments before allowing the harpsichord to play a melancholic, mournful melody on top of the grieving viols. The steady minor progressions persist throughout the movement with sparse major inflections giving the piece some hope before being snatched back into gloom and despair. Whilst maintaining this beautifully sorrowful atmosphere throughout the movement, Bach remembers to give the harpsichord intricate flourishes and haunting melodies, keeping it very much the centre of attention.
The third and final movement is based around the first in structure and harmony. It revisits the drama of the first movement, but by using different melodic and rhythmic ideas, doesn't sound at all recycled, but rather fittingly rounds off the concerto with class. Often the strings will wander off whilst the harpsichord dexterously lets off steam, giving way to pure polyphonic goodness. After some thumping rhythms and the harpsichord working up and down its range faster than a speeding yo-yo, the strings and harpsichord finally come together for a quick and succinct conclusion.
Here, Bach produces a piece perfectly designed for harpsichord, which simply wouldn't sound anywhere near as good on the ‘more advanced’ piano. Even if the harpsichord has had its time, it certainly isn't forgotten because of the greatness of compositions (such as this one) made for its awkward dynamics and unique tone; and with the ingenuity of composers like Bach, remains a recognisable instrument to those keen on classical.