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Bach Trio Sonatas
No composer was fonder of arranging his works into orderly and logical structures than J.S.Bach. It therefore comes as no surprise that in the course of instructing his son, Wilhelm Friedemann, in organ playing and composition, he should assemble a collection of trio sonatas for the organ.
The set of six sonatas includes arrangements of earlier instrumental movements together with some newly composed and older organ works. It seems to date from around 1730, and definitely before 1733, when Wilhelm Friedemann, crossed the threshold of a professional musician's career by gaining the desirable post of organist at Sophienkirche in Dresden.
The sonatas resemble very few other works for organ; instead, their texture imitates the instrumental trio sonata. Bach assigned the role of the bass instrument to the pedals of the organ and dispensed entirely with the customary harmonic filling or continuo (the keyboard's usual duty). In doing this he created works of intricate beauty and complexity, where one organist plays the music ordinarily allocated to four musicians.
The sonatas give an interesting insight into Bach's priorities as an organ teacher. Their very clear texture and the total independence required of hands and feet make any faltering of rhythm or fingering instantly audible to the listener. They only come to life when played really well, at which point (as many organists have found) they sound rather easy!
Although the integrity of Bach's part-writing is such that much of his music is successfully adaptable for other media (a fact that encourages covetous performers to follow Bach's own frequent example) the trios, with their instrumental texture, have always invited special attention. The first arrangements date from the 18th century and include some by Mozart for string trio. Adaptations have continued to the present day, and no doubt these same trio sonatas will exercise the ingenuity of future musicians as well.
In our version of four of the sonatas we have simply given the two upper voices to the violin and recorder, the bass line to the viola da gamba, and added the implied continuo harmonies. We followed the standard 18th century practice of transposing works upwards a third or fourth to fit the lower range of the recorder, and found that this also put the alto part into a more comfortable register for the violin. The resulting higher bass lines sing out naturally on the viola da gamba (whose top string is tuned a fourth higher than the cello) and indeed resemble the high bass lines favoured by Bach's French contemporaries who wrote with the bass viol in mind.
Our programme also includes the four duetti from Part III of the Clavierübung (1739), works which resemble larger and more adventurous two-part inventions. These wonderful pieces are too rarely performed, perhaps because organists find the two-part texture anomalous, and harpsichordists think of them as organ music. Whatever the case, they fit easily and exactly on the viola da gamba and violin. The music demonstrates Bach's complete fluency in all forms of two-part counterpoint, including regular and double fugue, strict and free inversion and canon. This, together with the remarkable harmonic pungency of his later compositions, points the way directly to the two-part canons in the Musical Offering and Art of Fugue.
We finish our recital with a set of fourteen canons discovered in 1975 at the back of Bach's personal copy of the Goldberg Variations. The page of manuscript, written entirely in Bach's hand, is entitled ‘Verscheidene Canones über die ersteren acht fundamental-Noten vorheriger Aria' (Various canons on the first eight bass notes of the preceding aria) - which is of course the theme of the Goldberg Variations. It seems that with the task of creating this monumental work completed, Bach was indulging his sense of play by discovering the melodic and contrapuntal possibilities inherent in just a scrap of a theme. One is reminded that Homer, upon completion of the Iliad and Odyssey, is said to have sung of ‘the war between Frogs and Mice'.
The canons begin in simple note against note style, and then flower into increasingly complex and free creations. The first thirteen are very clear in their notation, but the fourteenth (fitting narrowly into the bottom margin of the sheet) is a single line of music from which the inner voices (at different speeds, directions and octaves) must be derived. We have used the solution provided by Dr Christoph Wolff in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe.
Although the canons are circular (able to be repeated infinitely) we have fashioned them into a connected sequence which progresses from the fewest to the most parts. This meant reordering them slightly and ending with the six-part thirteenth canon rather than the four-part fourteenth. Interestingly the thirteenth canon has been known for a long time - you can see it on the sheet of paper Bach holds in his hand in Haussmann's famous portrait.
Bach's manuscript doesn't indicate any scoring, and as the works are impossible to play on the large double manual harpsichord for which he composed the Goldberg Variations, musicians have to make their own arrangements. In our version, we've tried to capture the fun as well as the counterpoint implied on the page.
One thought-provoking detail to finish: it was Bach's practice to conclude works with the traditional Fine or JJ for ‘Jesu Juve' (‘with Jesus' help'). Not so in the Verscheidene Canones. Instead, after that most puzzling and intricate canon fourteen, we find simply a casually scrawled ‘etc'...
© William Carter, 1995
Bach Sonatas and Chorales
Not only Bach's liturgical music, whether vocal or instrumental, but his entire output can be seen as an extension of his religious beliefs, and the proof is not only in his correspondence and other writings but in his compositional procedures, relying as they do less on architectural mapping and more on generative and heuristic formulae. One such formula concerns the art of transcription, where it almost becomes a moral duty to explore every conceivable possibility inherent in the score. Bach would have seen it as moving closer to God. A secular approach would be to see it as being authentic to the spirit of the music.
Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr and Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend are from the collection known as the Leipzig Chorales, owing to its having been put together in the eponymous city; the works were originally composed during Bach's period as court organist in Weimar between 1708 and 1717. The Schübler Chorales BWV645 - 650, so-called after the student Georg Schübler who published them in 1748, are largely transcriptions for two-manual organ with pedal from Bach's Leipzig cantatas. Kommst du nun, Jesu, von Himmel herunter? comes from Cantata 137, Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren; the well-known Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme is from Cantata 140. The chorale prelude Das alte Jahr vergangen ist dates from the first decade of the 18th century, when Bach was organist at Arnstadt (1703-07) and Mülhausen (1707-08).
Bach wrote the six trio sonatas BWV525-530 in Leipzig during the late 1720s for the musical instruction of his son Wilhelm Friedemann, although he drew on material composed earlier. As with all of Bach's works ostensibly suggesting a mere pedagogical intent, these pieces also allowed him to explore and synthesise various styles and idioms. In these works, Italian ritornello form is married to the rich polyphonic tradition of the North; the textures of the trio sonata as chamber music are transferred to the manuals and pedal of the organ.
In addition to Bach's duties as cantor of St. Thomas's school and music director of the four city churches (St. Thomas, St. Nicholas, St. Paul and the New Church) in Leipzig during the period 1723-1750, he also (in 1729) took over the running of the Collegium Musicum. The Collegium, which met weekly at Zimmerman's coffee house, comprised students and gifted amateurs who placed themselves under the directorship of professional musicians such as Bach; together they performed the latest music: instrumental, chamber, orchestral or vocal. Two such works, for which Collegium performance materials survive from the mid-1730s, included the Sonata in G major for violin and continuo BWV1021, and the Sonata in G major for two flutes and continuo BWV1039. The violin sonata - the manuscript (written in Anna Magdalena Bach's hand but bearing bass figures and other markings by Bach himself) of which only came to light in 1928 - shares the same bass line as the sonata for flute, violin and continuo BWV1038; its texture is quite clearly that of a trio sonata, with a fully written-out harpsichord part. Bach later reworked the sonata for two flutes as a gamba sonata. It's also worth mentioning that one of the guest musicians to have performed at the Bachische Collegium Musicum (as it was known) was the famous lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss - making it not unrealistic that the sonatas might have been performed as arranged on the present disc.
© William Yeoman, 2005