Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)

Trio Sonatas
Sonata in g minor (BWV 1029) [14:42]
Sonata in D (BWV 1028) [13:48]
Sonata in G (BWV 1027) [12:31]
Sonata in g minor (orig in d minor) (BWV 527) [13:02]
Sonata in G (orig in E flat) (BWV 525) [13:08]
Camerata Köln - Karl Kaiser (transverse flute), Michael Schneider (recorder, voice flute), Sabine Lier, Ingeborg Scheerer (violin), Rainer Zipperling, Julianne Borsodi (viola da gamba), Yasunori Imamura (theorbo), Sabine Bauer (harpsichord, organ)
rec. 20 - 23 September 2006, chamber music auditorium, Deutschlandfunk, Cologne, Germany. DDD
CPO 777 359-2 [67:35]

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Trio sonatas for organ BWV 525-530
Sonata IV (BWV 528)* [09:14]
Sonata V (BWV 529) [13:30]
Sonata II (BWV 526)* [10:38]
Sonata I (BWV 525) [10:25]
Sonata VI (BWV 530)* [12:03]
Sonata III (BWV 527) [11:41]
Reine-Marie Verhagen (recorder, voice flute), Tini Mathot (harpsichord, organ*)
rec. May 2008, Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, Netherlands. DDD

In the early stages of historical performance practice arrangements of baroque music were regarded as suspect. That was understandable as at that time such arrangements were mostly romantic distortions of what the composers had in mind. Over the years performers came to understand that arrangements were a common phenomenon in the baroque era, and that composers themselves frequently arranged their own compositions.

The oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach bears witness to this. In particular his instrumental music as we know it is made up in large part of arrangements or adaptations of some kind. The harpsichord concertos were originally written for other solo instruments, like violin or oboe, and many sonatas are also re-workings of pieces in other scorings. The growing understanding of this practice has led performers to follow Bach's example and rework his music. On the one hand attempts are made to restore them, as it were, to what could have been their original form. On the other hand, musicians try to perform these works in new scorings, which they hope will do justice to their character. The three sonatas for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord are often the subject of re-workings and adaptations.

Camerata Köln has recorded them with two melody instruments and basso continuo. It is fortunate that Bach himself has given an insight into his way of adapting his music: the Sonata in G (BWV 1027) is also known in its previous scoring for two transverse flutes and bc (BWV 1039). The first flute part was given to the right hand of the harpsichord, the second was set one octave lower and given to the viola da gamba. In this recording the sonata is played with the first flute part from BWV 1039 and the gamba part from BWV 1027, both unaltered, with the basso continuo from BWV 1039. The two other gamba sonatas are performed in a comparable manner. In the Sonata in g minor (BWV 1029) the right hand of the harpsichord part is played at the violin, the viola da gamba part remains unaltered, and the left hand of the harpsichord is figured to be performed as a basso continuo. The Sonata in D (BWV 1028) is performed the same way; this time the upper part is given to the recorder.

The six trio sonatas for two manuals and pedal - usually performed at the organ, but also playable at pedal harpsichord or pedal clavichord - are unique in Bach's oeuvre. It is assumed they were written as study material for Bach's eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, who would become a famous organist, very much of the same calibre as his father. But it is also thought they may be re-workings of trio sonatas for two melody instruments and basso continuo. Whether that is true or not, over the years ensembles have taken the opportunity to play them as such, with various instruments in the treble parts. Camerata Köln has chosen two from the set. These are transposed to another key in order to make them playable at the transverse flute (BWV 525) or the recorder (BWV 527). The second treble part is given in both sonatas to the violin. The bass line of the organ is again figured and played by the basso continuo group.

Camerata Köln has done a fine job in adapting these five sonatas by Bach. They sound very well in these new scorings and are quite faithful to the style of Bach's instrumental composition. The playing is also very good, in a truly speech-like manner, well phrased and articulated, and with fine dynamic gradation. The performances are engaging; in this way the corpus of instrumental music by Bach is considerably enhanced. One can easily think of other scorings, but Camerata Köln's approach seems to me a good model of how to approach the issue of adaptation.

The whole set of trio sonatas for organ has been recorded by Reine-Marie Verhagen and Tini Mathot. Their approach is different as they haven't really arranged the sonatas. I assume they have been transposed, but that issue is not mentioned by Ms Mathot's husband, Ton Koopman, in his liner-notes. The track-list doesn't give any keys at all, which is a serious omission. Here the sonatas are played as Bach wrote them, with the recorder taking the right hand of the keyboard, and the harpsichord or the organ playing the other two parts. Despite the fact that the sonatas are not reworked the result is less convincing than Camerata Köln's performances of the Sonatas 1 and 3 from the set. There are various reasons for that.

Firstly, I am not really impressed by the playing of the two artists. They are very fine musicians, but their approach is too restrained. The addition of ornamentation is inconsistent: there are many ornaments in the middle movement of the Sonata III, for instance, but often very few in the fast movements. The recorder's dynamic range is limited, but there is far too little dynamic gradation here. In general the performances are too flat and not very compelling.

The other issue is that the artists seem to be torn between two ideas expressed in the use of organ and harpsichord as alternative keyboard instruments. This leads to a quite different balance between keyboard and recorder. Three of the sonatas are performed with organ, and here the two instruments blend perfectly. In fact, the recorder acts as one of the organ's stops. Unfortunately the registration in some sonatas or movements, for instance the Sonata II, is such that the two upper parts can hardly be distinguished. As such there is nothing wrong with this approach. And here the lack of dynamic gradation could be justified by the fact that the organ can't make any dynamic shifts either.

In the three sonatas with harpsichord the role of the recorder is quite different. It doesn't blend with the harpsichord in the same way as with the organ. In these sonatas the recorder takes the role of a true solo instrument, competing with the harpsichord. That requires a different approach, but the performance is the same as in the sonatas with organ. To me the approach of these sonatas by Reine-Marie Verhagen and Tini Mathot seems rather ambiguous.

Musically the sonatas with organ and recorder come off best. Why should they be performed this way when they don't offer any really new perspective? The performances with recorder and harpsichord are basically more interesting, but these are musically not really satisfying.

Johan van Veen

Different approaches to the issue of adapting Bach's music.