Bach, J.S.: Concerto No. 3 in D minor for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
BORN: March 21, 1685. Eisenach, Thuringia
DIED: July 28, 1750. Leipzig, Saxony
COMPOSED/PREMIERED: Around 1720. Bach may have been one of the soloists in its first performance
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST —November 1919. The soloists were Louis Persinger and Artur Argiewicz, with Alfred Hertz conducting. MOST RECENT—October 2014. SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik was soloist and leader with SFS Principal Second Violin Dan Carlson as the second soloist
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 violin soloists and strings
DURATION: About 15 mins
THE BACKSTORY Bach left two concertos for solo violin and several in which he combines the violin with various solo instruments. (It is likely that he wrote concertos for solo violin other than the famous pair in A minor and E major; although those other concertos don’t survive, they can convincingly be reconstructed from the concertos for solo harpsichord, all of which are presumed to be transcriptions rather than original compositions.) The concerto we hear this evening is Bach’s only one for two violins. It is a work of remarkably expressive intensity. The themes are full of character, full of irregularities, and they are presented with tremendous urgency. Right at the beginning, for example, the accompaniment of the violas and the bass group is in itself startlingly elaborate. The appearances of the explosive opening theme are the structural beams that support the inventive rush of activity in the brief first movement.
The second movement is, by contrast, gloriously expansive, though Bach cautions that the Largo must not be too broad. As Bach’s serenely broad‑spanned melody unfolds, the two violins support each other, compete in noble eloquence, spur each other on, make imitations that in all courtesy insist on individual views of phrasing, and speak precisely together only in the final cadence. The orchestra is reticent in this elegantly wrought star turn, but its few moments of soft emergence—some sighs from the first violins, two passages of sustained chords—reward attentive listening. The finale returns in heightened form to the impassioned, almost brusque motion of the first movement. Even the downward‑hurtling last phrase is far from being just a formal closure. It is, by the way, Violin II that begins the first and second movement, Violin I asserting its primacy by coming in on a higher pitch.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.