Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Organ Trio Sonatas
Trio Sonata in G major (originally E flat major), BWV 525 [13:29]
Trio Sonata in G major, BWV 530 [13:35]
Trio Sonata in D major (originally C major), BWV 529 [13:05]
Trio Sonata in E minor, BWV 528 [9:48]
Trio Sonata in G minor (originally D minor), BWV 527 [16:07]
Trio Sonata in E minor (originally C minor), BWV 526 [9:45]
Florilegium (Rodolfo Richter (violin/viola); Reiko Ichise (viola da gamba); Jennifer Morsches (cello/piccolo cello); Eligio Quinteiro (lute); James Johnstone (harpsichord)/Ashley Solomon (flute)
rec. 29-31 May 2007, St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Newbury
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCSSA27012 SACD [75:53]
Since their formation in 1991, Florilegium’s status as one of Britain’s most outstanding period instrument ensembles has been established both on the concert podium and in numerous recordings. This is by no means the first time Bach’s organ Trio Sonatas have been arranged for instrumental forces. The results of such recordings have not all been considered a success, but there are already some very nice versions to be had. London Baroque on the BIS label for instance (see review), by chance recorded at the same location as this Florigelium disc, and some more recent challengers from CPO and Challenge Classics (see review).
With most points of similarity it would be daft not to make a comparison between London Baroque on BIS-CD-1345 and this Florilegium recording. Presented in order of BWV number, London Baroque has a more uniform sound through the cycle, the strings and harpsichord combination creating a nice concerto grosso feel. There is plenty of energy and style in the playing, the recording is sweetly balanced and there’s a delicious feel of air around the players. There is also contrast, with the introduction of a chamber organ to substitute the harpsichord in BWV 528 and 530. I agree with Kirk McElhearn that the music seems as if written exactly for this combination, and there isn’t much more to be asked from such a production.
Florilegium’s disc has the advantage of 5.0 SACD surround sound, but leaving that aside for a moment their recording is a tad warmer than the BIS disc, the instruments a touch closer but by no means uncomfortably so. The immediate difference is of course in the instrumentation, the flute topping in BWV 525 and 526 changing the chemistry of the music a good deal. Florilegium’s task here is trickier than London Baroque’s, with the homogeny of line between strings along being closer in spirit to that of a set of organ pipes. The musical conversation is no longer between equals, but between like-minded characters who are nonetheless distinctive in terms of their voice. The gut reaction is to prefer the strings-only setting, but with playing of sensitivity and amicable lyricism the ear soon warms to Florilegium’s approach. I’m listening to the Adagio second movement of BWV 525 with these comments in mind, but they are valid throughout.
Where Florilegium also score is in the imagination they have applied in contrasting instrumentation between works. Taken in playing order, BWV 530 is strings and harpsichord only, the latter seeming beefed up somewhat, and the viola da gamba having a more supporting role with its unadorned bass line. BWV 529 is transposed from C into the flute’s key of D major and turned into a flute sonata, the interplay between harpsichord and virtuoso wind sound sounding every bit like one of Bach’s canon of this genre. The central Largo is particularly affecting with its rising themes and subtle modulations. Another complete contrast with BWV 528 seems to take us into a different era, the absence of harpsichord leaving us with a lute and strings which has a Renaissance character, but none the worse for that. Another fascinating sonority is the piccolo cello which takes the melodic lead in BWV 527. It has something akin to a very large viola in terms of sound, and again works very well in this context, though I have to admit the richer melodic sustain and greater sense of contrapuntal interaction in London Baroque’s version of that gorgeous Adagio e dolce central movement does have a more lasting appeal. The grand finale in this case is a uniting of the full ensemble for BWV 526, the depth of ensemble resulting in something comparable to one of the Brandenburg Concertos.
In general terms Florilegium’s set of the Organ Trio Sonatas is a terrific success. The SACD sound allows the acoustic space to spread more than the stereo mix as you would expect. The latter is still very good but more generalised in terms of instrumental positioning. In specific terms I occasionally longed for the marginally more playful atmosphere of London Baroque, and their greater equality of parts in the sonatas arranged for fewer Florilegium members. The latter’s feel for contrast is to be welcomed however, so in the end it’s going to be a tally of plusses and minuses which swings your choice. I’m quite happy to have both, but neither will disappoint.
An involving approach which works superbly, almost the whole time.