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The first works of Bach to be published by himself were for the keyboard. Put out in groups beginning in 1731, they were amassed under the encompassing title Clavierübung, clavier being the generic term covering all keyed instruments, including organ, übung meaning exer­cise or practice. The second part of the Clavierübung was published in 1735 and testifies to the provincial Bach’s cosmopolitan inclinations, for the title page reads: “Keyboard Practice Consisting in a Concerto after the Italian Taste and an Overture after the French Manner for a Harpsichord with Two Manuals, Composed for Music Lovers, to Refresh Their Spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach, Kapellmeister to His Highness the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen and Director Chori Musici Lipsiensis.”

In composing a solo concerto in Italian style, Bach set himself the twofold task of simulating the contrasting ensemble forces of concerto grosso or tutti (the full orchestra) and concertino (soloist or group of soloists), and supplying the form (fast-slow-fast) and exuberant spirit of the Italian concerto grosso models. Even one of Bach’s severest critics, Johann Scheibe, openly admired the composer’s resolution of the solo concerto problem, writing in 1739, “Finally I must mention that concertos are also written for one instrument alone... There are some quite good concertos of this kind, particularly for clavier. But pre-eminent is a clavier concerto of which the author is the famous Bach in Leipzig. Who is there who will not admit at once that this clavier concerto is to be regarded as a perfect model of a well-designed solo concerto? It would take as great a master of music as Mr. Bach to provide us with such a piece, which deserves emulation by all our great composers and which will be imitated all in vain by foreigners.”

The outer movements of the Italian Concerto are as impressive for their great good humor and vital propulsion as for their concerto imitations. In the first movement, as in any well-behaved concerto of the period, the tutti begins the proceedings, stating the theme that remains its possession throughout. Here, the vigorous, extroverted materials suggest the full forces of a string orchestra. These finally give way, after a strong, no-nonsense cadence that seems to have quotes around it and exclamation points after it, to the solo theme, an expressive idea that begins simply and becomes increasingly more decorative. The “contest” that ensues between the tutti and the concertino strikes at the heart of the concerto grosso principle that began in the early 1600s with the opposition of vocal and instrumental timbres.

It’s important to note that in the Italian Concerto, as in few other of his compositions, Bach supplied many indications for softs and louds, thus providing a clear picture of his concerto grosso intentions.

The D-minor slow movement, so string-like in its long – nearly unending – melodic contour, is one of those miraculous outpourings that defy description or explanation. This is a glorious solo aria, austere and pathetic, that unwinds in grand, expressive ornamental strands, all underpinned by an ostinato bass whose repetitions simulate an orchestral string accompaniment.

The competitive structural procedure that marks the first movement is mirrored in a third movement that finds an unbuttoned Bach reveling in a sturdy but joyous vigor that puts to rest any possible conception of the master as dry and pedantic. One point remains to be made: the pianist has a far greater challenge defin­ing and coloring ‘solo’ and ‘orchestra’ parts than has the performer on the two-manual harpsichord for which the Italian Concerto was conceived. But that’s all right; hard work is good for a pianist’s soul.