Bach Concerto for Four Pianos

Today I’d like to share with you a concerto for four pianos by Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). The piece was originally composed by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) for four violins.

Let’s pause for a second and talk about Bach and Vivaldi. Both are superstars of the Baroque period. Bach lived all his life in Northern Germany, travelled very little, was a well-known organist, but gained fame as a composer only after his death. Vivaldi was born in Venice and travelled extensively around Europe. He was famous as both violinist and composer during his lifetime. This is why Bach transcribed Vivaldi’s music and not the other way around.

I am sharing with you two performances of Bach’s concerto. One by MultiPiano ensemble , an Israeli group of four virtuoso pianists.

The other performance is from 2002, with all-star performers Martha Argerich, Egveny Kissin, James Levine, and Mikhail Pletnev – and these are just the four pianists. They are joined by Sarah Chang (violin), Yuri Bashmet (violin), Mischa Maisky (cello), and others.

What I love about these performances is how different they are. MultiPiano’s performance is very dynamic and bright. The all-star performance is delicate and nuanced. A few years ago I would have said that I loved MultiPiano’s performance and didn’t like the all- stars’. Today I forced myself (probably too strong a word) to listen to both performances half a dozen times. I began to pick up on different nuances –different Bachs.

And then there’s the Vivaldi original:


Bach – Cello Suite No. 1

If the word Bach instantly puts you to sleep; if you relate Baroque music to the word boring, I can relate to your sentiment, as I used to feel the same way. But Bach’s Piano Concerto in D minor was the piece that really changed my perception of this musical genius. However, I promise you that after you listen to today’s piece, you will have found a brand new, delightful Bach. 

Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 is one of his most-performed pieces. Bach was a master of using counterpoint:  creative voices that are interdependent but at the same time have different rhythms. Suite No. 1 is the gold standard of counterpoint technique. I’ll include a traditional performance of Suite No. 1 by Yo-Yo Ma and Mischa Maisky, but the performance I want to focus on today is by a group known as the Piano Guys. With the magic of today’s audio and video recording equipment, they reworked this suite for eight cellos. This video has 37 million views, twenty of them from me and my family (my kids could not stop watching it).


Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor

I have to admit that a love for Bach’s music is fairly new to me. I felt Baroque music lacked emotion and was somewhat boring. Then one day I was perusing YouTube and stumbled on a video of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor. I don’t know if it was Gould or Bach, but I was mesmerized by this piece and listened to it nonstop for a week. This was Glenn Gould’s first public performance. He is introduced to the world by the one and only Leonard Bernstein, who is also conducting the concerto.

Composing music is somewhat similar to writing a play – you can be as descriptive or undescriptive as you want to be. Bernstein makes this point in the lecture preceding the performance. A playwright may write, “John walked into the room and said ‘Hello Martha.” Imagine if you were the director and that is all you had to stage this scene. You don’t know how old John is or how he talks. How he looks. You know nothing about the surroundings. There is a lot of blank canvas to fill in here.

Or the playwright could describe John as a middle-aged, balding, overweight New Yorker wearing dirty jeans with giant holes in the knees, limping slowly into an empty room whose linoleum floor is barely covered by smelly red carpet and whose walls have been carelessly smeared with peeling white paint. The more descriptive the playwright is, though, the less creativity and imagination are left to the director.

Though to civilians (like yours truly) all scores look intimidatingly the same, a composer also has the option to either just provide the outlines of a story and a few snatches of dialog, or to go to the extra mile in describing how the music should be played. The more descriptive is composer is in the score, the less room for creativity he leaves for the conductors and performers.

Mahler was incredibly precise with his music: He described every little innuendo of his symphonies. Bach was not descriptive at all. He left a huge space for interpretation of his music, and you can clearly hear that in this concerto.

Glenn Gould’s performance is vastly different from any other performance of this concerto. He plays it noticeably slower and accentuates the notes significantly more – his performance evokes melancholy where others deliver energy. Gould could not, however, have been able to slow down the concerto on his own; he needed an accomplice: Leonard Bernstein.

Glenn Gould’s debut performance (rewind to see Leonard Bernstein’s lecture)

Polina Osetinskya

Sviatoslav Richter

Murray Perahia

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