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

No comments:

Post a Comment