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Vivaldi Undercover Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750):
Concerto in a minor (BWV 593) [10:35] Nicolas CHÉDEVILLE (1705-1782)
Le Printems ou Les Saisons amusantes, op. 8: Le Printems [10:12]
Il Pastor Fido: Sonata IV in G [10:38] Johann Sebastian BACH
Concerto in g minor (BWV 975) [08:50] Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Sonata in d minor, op. 1,12 'La Follia' (RV 63) [10:43] Nicolas CHÉDEVILLE
Il Pastor Fido: Sonata VI in g minor [08:57]
Le Printems ou Les Saisons amusantes, op. 8: L'Automne [10:09]
rec. 2014/16, St James's Church, Abinger Common, UK BARN COTTAGE RECORDS BCR017 [70:07]
In the early days of historical performance practice its pioneers resisted the common habit of performing baroque music on instruments which were not known at that time. A performance of Bach’s harpsichord works on the piano was considered a kind of ‘arrangement’. Instead, they wanted to return to the basics: the instruments and the performing habits of the time in which the music was written. They also wanted to perform the music exactly as it was intended by the composer. It was only at a later stage, when historical performance practice had established itself, that performers showed a growing awareness of the widespread practice of arranging music during the baroque period. They started to recognize that such arrangements have a value in themselves.
Music which diverges from how it was originally conceived comes in different forms. Transcriptions are probably most close to the original: what the composer has written is kept intact, but is adapted to a different medium. That goes, for instance, for most intabulations from the 16th and 17th centuries. Madrigals and chansons could be transcribed for a plucked instrument and a motet for organ. If a performer arranges a piece, he goes a step further: the piece is also adapted to the features of another instrument, which sometimes means that individual lines are changed or new parts are added.
In these cases music by a composer is arranged by a performer for a specific occasion. In the course of history composers also arranged music, either compositions from their own pen or pieces by colleagues. Both Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel often adapted their own compositions for different purposes. They also arranged music by others. Handel is probably the most notorious ‘thief’ of the 18th century. He often incorporated pieces of music by composers of his own or a previous generation, for instance in his oratorios. Bach is a different case: he mostly arranged music by others as part of a learning process. He arranged concertos by Italian masters, such as Vivaldi or Torelli, in order to become acquainted with the Italian style.
I used the word ‘thief’ in regard to Handel. However, at that time arranging music by others was generally not judged negatively. Until the time when ‘originality’ became one of the main requirements of any composer, arrangements of some sort were seen as a tribute to the skills of the original composer. Bach certainly held the Italian masters in high esteem; his own concertos for instrumental ensemble bear witness to that. The present disc includes two examples of Bach’s arrangements, one for organ (BWV 593) and one for harpsichord (BWV 975). The latter is played as Bach conceived it, whereas the former has been arranged by the performers. Rather than arranging the original, Bach’s organ transcription was the starting point for a performance on recorder and violin, with the bass performed in the way of a basso continuo.
The key figure in the programme is Nicolas Chédeville, and with him we move to a different department of the arranging business. The programme includes two concertos from his collection Le printems, ou Les saisons amusantes, which he published in 1739. It comprises arrangements of the first concerto from Vivaldi's Four Seasons and of movements from other concertos by him. These arrangements were not part of a learning process, like Bach’s Vivaldi transcriptions, nor a way to use good tunes in his own works, as in Handel’s oeuvre. There is little doubt that Chédeville honestly admired the Italian style, but there can be also no doubt that he saw it as a way to profit from the popularity of Vivaldi’s music. That comes to the fore in the set of six sonatas which he published in 1737 under the title of Il Pastor Fido. He suggested that they were from Vivaldi’s pen, and apparently he succeeded in making people believe that. Even in the second half of the 20th century these sonatas were sometimes recorded as pieces by Vivaldi. However, maybe we are too harsh on him. The sonatas were written for the musette, and in New Grove Jane M. Bowers refers to the musicologist Philippe Lescat who nicely suggests that he “was trying to give the musette, his favourite instrument, the endorsement of a great composer that it had lacked up until then”.
The musette is also the instrument for which Chédeville created his arrangements of Vivaldi’s concertos. He treated the original material with quite some freedom. He omitted movements or replaced them with others. In this recording the performers have arranged Chédeville's arrangements: the original three melody parts are extended to four. The two sonatas from Il Pastor Fido are played as Chédeville intended them. Again the musette was his first choice, but – in order to increase sales – he offered alternative options for the melody part.
This disc comes with the title Vivaldi Undercover. The only original work from his pen is his set of variations on La Follia, a ground bass which inspired so many composers in the course of history. It was the last piece in a set of sonatas for two violins and basso continuo, which Vivaldi published as his Op. 1 in 1705. Here the performers have followed in the footsteps of so many composers of the baroque era, in that they have arranged the piece for their ensemble. The two upper parts are divided over three instruments, and in other ways the material is also adapted.
An interesting question is how arrangements should be performed and how performers should proceed, if they want to arrange pieces themselves. As far as the latter is concerned, it seems to me that if one plays baroque instruments, one should stay within the limits of what was common practice at the time. Passacaglia seems to have done just that: as I wrote above, the addition of parts to what a composer had written down, was quite common in the renaissance and baroque periods. I have some reservation in regard to the performance, though. One wonders for what kind of occasions and venues Chédeville’s arrangements were created. This is basically chamber music, and I am not sure whether such pieces were played during public concerts, for instance at the Concert Spirituel in Paris. Printed collections of chamber music were mostly intended for amateurs, and were to be played in domestic surroundings. That also goes for the sonatas from Il Pastor Fido. From that angle I am not so sure that the basso continuo group should be as large and as loud as it sometimes is here. I found it a bit overdone. The same is true for Vivaldi's La Follia variations.
That said, this is a delightful disc. It gives a nice impression of the various ways music could be arranged. In Tobie Miller the ensemble has a true virtuoso in its ranks, who made a strong impression with her disc 'La Belle Vielleuse' (review), which was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2017. The other players are just as good, and this results in a highly entertaining recital. All in all, the arrangements of the ensemble are convincing and do the 'original' pieces full justice.