Friday, July 30, 2021

Bach arranged

When in the 19th century the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was rediscovered, it was usually arranged in order to be performed. This was partly inevitable, as some of the instruments Bach required were not available anymore, such as the harpsichord and the viola da gamba. It was the aim of the historical performance movement to perform music according to the intentions of the composers and with the instruments they had in mind. At first, its representatives were rather sceptical about any arrangement of what had been written down, but with time they started to recognize that this was common practice at the time. Bach himself had paved the way in that he arranged instrumental concertos by Italian comtemporaries for harpsichord or organ, as well as pieces of his own pen. Among the latter are the works he composed for a single instrument: the violin and the cello. His pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola stated: "The composer himself often played them on the clavichord, adding as much in the nature of harmony as he found necessary." His own transcriptions that have been preserved, show how he proceeded. The best example is the Sonata BWV 964, which is a transcription of the Sonata BWV 1003 for violin solo. This practice has encouraged Gustav Leonhardt, one of the pioneers of historical performance practice, to arrange Bach's solo works for violin and cello himself. He was always rather modest about these attempts: he once stated that Bach certainly would have forgiven him his attempts to arrange his music, but whether he would have agreed with the way he had done it, was an entirely different matter. It is telling that he never arranged the Sonata BWV 1003, which has been preserved in Bach's own transcription. After all, who would be so audacious to think that he would be able to emulate Bach's own arrangement, let alone surpass it? In 2017, his pupil Siebe Henstra edited Leonhardt's transcriptions, which were then published by Bärenreiter. The Italian harpsichordist Roberto Loreggian [1] has recorded the complete transcriptions: five of the six works for solo violin (except the opening movement of BWV 1005, which is available in Bach's own transcription BWV 968), the cello suites 4 to 6, the allemande from the Partita BWV 1013 for transverse flute and the sarabande from the Suite BWV 997 for lute. This edition is a rich source for keyboard players, not in the first place to perform them in concerts, but rather to study them, learning from them how one could proceed. In the liner-notes Federico Lanzelotti explains in detail what exactly Leonhardt has done, and how he arranged these pieces in such a way that they turned into full-blooded keyboard works. It should be noted, though, that for Leonhardt the practice of arranging was a 'work in progress', as he regularly 'corrected' his transcriptions. As much as one may appreciate Loreggian's recording, they are a bit problematic. First, as Leonhardt's own recordings are still available, one is inclined to turn to them if one wants to know how they should sound. And many lovers of his playing may still have a vivid memory of his performances. In comparsion, Loreggian is no competition. He is a fine player and I have heard very good recordings of his, but here he is rather disappointing. His playing is often a bit awkward. The rhythmic flexibility and the typical 'swing' in Leonhardt's playing, which often made it hard to keep your feet still, is missing here. The chords are also often a bit ponderous. I would advise anyone, who would like to add Leonhardt's transcriptions to his collection, to purchase the master's own recordings.

Whereas Leonhardt's transcriptions are founded on Bach's own practice, Annegret Siedel and Ute Gremmel-Geuchen [2] take a bit more freedom in their approach to the transcription practice. A number of pieces are played on organ and violin, a combination we don't find in Bach's oeuvre, but which was very common in northern Germany. They play one of the trio sonatas (No. 4, BWV 528) and some chorale arrangements. The programme opens and closes with two of Bach's own arrangements of concertos by Italian composers, in which Annegret Siedel participates in the slow movements. In the concerto after Vivaldi BWV 596, she plays the original violin part, whereas in the Concerto BWV 974 after an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello, she plays Bach's ornamented solo part. The two artists also play separately. Ute Gremmel-Geuchen plays Alfred Bertholet's arrangement of seven sections from the motet Jesu, meine Freude, including some of the dicta (quotations from the Bible), which Bach added to the chorale stanzas. This is one of the most remarkable pieces, alongside Annegret Siedel's performance of the Toccata BWV 565, transposed from d minor to a minor. There are strong doubts about the authenticity of this piece. It is also questionable whether it was first conceived for organ. Some scholars assume it may have been written for the violin in the first place, and if that is correct, Bach may be the composer after all. Siedel is not the first who plays it on the violin; Jaap Schröder also recorded it. It works quite well on the violin, and this is definitely one of the highlights of this disc. Overall, this is a rather good demonstration of the practice of arrangement and transcription, even though some of the arrangements have no predecessors in Bach's own oeuvre. The playing of the two artists is excellent.

In the case of Bach, it is often not that simple to distinguish between arrangement and reconstruction. The Toccata BWV 565 just mentioned is a good example. If it is played on the violin, is that an arrangement or rather a reconstruction of how it may have been intended in the first place? The next disc offers another example. Enrico Gatti [3] plays the Partita in a minor (BWV 1013) for transverse flute on the violin, transposed to g minor. This work may also have been intended for the violin: the first movement does give the performer hardly any time to breathe, and this work has been preserved in a copy, which also includes the sonatas and partitas for violin solo. If the flute version is indeed a later arrangement, that would fit into the general picture of Bach's chamber music, as many of the sonatas that we know and that are performed and recorded regularly, are in fact arrangements of earlier compositions for different scorings. 'Cross-dressing Bach', the recording by Gatti and the harpsichordist Rinaldo Alessandrini, opens and closes with two of the three sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba. The first (not included here) was originally conceived for two flutes and basso continuo. The Sonata BWV 1028 exists in a version for two violins and basso continuo, whereas the Sonata BWV 1029 bears the traces of a concerto and may be a reduction of such a work. Alessandrini plays Bach's own Sonata BWV 964 mentioned above. The rest of the programme consists of the Trio BWV 583 for organ and an original work for harpsichord and violin, the Fugue BWV 1026. For lovers of Bach's music, this disc is highly recommendable, as it offers different perspectives on some of his best-known works. Both the arrangements and/or reconstructions are pretty convincing, and they are played very well. I only had liked stronger dynamic contrasts in Gatti's playing.

The disc with the title 'The Melancholic Bach' most definitely offers no reconstructions. Bach liked to play the viola, but he did not compose any solo concertos or sonatas for it. Its main role is that of playing an obbligato part in some cantatas and taking some of the main parts in the Brandenburg Concertos 3 and 6. The programme that Emilio Moreno and Aarón Zapico [4] have recorded, comprises mainly organ works, such as chorale arrangements from the Orgelbüchlein. In his chorale arrangements, Bach often used the form of a trio, and pieces for two manuals and pedal are often very suitable to be adapted to a combination of a harpsichord and a melody instrument. Bach himself arranged his organ works for several combinations of instruments, and from that perspective this approach is entirely legitimate. Whether the result is musically satisfying is an entirely different matter. In several cases, it is, but there are also pieces where the viola has little profile and is overshadowed by the harpsichord. This disc does not offer a really new perspective. It seems to me that it is mainly of interest for those who have a special liking of the viola (or play the instrument themselves). The quality of the playing of the two artists leaves nothing to be desired.

The next disc also features the viola, but here the word 'arrangement' strictly speaking misses the point; one could argue that a recording of Bach's sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba [5] on the viola should not be reviewed under the title 'Bach arranged'. All three sonatas are played in the original key; no transposition was needed. In 17th- century German music, parts for violas and for viole da gamba were often interchangeable, and composers of the generation after Bach mostly considered viola and viola da gamba as alternatives. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, for instance, composed a sonata for viola or viola da gamba (Wq 88). As I mentioned before, Bach liked to play the viola himself, and as the first two of his 'gamba sonatas' are known in various versions, there is no objection whatsoever to a performance on the viola. And certainly even less so, when they are played so well as by Marie Stockmarr Becker, with Ilaria Macedonio as her congenial partner. Together they present outstanding accounts, which bring these sonatas into blossom. One probably has to get used to the different sound of the viola, and the balance between the two instruments, which seems to favour the viola a little. However, this disc is a valuable addition to the Bach discography. Lovers of Bach and lovers of the viola will both greatly enjoy this disc, which unfortunately is a little short in playing time (45').

The suites for cello solo have been arranged frequently, not only for harpsichord, but also for the viola da gamba and the violin, and Frans Brüggen once recorded three of them on the recorder. The catalogue also includes several recordings of transcriptions for the lute or the theorbo, among them those of Nigel North, Pascal Monteilhet and Hopkinson Smith. For this kind of arrangements one can also find justification in Bach's own oeuvre: he transcribed the fifth suite for the lute (BWV 995). Alberto Crugnola [6] has recorded the suites 1, 2 and 4, transcribing them to more appropriate keys (C major, a minor and B flat major respectively). He tried to imagine how Adam Falckenhagen, one of his favourite composers, may have done it. Whereas a transcription for harpsichord forces the arranger to add harmony, the lutenist can focus on things where his instrument requires adaptations, especially in the realm of phrasing, articulation and dynamics. After all, these suites should sound like true lute pieces. Crugnola does entirely succeed in this matter. He delivers a speech-like performance; the dynamics are nicely differentiated and the dance rhyrthms come off perfectly. With this disc he offers a very nice interpretation of these three suites. It is to be hoped that hen will have the opportunity to record the remaining three in due course.

The last disc includes arrangements which are probably most alien to the world of Bach. The Cellini Consort [7] is a consort of three viols - the kind of ensemble which was common in the 16th century, and held its ground only in a few regions in the 17th century, mainly England and the Habsburg court in Vienna. Elsewhere music for such an ensemble was sporadically written. However, although the viola da gamba was gradually overshadowed by the cello in the course of the 18th century, in the music by the likes of Bach and Telemann it plays quite a prominent role. That said, only in two pieces Bach included parts for two viole da gamba: the Actus Tragicus (BWV 106) and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. The Cellini Consort is certainly not the first of its kind to turn to Bach for an extension of its repertoire. Other viol consorts - and also recorder consorts, for that matter - have done the same, and often they turn to the organ works. Because of the importance of counterpoint in these works, and the many long lines included in them, they are perfectly suited to be performed by a consort of instruments of the same family. The line-up of such ensembles only emphasizes the equal importance of all the musical parts. The Cellini Consort plays five organ works, among them Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (BWV 691), which closes this disc, just as the disc by Moreno and Zapico. In addition, the consort plays the French Suite No. 5 and the Italian Concerto, both originally intended for the harpsichord. These transcriptions are less convincing: the way the sound of the harpsichord is produced is much more different from that of a consort of viols than in the case of the organ. In the French Suite the performance on viols goes at the cost of transparency, whereas in the Italian Concerto I miss the 'attack' of the harpsichord. It may well be the fact that this piece is written in the Italian style which makes it a less suitable item for a performance by a consort of viols. Obviously, the 'gamba sonata' BWV 1028 comes off best, alongside the organ pieces. Whether one finds these arrangements convincing or not, the playing of the Cellini Consort is excellent, and lovers of the viola da gamba and of consort music will certainly enjoy this recording.

[1] "Violin Sonatas & Partitas, Cello Suites - Transcribed for harpsichord by Gustav Leonhardt"
Roberto Loreggian, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95757 (3 CDs) (© 2018) details

[2] "© J.S. Bach" (Arrangements for violin & organ)
Annegret Siedel, violin; Ute Gremmel-Geuchen, organ
Aeolus AE11281 (© 2020) details

[3] "Cross-dressing Bach - Chamber rarities and alternative versions"
Enrico Gatti, violin; Rinaldo Alessandrini, harpsichord
Glossa GCD 921210 (© 2018) details

[4] "The Melancholic Bach - Music for viola da braccio & harpsichord"
Emilio Moreno, viola; Aarón Zapico, harpsichord
Glossa GCD 920316 (© 2019) details

[5] "Sonatas for viola (da gamba) and harpsichord BWV 1027-1029"
Ilaria Macedonio, harpsichord; Marie Stockmarr Becker, viola
Channel Classics CCS 43721 (© 2021) details

[6] "Für die Prinzessin" (For the Princess) - Suites BWV 1007, 1008 & 1010
Alberto Crugnola, lute
NovAntiqua NA51 ([2020]) details

[7] "Wo soll ich fliehen hin - Transcriptions for Viol Trio"
Cellini Consort
Ramée RAM 1911 (© 2019) details

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Between 'art' and tradition (2)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote the first weblog on music between 'art' and tradition, which focused on music from the continent, from the Middle Ages to our time. In this weblog, I return to this subject, but now with music from the British isles, and some from Scandinavia. For some reasons there seems to be a connection between the two in musical matters.

The British ensemble Wilde Roses [1] released a disc under the title "Woven". It comprises a collection of anonymous pieces from the British isles, including early specimens of traditional music. The programme is a mixture of vocal and instrumental items, and includes both secular and sacred pieces. One of the latter is the carol Deo gracias Anglia, whereas The Willow Song is a secular piece. The disc closes with four pieces from The English Dancing Master, which dates from the second half of the 17th century. This indicates that we get here music from very different times, which explains the stylistic differences. As the items are not ordered chronologically, the listener is torn between the Middle Ages and the time that the Renaissance in England came to its close. I find that rather unsatisfying, but others may have a different experience. Other aspects are more problematic. Almost all pieces are arranged, and the result is not always convincing. Little is left, for instance, of the character of The Willow Song. Some pieces are newly written and don't fit that well into the programme. The interpretation is rather inconsistent: on the one hand the performers use historical pronunciation, which is very praiseworthy. On the other hand, they make use of a nyckelharpa, an instrument which belongs in the tradition of Scandinavia, but whose use in England is highly debatable. The programme of this disc is quite interesting, but the way it has been realised and the performances are disappointing.

With the second disc we enter better-known territory. Clare Wilkinson, Veronika Skuplik, Hille Perl and Andreas Arend [2] perform a programme which includes pieces by well-known composers, such as Henry Purcell, John Blow and Christopher Simpson. Again, the items date from different periods, but there the distance in time is less extreme. Most of the pieces date from the period of around 1600 to the early 18th century, which means that both the renaissance and baroque periods are represented. Far less known - at least outside the British isles - are the traditional items. More than the previous disc, this recording moves between 'art' and tradition. However, the programme is rather inconsistent, in that the connection between the two is rather loose or even absent (unlike that on the disc by the ensemble Prisma, which I reviewed in the previous weblog). It is a mystery to me, what may be the connection between the two violin sonatas by Henry Eccles and Godfrey Finger respectively on the one hand and the traditional songs on the other. As in so many recordings of traditional music, many pueces have been arranged. That is inevitable, especially as traditional tunes are monophonic. Moreover, arrangement is one of the features of traditional music. Unfortunately, here the arrangements include elements which are stylistically at odds with the tenor of this programme. Moreover, several pieces of 'art' music are also arranged. It was a pretty bad idea to add instrumental parts to some of the lute songs included here, such as Robert Johnson's Have you seen the white lily grow. Out of this wood, a text from William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is sung here to the Italian tune known as La Monica and in England as The Queen's Alman, but the text does not really fit the tune too well. The performers are fine artists, but this recording leaves me rather unsatisfied. As one may expect, the pieces of 'art' music that are performed as they were intended by the composers, come off best by far.

The third disc connects traditional music from Britain and Scandinavia. The common subject is midsummer, which is celebrated in both parts of Europe. Considering the character of the programme I was hesitating whether I would review this disc. However, the Quadriga Consort [3] calls itself an 'early music band' and therefore music lovers may expect 'early music'. A look at its website shows that this ensemble has a special interest in traditional music and often performs repertoire on the brink of traditional and 'art' music. As they are from Austria it is remarkable that they give much attention to music from the British isles; two of their discs are devoted to English Christmas music, and they also recorded traditional music from Scotland. As far as I can tell, their performances are pretty idiomatic, which is quite an achievement. That said, the present disc can hardly be considered 'early music'. Only in some cases the liner-notes indicate when a piece has come into existence; I assume that the date of 'composition' is often not known. Fact is that a number of pieces are from the 19th or 20th centuries; one Swedish piece is Idas sommarvisa, a setting of words by Astrid Lindgren used for a movie of 1973. Given the nature of the programme, one wonders why early music instruments such as recorders, viola da gamba and basse de violon are used. Most pieces are arranged, and six items are settings of traditional texts by the ensemble's director, Nikolaus Newerkla. This disc is probably mainly of interest to those who have a special liking of traditional music. Pieces of 'art' music are entirely absent. The singing and playing leave nothing to be desired.

With The Poker Club Band [4] and its disc, called "Tulluchgorum", we return safely to the 18th century, which saw the emergence of a lively interest in music that was characteristic of a particular country or region. It was the time of the Enlightenment, and part of its philosophy embraced a wish to increase knowledge and an emphasis on the importance of learning. At the same time, 'naturalness' was greatly appreciated, and this resulted in an idealization of life at the countryside and its music. Some composers showed interest in traditional music, and Joseph Haydn, one of Europe's most famous composers, took up the challenge of writing accompaniments for keyboard, violin and cello to traditional tunes from Scotland. However, some Scottish musicians considered these arrangements too sophisticated and too far away from what Scottish music was about. This inspired the harpist Masako Art to put together a programme of Haydn's arrangements and some original Scottish songs and perform it in the manner of a 'historical crossover'. The members of the ensemble play period instruments, among them a guitar and a harp, and James Graham, a seasoned singer of traditional music, takes care of the songs. In between we hear some instrumental pieces, all inspired by Haydn. Art's idea has resulted in a most interesting and highly entertaining programme, excellently executed by singer and instrumentalists. It will not only appeal to lovers of tradional music, but also to Haydn fans.

[1] Woven
Wilde Roses
Rubicon RCD1061 (© 2020) details

[2] Ballads within a dream
Clare Wilkinson (soprano), Veronika Skuplik (violin), Hille Perl (viola da gamba), Andreas Arend (theorbo)
deutsche harmonia mundi 19075982082 (© 2020) details

[3] Midsummer - Traditional songs and dance tunes from Scandinavia and Britain
Quadriga Consort
deutsche harmonia mundi 19439858972 (© 2021) details

[4] Tullochgorum - Franz Joseph Haydn: Scottish Songs
The Poker Club Band/Masako Art
BIS 2471 [SACD] (© 2019) details

Friday, July 2, 2021

Between 'art' and tradition (1)

Most 'classical' music performed today in churches and concert halls all over the world, and recorded on disc, belongs among the category of what is called 'art music'. It was written by composers and has come down to us in fixed form, either in manuscript or in printed editions. However, in the course of history, much music - and probably even most - was sung and played by people who did not use any written notes; many of them were probably not even able to read music. Improvisation was the name of the game, and music was handed over from one generation to another orally. It had no fixed form, and in the course of time, both texts and music often changed considerably. In most cases their original forms are not known, unless at some time such music was written down. Obviously, in the case of traditional music, it is hard, if not impossible, to decide which kind of performance is 'authentic'. That should be taken into consideration in the assessment of the discs under review here.

The Capella de Ministrers has released a disc with the title "Arrels" [1], which means "roots". This word seems to be part of the dialect that is spoken in the Spanish province Valencia, as this disc is devoted to this part of Spain. This is probably where this ensemble is rooted, since in the booklet its director, Carles Magraner, states that after thirty years of exploration of 'our' musical heritage, time has come to shed light on the connection between tradition and the earliest specimens of 'art music'. The programme includes several genres that we still know today, such as the fandango and the bolero, as well as the typical Spanish jacara. As one may expect, most pieces are anonymous. The only relatively well-known composer is Juan Bautista Comes (1582-1643). A disc with motets and villancicos from his pen was released by Brilliant Classics in 2016. Here we also hear a sacred piece, and the connection with tradional music is that it is based on the folia, originally a folk dance, which in the course of history was often used as a subject of variations. Unfortunately, Magraner decided to perform traditional melodies with newly-written lyrics. That does not compromise the importance of this production, as its aim is realised anyway. The ensemble delivers engaging performances. Alongside instruments which are common in performances of early music, such as viola da gamba, recorder and harp, the performers also use instruments which are almost exclusively used in traditional music. The two singers feel completely at home in this repertoire and rightly avoid a way of singing which is too 'sophisticated'. Apart from those who are open to this kind of music, lovers of Spanish music should investigate this disc.

It's only a small step to the next disc, because Ex Silentio [2] opens its programme with a song from the Sephardic tradition. That is the music of the Jews, who lived at the Iberian peninsula, until they were evicted from the country (unless they were willing to convert to the Christian faith) at the end of the 15th century. For several centuries Jews, Christians and (islamic) Moors lived together; the latter are the connection to the Near East, whose musical culture is the thread of the programme, as the disc's subtitle indicates. Several pieces represent Ottoman culture, but there are also songs which are stylistically part of Western culture, but have been written at the court of Nicosia. The disc closes with four such songs. Before these we hear No m'agrad, a song by Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, a French troubadour, who is assumed to have spent the last years of his life in Thessaloniki. This song is monophonic, but is performed here to an accompaniment of instruments, which also play interludes. These are strongly influenced by the musical culture of the Near East, and it is questionable whether they do justice to the character of this song. Unfortunately the programme notes are rather concise. The programme includes two so-called peşrevs, but what exactly is a peşrev is not explained. It is a form of Turkish classical music; more about that at Wikipedia. These two pieces are performed in arrangements, and one of them does sound a bit modern to my ears. Despite my critical remarks, I recommend this disc, as it sheds light on the connection between East and West in the realm of the music of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and does so in a largely convincing manner. The singing and playing leave nothing to be desired.

Traditional music has no fixed form, but sometimes specimens from this kind of repertoire were written down. A manuscript of this kind was the main source for the programme recorded by the ensemble Prisma [3]. It dates from the 17th century and is known as Codex Caioni. It includes pieces from Italy and Germany as well as traditional music of what is today Hungary and Romania. The performers have added traditional songs and dances of later times. The title of this disc refers to an organ treatise by Girolamo Diruta, Il Transilvano, which was published in Venice in 1593 and was dedicated to Prince Sigismund Báthory of Transylvania. This is also what Dávid Budai, who plays bass violin and folk viola, inspired to compose a toccata in Diruta's style. It is one of several pieces from the pen of members of the ensemble. With this disc they aim at showing the connection between 'art music' and traditional music. La Romana by Orazio Tarditi is an example of an Italian piece in the modern concertante style of the early 17th century which found its entry in the Codex. Whether Biagio Marini's well-known Sonata sopra La Monica is also part of the collection is unclear, but its inclusion is inspired by the fact that this popular song, which was known in different countries under different titles, was used in Hungary for a sacred hymn. Improvisation is also an important element in the traditional part of the programme. Dávid Budai's Toccata la Francesca makes use of elements from the ensuing traditional song Bocsásd meg Úristen (Forgive me, O Lord). The programme includes a number of dances. Dance music is not only a substantial part of 'art music', it is also one of the most important aspects of popular culture. Dances of the first category are mostly not intended for dancing, but in popular culture they certainly were. One may think that traditional music is mostly rather simple, especially as its performers may usually have been amateurs, without a formal musical education. Some dances included here prove otherwise, as they are remarkably virtuosic. The selection of pieces makes much sense, and the singing and playing is excellent.

These three discs are quite different in content and in the way the programmes have been put together. However, they have one important thing in common. Over the years I have heard quite some discs with a mixture of traditional and 'art music', and many of them did not convince me, for instance because traditional music was given too sophisticated a performance, or, rather, because 'art music' was 'popularised'. Nothing of that is the case on these discs. Here the character of each individual piece is respected, and it is admirable that the performers are able to adapt to the different nature of the pieces they have selected. For those who have a special interest in traditional music, these three discs are valuable additions to their collection, whereas those who are mainly interested in early music may also be interested to become acquainted with the connections between 'art' and tradition.

[1] Arrels - Entre la tradicio i el patrimoni (Blending tradition and heritage)
Capella de Ministrers/Carles Magraner
Capella de Ministrers CdM 1844 (© 2018) details

[2] Lethe - Forgotten music of the oriental courts of Thessaloniki, Nicosia and Istanbul, from the Middle Ages to the 17th century
Ex Silentio
Carpe Diem CD-16323 (© 2020) details

[3] Il Transilvano - Musical bridges between Italy and Hungary around 1600
Ambronay AMY312 (© 2020) details