musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Sonate a 2 Clav. & Pedal. (BWV 525 - 530)"

Benjamin Alard, organ

rec: Nov 2008, Paris, Église Saint-Louis en l'Île
Alpha - 152 (© 2009) (80'00")

Sonata No 1 in E flat (BWV 525); Sonata No 2 in c minor (BWV 526); Sonata No 3 in d minor (BWV 527); Sonata No 4 in e minor (BWV 528); Sonata No 5 in C (BWV 529); Sonata No 6 in G (BWV 530)

The Sonatas for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach, often referred to as 'trio sonatas', are unique in Bach's oeuvre as these are the only works for organ which he himself called 'sonatas'. They were composed during the late 1720s, according to Bach's first biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel as educational material for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann. This statement is generally considered trustworthy, and that means these works belong to the same category as the Inventions and the Sinfonias as well as the first part of the Welltempered Clavier.

They are not only unique in Bach's oeuvre but also take a special place in the history of music as they were among the few works by Bach which, although never printed, were widely known and disseminated in manuscript. In 1788 an anonymous author wrote that the "six trios for two manuals and pedal are particularly well known. They are written in such galant style that they still sound very good, and will never age, but will outlive all changes of fashion in music." In the same vein Carl Philipp Emanuel said in 1774 that "the six keyboard trios are among the best works of my dear father. They sound very good even now and give me much pleasure, regardless of the fact that they are over 50 years old. There are some adagios among them that could not be composed more melodiously".

The sonatas are not only part of the teaching material for Wilhelm Friedemann, they also reflect Bach's attempts to adapt various instrumental forms to the organ, like Vivaldi's concertos. As some movements are known from instrumental works it is generally assumed the sonatas are adaptations for the organ of music Bach previously wrote for various combinations of instruments. It is therefore not surprising that today a number of recordings with transcriptions for several kinds of instrumental ensembles are on the market.

All sonatas are in three movements and in that respect they reflect the modern Vivaldian concerto - not the Italian sonata da camera, as Charles Cantagrel writes in the programme notes. Also important is that the three parts - two for manuals and one for the pedal - are treated strictly equally. Although they are written as a set of six - Bach himself numbered them from 1 to 6 - they don't make a cycle as there is no musical connection between them like a sequence of keys.

In the booklet Gilles Cantagrel speculates about the question whether they could have been played within the Lutheran liturgy. He calls them "unusual in being organ pieces that were not intended for church performance". I can't see what is so unusual about that, as Bach's transcriptions of Italian instrumental works also don't have any liturgical purpose. There are also other organ works which can hardly have been played during service. The fact that the autograph begins with the letters J.J. (Jesu juva, Jesus help) is quite common in Bach's music and doesn't give any clue as to where his music was supposed to be played.

The fact that the sonatas were intended as educational material for Wilhelm Friedemann makes it quite possible to play them on a harpsichord or clavichord with pedals. Two of them have been recorded on the pedal harpsichord by Yves Rechsteiner (Alpha 027; 2001). Here the more common organ is used. The instrument was constructed between 2000 and 2004 and built up in 2005 in the Church Saint-Louis en l'Île in Paris. It is not a copy of a historical organ, but - as the builder Bernard Aubertin writes in the booklet - "created in the spirit of a tradition, but without any nostalgia for the 'golden age' of the past". As much as I like the sound of the organ I find it disappointing that this organ was chosen rather than a really historical organ or at least a modern instrument which is closer to the kind of organs Bach must have known. The tuning is given as "well-tempered after T. Young 1800". Thomas Young was an English scientist who presented his tuning in 1799; it was included in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (more about this in Wikipedia).

Benjamin Alard is a brilliant keyboard player whom until recently I had heard only on the harpsichord. When I heard two organ recitals on France Musique, I got a very positive impression of his playing. He gives good interpretations of Bach's sonatas on this disc as well, but I have two problems with it. First of all, I think there is often too little contrast in tempi. The fast movements are mostly taken in moderate speed. This maybe the result of the acoustical circumstances, although I didn't notice a very large reverberation. But I think most fast movements could have been played a little faster. I also think the andante of the Sonata No 4 in e minor requires a faster tempo than Alard has chosen; he plays it as if it is an adagio. The second problem is that whereas the balance between the two upper voices is good, the pedal part is mostly underexposed. The exception is the allegro of the Sonata No 2 in c minor, where the three parts are registrated equally strong. But in most movements the pedal part is too weak and not audible clearly enough.

All things considered I think that, unless one insists on hearing these works on a historical organ, this recording is well worth having and listening to. I am sure I shall return to it mainly because Benjamin Alard is an excellent interpreter, not just on the harpsichord but on the organ as well.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

CD Reviews