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Rafał Blechacz and Bach's "Italian Concerto"

pianist Rafał Blechacz
Marco Borggreve
Rafał Blechacz

On The Bach Hour, the Chopin Competition winner reveals passion, drama, and crystalline spark in a solo piano work, and Rudolf Lutz conducts the Cantata No. 30.

On the program:

Was Gott tut, das ist Wohlgetan, from Cantata BWV 75 - Brassissimo

Cantata BWV 30, Freue dich, erloeste Schar (translation) - Julia Sophie Wagner, soprano; Terry Wey, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass; Chorus and Orchestra of the J.S. Bach Foundation St. Gallen; Rudolf Lutz, conductor

Duet in F, BWV 803 - Rafał Blechacz, piano

Italian Concerto, BWV 971 - Rafał Blechacz, piano



J.S. Bach’s Italian Concerto isn’t the longest of his keyboard works, not by a long shot. Nor is it the most technically challenging. It didn’t break new musical ground or make a profound statement. But the Italian Concerto is such a jewel that even the composer’s harshest critics couldn’t help but love it.


Bach published the piece to bring the warm spirit of Italy - as he learned it from Vivaldi - to the musicians of his north German home. A few centuries later, one particular musician, growing up in a small town in Poland, got hold of the Italian Concerto when he was a teenager and made it his own. You’ll hear Rafał Blechacz in the Italian Concerto, coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I'm Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from Classical Radio Boston WCRB, a part of WGBH. Rafał Blechacz vaulted to international attention when he won the International Chopin Competition at the age of 20. In fact, he didn’t just win first prize. He also won all of the four categories of the competition - polonaise, mazurka, sonata, and concerto. When he visited Boston, Rafał Blechacz told me that Deutsche Grammophon then booked him for his first major label recording. He wanted to record Bach. The label said, no, you just won the Chopin competition; we need you to record Chopin. Of course he went along with the plan, but he eventually did get to record Bach, and you’ll hear the results later in the hour.

Also on the program today is the Cantata No. 30, Freue dich, erlöste Schar, or “Rejoice, redeemed flock.” And you’ll find a link to a translation of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can hear this program again on demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

First, here the ensemble Brassissimo, with the chorale “What God has done is well done,” here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 75]

That’s the final chorus from the Cantata No. 75, in a transcription performed by the Vienna-based ensemble Brassissimo.

For Bach and the audience in the churches he served, one of the major celebrations of the summer months was the birthday of John the Baptist, which is what led to the composer’s Cantata No. 30. It celebrates John the Baptist as a promise kept by God, opening with a dance-like chorus on the words, “Rejoice you redeemed flock, your annointed one now has firm ground on which to protect you.” After the bass soloist praises God for preparing the way for Jesus, the alto soloist sings directly to the believer, “come you tempted sinners, hurry and run … get up from your sleep of sin, for now is the time of grace.”


And the first of the two parts of the cantata ends as the chorus sings, “make the way of the Lord ready, make a level path for God.”


In the second half the perspective shifts to that of the believer’s voice, giving thanks on an individual level and praying for unification with the divine with an urgency expressed by the soprano soloist through the word “eilt,” or “hurry.”


The final chorale returns to the imagery of the opening through the words, “Rejoice you holy flock, the glory of your happiness will never reach an end.”

Remember, you can find a complete translation of the text for this piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you start at our website, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is Bach’s Cantata No. 30, in a performance featuring soprano Julia Sophie Wagner, alto Terry Wey, tenor Jakob Pilgram, and bass Klaus Mertens. Rudolf Lutz leads the chorus and orchestra of the J.S. Bach Foundation of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

[MUSIC – BWV 30]

Bach’s Cantata No. 30, Freue dich, erlöste Schar, or “Rejoice, redeemed flock,” iin a performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation of St. Gallen in Switzerland and director Rudolf Lutz. The soloists included Julia Sophie Wagner, alto Terry Wey, tenor Jakob Pilgram, and bass Klaus Mertens.

That’s one of many recordings made so far by the Bach Foundation in Switzerland. Since 2006, the founder of the organization, Rudolf Lutz, has been leading a performance each month of a Bach cantata - each of them recorded for release - along with lectures and reflections by other musicologists and performers. The goal of the foundation is to record all of Bach’s vocal works, and, at that pace, their own estimate is that they’ll finish in the year 2030.

And … this is pianist Rafał Blechacz.

[MUSIC - BWV 804]

A short Duet in G for keyboard, performed by pianist Rafał Blechacz.

These days, Bach’s music occupies the rare space of being both a foundation for musicians and audiences and a pinnacle of what music can be as an art form. But in his own day, Bach had to endure some pretty fierce criticism. One of the fiercest of those critics was Johann Scheibe, who thought Bach’s vocal music was unnatural and too difficult. But once Bach published the Italian Concerto, even Scheibe loved it, writing that, “who will not admit that this is a perfect model of a well-designed solo concerto?”

When Rafał Blechacz visited Boston for the very first time to play concert for the Celebrity Series of Boston, he told me - in a conversation among the practice rooms at the Longy School of Music - that the perfection of the Italian Concerto drew him in at a very early age.

Rafał Blechacz: “I started to play the Italian Concerto when I was 14 or 15. And it's a really nice, nice beginning of the concert, of the recitals. And I started to play the Italian Concerto at the beginning of my recitals as I think it's a very optimistic, very joyful, start of the evening, of the concert. But there's a lot of reflection in the middle part. It's a beautiful aria, which brings a lot of poetry and a lot of, I would say, suffering atmosphere, you know. But there is some kind of hope in this music, you know, especially when the last chord comes at the end of this movement. It's a D major chord. And of course, the last movement, a lot of energy, a lot of joyful and optimistic atmosphere. Very Italian, it's a very sunny piece.”

This is Rafał Blechacz, with the Italian Concerto, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC - BWV 971]

Bach’s Italian Concerto, performed by pianist Rafał Blechacz.

Remember, if you’d like to hear this program on demand, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.