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

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