Friday, October 21, 2022

Transcriptions: Bach & Weiss

Transcribing music for a different medium has been common practice throughout history. For many people it was the only way to listen to music, that was beyond their grasp in its original form. Orchestral music was transcribed for piano (Beethoven/Liszt), opera arias for harpsichord (Handel/Babell) and a Requiem for string quartet (Mozart/Lichtenthal). Today we are blessed with the technical possibilities to record music in its original form and to reproduce in our living room what has been recorded in a concert hall or the theatre. Even so, transcriptions are still made, by musicians who would like to play music they love on their own instrument. Gustav Leonhardt was one of them: he transcribed several of Johann Sebastian Bach's works for a single string instrument - violin, cello - for harpsichord. That may surprise, as he was the pioneer of a movement, whose intention was to interpret music according to the intentions of the composer. Skip Sempé, in the booklet to his recording of some of Leonhardt's transcriptions [1], which were published after his death, asks whether that is really possible. "For early music practitioners, the composer is long gone. Is this the real reason that we speak with passion and authority of the composer's intentions? Is the fact that the composer is gone what allows us to disguise our intentions as his?"

Leonhardt was inspired by Bach's own transcriptions of some of his music for violin and cello. He first set to complete what Bach had omitted, and later transcribed entire works that Bach himself had let untouched. It is known that Bach sometimes played his music for solo strings on keyboard, and he was also not afraid to transcribe music by others. It is interesting that Sempé mentions that Leonhardt was inspired by his interest in baroque bowed string playing. It seems that his own knowledge of string instruments influenced him in his way of interpreting Bach's keyboard works. Leonhardt had learnt to play the viola da gamba, and can be heard as a player of the viol in some early recordings of the Leonhardt Consort.

Sempé has recorded some of Leonhardt's transcriptions, but does not try to copy the master's own style of playing, and rightly so. He added music from the 17th century, by Froberger, Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, Cabanilles and Kuhnau. Bach may have known some of these pieces, but they are included here in line with what Sempé states in the booklet: that Bach's works for solo violin stylistically belong to the time before the galant idiom made its appearance. These 17th-century pieces reflect the world where Bach came from. This is a very interesting production, and Sempé's playing is excellent. I urge anyone purchasing this disc to read the booklet carefully.

The two next discs are rather unusual, to put it mildly. Bach's keyboard works have also been the subject of transcriptions. Recorder consorts like to turn to his organ works, as their polyphonic texture is ideally suited to be realized by an ensemble of recorders of different pitch, and as both the organ and the recorder are wind instruments. Other ensembles, such as viol consorts, string quartets or even larger ensembles have also performed Bach's keyboard works (and other pieces). Jorge Jiménez must have been the first who attempted to translate one of Bach's most iconic keyboard works, the Goldberg Variations [2], for a single instrument, the violin. One could say that he turned Leonhardt's practice around. If a work for violin or cello solo is transcribed for keyboard, the transcriber needs to add something in order to make it sound like a natural keyboard piece. Jiménez had to reduce the score: it is impossible to realise all the notes in the variations at once. In his liner-notes, he refers to Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin, stating that "the composer becomes a master of illusion: he creates the effect that three or even four voices are sounding at the same time". I have to say that I was rather sceptical when I received this disc and realized what it was about. My expectations were not high, but I am happy to say that they have been surpassed. Obviously, we don't get all the notes and all the chords Bach has written, but I was surprised how well it sounds. I would not go as far as saying that this sounds like a natural work for the violin, like Bach's sonatas and partitas, but it seems an interesting addition to the reservoir of Bach transcriptions. I have heard Bach transcriptions that I found much less convincing. Jiménez is the best possible advocate for his own work here. This is a very interesting addition to the Bach discography.

The name of Pantaleon Hebenstreit is rather well-known: he was part of Bach's world and invented a curious instrument, called Pantaleon. It was a large hammered dulcimer with a wide range and full chromatic scale. Bach may have heard him playing it, and several composers of his time were enthusiastic about it. One of them was Johann Kuhnau, his predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, who played it himself. The famous harpsichord and organ builder Gottfried Silbermann built several such instruments for Hebenstreit. The latter seems to have improvised and arranged music by others. He has left no music, and unfortunately not a single copy of the Pantaleon has been preserved. In the recording by La Gioia Armonica [3] which was released by Ramée, Margit Übellacker plays a modern reconstruction of a tenor dulcimer. It seems that it was mostly music for keyboard and for violin which were the subject of Hebenstreit's arrangements. The performers decided to perform pieces by Bach, originally written for a string instrument. Übellacker plays some movements from pieces for solo violin (Partita No. 3) and cello (Suites Nos. 1 and 3) and works for violin and basso continuo or obbligato keyboard respectively; in the latter she is joined by Jürgen Banholzer at the organ. The solo items and the pieces with basso continuo come off best, as there the dulcimer can be clearly heard. In the two items with obbligato keyboard - the Sonatas BWV 1015 and 1019 - the organ is a bit too dominant and tends to overshadow the dulcimer. I just wonder how things would have been the other way around: if Margit Übellacker had played the keyboard parts and a colleague of hers the violin. One may question whether these performances are really transcriptions. Little seems to have been changed. That said, the violin parts obviously do sound very different from a performance on the violin. The performers are doing an excellent job here, but I find the results not entirely convincing. On balance this disc is more interesting than musically satisfying.

One of his colleagues Bach definitely knew personally, was Silvius Leopold Weiss [4], the star lutenist who was for many years a member of the Dresden court chapel. There has been speculation that Bach composed his lute works for him, but that is impossible to prove. It seems likely, though, that Weiss inspired him to write for the lute. Bach knew Weiss's own music: the Suite in A (BWV 1025) for harpsichord and violin has been identified as a transcription of a sonata for lute by Weiss. Some of Bach's works can be played on both instruments. If performers transcribe Bach's works for solo violin and solo cello for the keyboard, why should they not transcribe Weiss's sonatas (which are in fact suites)? That was the thought of Wolfgang Rübsam, who in recent years seems to have fallen in love with the lute-harpsichord. He has recorded several of Bach's keyboard works on it, and he plays it again in these transcriptions. Its sound makes it a logical choice for the transcription of lute music, but there is no reason why it should not be played on a 'normal' harpsichord as well. Whereas the recordings I just referred to did not string a chord with me, this is different. I found his recording of the Goldberg Variations very annoying, and hardly listenable. The desynchronization of the two hands is so extreme that one wondered whether the left hand knew what the right hand was doing. That is different here. I have really enjoyed this recording of sonatas by Weiss, whose music is of the same level as Bach's. He was famous for a reason. The lute is not everyone's cup of tea. This disc allows to become acquainted with Weiss's oeuvre in a different way. Rübsam is an eloquent guide.

[1] Johann Sebastian Bach: "Tradition & Transcription"
Skip Sempé, harpsichord
Paradizo PA0018 (© 2021) details

[2] Johann Sebastian Bach: "Rethinking Bach - Goldberg Variations"
Jorge Jiménez, violin
Pan Classics PC 10434 (© 2022) details

[3] Johann Sebastian Bach: "Hebenstreit's Bach"
La Gioia Armonica
Ramée RAM 2101 (© 2022) details

[4] Silvius Leopold Weiss: "Sonatas" Wolfgang Rübsam, lute-harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95509 (© 2021) details

Thursday, October 6, 2022

The 'Utrecht Passion' - a faux pas

When historical performance emerged, the ideal was to perform music according to the intentions of the composers. That included scepticism towards the phenomenon of arrangements, unless they were from the pen of the composer himself. With time, performers realized that this was a very common phenomenon. We know this practice from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when some popular songs or tunes appeared numerous times in all sorts of arrangements by different composers. It did not end there: in the baroque period arrangements were also quite common, and this practice continued in the classical and romantic periods, when arrangements were often a way to be able to play music at home that was originally written for a large orchestra.

The word 'arrangement' is a collective term for all kinds of adaptations. Some were made by a composer himself. Bach, for instance, used his secular cantatas for sacred music, such as the Christmas Oratorio. Obviously, such arrangements are very different from that infamous arrangement of Bach's first prelude from the Welltempered Clavier I by Charles Gounod, who turned it into a rather sentimental Ave Maria. The most strict way of adapting a piece is what is known as contrafact: the original text of a piece is replaced by a different text. In a way it is the most easy kind of adaptation, as the music remains untouched. On the other hand, it is not easy to write a text which exactly fits the music. It is this kind of arrangement that was presented at the 2022 Utrecht Early Music Festival as the 'Utrecht Passion'.

What exactly was that about? Let me quote the programme. "The Utrechter Passion is nothing more than Johann Sebastian Bach's St John Passion with a new libretto. Instead of the suffering of Christ, the story focuses on the suffering of LGBTQIA+ people, who were discriminated against and murdered, nowadays and in the past. (...) Bach's music remains completely intact. Everything sounds the same, except for the words, which completely conform to Bach's melodic lines."

The text was written by Thomas Höft, and as he is not a musician, it is only logical that he left the music untouched. Whether he succeeded in writing a text that fit the music is something I can't judge, as I did not attend the performance. I also can't assess the text itself: I assume that a translation was shown as supertitles during the performance, but I have no access to the (German) text of Höft's adaptation.

We know quite some contrafacta from the renaissance and baroque periods. To mention a few examples: in 1607 Aquilino Coppini published a collection of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi with sacred texts. This allowed the inhabitants of convents to enjoy the music without being confronted with texts that were considered not suitable for their ears. It is not known whether Monteverdi agreed or disagreed. The latter seems unlikely, as he himself adapted his famous Lamento d'Arianna into the Pianto della Madonna. Many German hymns are contrafacta. One of the most famous is O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden: the melody is from the pen of Hans-Leo Hassler (1564-1612), who used it for a secular text, Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret.

From this angle it seems there is no objection whatsoever against to what Thomas Höft did with Bach's St John Passion. In my view, that would be the wrong conclusion. I have chosen the title of this blog for a reason. I sincerely believe that this project was a serious mistake. I see two reasons for that.

One of the basic principles of historical performance practice has always been that a performance should stay as closely as possible to what the composer intended. And that could become a problem, if the text of a piece as written by the composer is changed. In my view it is not right to use the music of a composer for a text he may not have agreed with. Today's performers are not the owner of what a composer has written. That was the approach of representatives of the traditional performance practice, who performed the music according to their own taste. Precisely that is something the pioneers of historical performance practice wanted to get rid of.

Then the obvious question is: what about the adaptations of the past, as the ones referred to above? First: we may think about them what we want. If we reject this practice per se, we should not perform such pieces, like Coppini's sacred adaptations of Monteverdi's madrigals. However, there is no need to judge a practice of the past. There is a difference between accepting what has come down to us from history as a matter of fact and applying that practice ourselves today.

There is another issue here. If we look at the originals and the contrafacta, they are mostly pretty close, both chronologically and culturally. Coppini published his adaptations at the time that Monteverdi was at the height of his career. Both were devout members of the Catholic church, and that alone makes it unlikely that Monteverdi would have disapproved of those sacred adaptations. The same goes for the other example I used: the first time Hassler's melody was used for a sacred hymn was only a few years after he published his song, when it was used for the text Herzlich tut mich verlangen. As there can be little doubt that Hassler, although he composed music for the Catholic liturgy and for Catholic rulers, was a Lutheran, it is highly unlikely that he would have rejected the adaptation of his song. The reason that original and adaptation were so close in time, is that before the 18th century it was rather unusual to perform music that was considered 'old' - something written earlier than, say, about twenty years or so ago.

And here we have the difference between those adaptations and the 'Utrecht Passion'. There is a gap in time, and with it a cultural gap, between 2022 and the time and spiritual world of Bach. It is questionable whether Bach would have agreed with this kind of adaptation. We can't be sure, and we can't ask him. Therefore we should leave his music as it is, and not misuse it to express views of different people in a different time.

There is another reason why I think this adaptation is a faux pas. If we look at the adaptations of the renaissance and baroque periods, we notice that it was always a secular piece that was turned into a sacred one, never the other way around. Bach used secular cantatas for sacred music, but never turned anything sacred into a secular piece. Secular songs were used for sacred hymns, not vice versa (except perhaps as satire). If such pieces exist, I have not encountered them. This can be easily explained: in a time the whole society in Europe was Christian, either Catholic or Protestant (or something else), the sacred was considered superior to the secular. Turning a secular piece into a sacred work was a promotion. Adapting a sacred work into a secular piece would have been considered a degradation, and even something close to blasphemy. From that angle the procedure Thomas Höft has followed, turning a sacred work into a secular piece, goes directly against the spirit of the time Bach wrote his St John Passion.

The text in the festival's programme says: "We find the rewriting of this passion an exciting experiment within the historical performance practice. It allows us to experience Bach's music in an entirely new way and to rediscover emotions obscured by the patina of the long performance tradition". I sincerely believe they have got it all very wrong. This 'experiment' is basically a violation of some fundamental principles of historical performance practice and entirely anachronistic.