Robert Estrin - piano expert

Tips for Bach's Italian Concerto - Part 1

Step-by-step instructions to approach a very well-known piece for piano

In this first video, Robert gives you some tips to approach Bach's Italian Concerto on the piano.

Released on March 12, 2014

  
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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to livingpianos.com and virtualsheetmusic.com. Today we have tips for playing Bach's "Italian Concerto." What a wonderful work. If any of you have never heard this piece, I recommend listening to it. I'm going to play the first section of the first movement just to start it off with a bang.

[music]

All right, I'm going to stop there. And there's a reason I stopped there: Because it brings up a really important point. Let's start off with the title of this piece, "Italian Concerto." Now, right away, this brings up two really striking points: Number one, Bach was German. He never even visited Italy. That's number one. Number two, a concerto is always a group of instruments, or a solo instrument with an orchestra. And yet, this is a solo work. It does not have an orchestral part, it does not have any other musicians, and Bach never visited Italy. So what's going on here? Well, it's a really interesting story.

Johann Sebastian Bach was an incredible, masterful, genius of composition and, although he lived in Leipzig, Germany, whenever visiting musicians would come to town, he would listen to the music. He wrote some of the greatest French music, his French suites, and English suites, and yes, an Italian concerto, all just from listening to visiting artists. That's right. He was a very, very, busy man. He had over 20 children, believe it or not. He worked at not one, but there were times he worked at two different churches, composing complete masses every week, two masses every week. Now, interesting thing about Johann Sebastian Bach, I just want to give you this aside, his music was all but forgotten after his death.

And it was interesting that Felix Mendelssohn, the great composer, was working in the same church where Bach had composed years and years earlier and uncovered scores, and rediscovered the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. And, although the volume of work of Johann Sebastian Bach is immense and diverse, from choral works, keyboard works, orchestral works, masses, oratorios, I mean, the list goes on and on, some of the most amazing fugues. We only have a small smattering of his total output, because most of it was lost. There's even folk tales of his music being used to wrap fish, and other stories like that. It's, kind of, chilling to think about such a possibility with such great composition.

But, getting back to the Bach "Italian Concerto," so it's a concerto, and yet, it's a solo work. Well, if you've ever studied the work of Bach, and look at urtext editions, i.e., unedited editions of Bach, you will notice that there is almost never any dynamics whatsoever in Bach's music. That's right. If you see fortes, and pianos, and mezzo fortes, and crescendos, and decrescendos, and all of that, these are editorial suggestions. Bach didn't write them in. One of the big exceptions is the "Italian Concerto." In fact, every single part of the piece has dynamics. Not only that, but they're written for each hand. So, at the beginning for example, both hands are written to be played forte and, just at the point when it changed...right there, the right hand remains forte, the left hand goes piano. And throughout the entire concerto, all three movements, every single part is delineated each hand to be played forte or piano. Sometimes both hands are forte or both hands are piano, other times, one hand or the other is piano or forte. Now, this is the way he achieved the quality of a concerto, of the large group and the small group, all within a solo keyboard work. Isn't that interesting?

So, how do you approach the work? Well, being a Baroque piece, you don't want to take liberties with timing. You want to have a nice, steady beat. Practicing with a metronome is always a good idea with any music. But with music like this, it's imperative that you work with a metronome to develop a steady beat, so you don't have the liberties that you might have with Chopin or Schumann. The other thing is, of course, observe those dynamics. You know, I have the benefit of not only performing on the piano, but I've performed this work many times on the harpsichord as well. And, since I have a two-manual harpsichord, that is one with two keyboards, this was actually the first work I ever studied on the harpsichord, and I chose it because it was very easy to know which keyboard to play. I set the registrations for one keyboard to be loud, and one keyboard to be soft, and the entire concerto just gelled when I performed it with the markings that were indicated dynamically.

The other thing is to observe the phrasing meticulously. If you watch my video on, for example, Bach's "Minuet in G," you'll notice how I talk about utilizing the riffs for staccatos. If you use the riffs for the staccatos, and you use a nice connection for beautiful legato in the other sections, you'll get a beautiful clarity of sound, and a nice texture and bounciness that is very energetic.

So those are some tips for you on Bach's concerto, the "Italian Concerto." There'll be more, and stay tuned for the other movements. And thanks for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at livingpianos.com, and virtualsheetmusic.com.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Gerard on August 21, 2016 @7:50 pm PST
Great website. Can you recommend a sheet music edition with good fingering? I always have a hard time with fingering.
Gerard, NYC
reply
Robert Estrin - host, on August 22, 2016 @12:58 pm PST
Fingering is one of the most important aspects of piano technique. I use the Henle urtext edition which has very good fingering suggestions. In a best case scenario you would have more than one fingered urtext edition. That way if one fingering doesn't work well for you, you can reference other suggestions.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on August 22, 2016 @2:36 pm PST
Gerard, we don't have our own edition of the Bach Italian Concerto, but for now just by Hal Leonard, which is pretty good:

http://www.virtualsheetmusic.com/score/HL-13476.html
http://www.virtualsheetmusic.com/score/HL-285935.html
http://www.virtualsheetmusic.com/score/HL-285934.html

But for sure the edition suggested by Robert is among the best ones. Our own editions are usual based on Urtext edition and edited by high quality professional musicians. We'll consider to publish our own edition, maybe with fingerings by Robert Estrin!
William Treichler on April 3, 2014 @9:40 pm PST
Mr. Estrin:

I enjoy your online video helpful hints very much here in St Petersburg, FL..

Concerning the Bach Italian Concerto, 1st Movement, what fingering do you recommend for the LEFT HAND 16th notes in measures 25 and 26?

Thank you
reply
Robert - host, on April 4, 2014 @12:59 pm PST
Start on the 3rd finger, then use 1 on the E. In measure 26, you will start on the 5th finger, followed by the 3rd finger on C. Cross your 3rd finger on F and the 2nd finger on B-flat and you should be good!
Christine * VSM MEMBER * on March 12, 2014 @2:32 pm PST
What suggestions do you have for an adult student with small hands? After watching your video I wanted to play Prelude No. 7 but I cannot play bar 13, for example. There are 5 notes to be played in the right hand from A4 to C6 that simply exceed my physical capability. How do I play it without ruining the piece?
reply
Robert - host, on March 12, 2014 @4:33 pm PST
I too have small hands. The secret is learning how to break chords quickly and grabbing the notes on the pedal. This video demonstrates this technique:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Xl-hcFFb14
Carol Ebert * VSM MEMBER * on March 12, 2014 @8:54 am PST
I enjoyed learning about Bach's Italian Concerto, and look forward to your help in playing it! Thank you.
Don Puent on March 12, 2014 @7:45 am PST
I could listen to Robert play this all day!!!
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