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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Metamorphose - Bach's lost trio sonatas"


rec: Sept 2013, Hamburg-Ochsenwerder, St. Pankratius
Ambitus - amb 95 606 (© 2019) (56'24")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata in D (after BWV 1028); Sonata in d minor (after BWV 1043); Sonata in g minor (after BWV 1029); Sonata in A (after BWV 1015)

Maren Ries, Volker Möller, violin; Ariane Spiegel, cello; Mark Edwards, harpsichord

There is general agreement that a substantial part of the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach has been lost, and that includes music for an instrumental ensemble. However, exactly what has been lost, is a matter of debate. It is known for sure that the harpsichord concertos are adaptations of earlier works with solo parts for different instruments, such as the violin and the oboe. Only in a few cases both the original and the adaptation are known. A matter of debate with regard to this part of Bach's oeuvre is what the original scoring may have been. Some scholars believe, for instance, that the harpsichord concerto BWV 1052 was orginally conceived as a violin concerto, and several attempts have been made to reconstruct this work as such; it is available in several recordings. Other scholars doubt whether there has ever been such a violin concerto. There are many examples of pieces where scholars disagree about the original concept of a piece only known in a later adaptation. As so often in such cases, it is almost impossible to avoid speculation and wishful thinking. For that reason, it is advisable to treat every attempt of reconstruction with some scepticism.

The present disc is different from most others with 'reconstructions' in that we find here some pieces that are not often the subject of such a procedure. That goes for the Concerto in d minor (BWV 1043) for two violins, strings and basso continuo, and for the Sonata in A (BWV 1015) for harpsichord and violin. These are two of the four pieces NeaBarock turned into trio sonatas for two violins and basso continuo. Maren Ries, in her comprehensive liner-notes, points out that we know only a few trio sonatas from Bach's pen: the Sonata in G (BWV 1039) for two transverse flutes and basso continuo and the Sonata in c minor for transverse flute, violin and basso continuo from the Musicalisches Opfer (BWV 1079). A third piece, the Sonata in G (BWV 1038) is of doubtful authenticity. She then asks whether it is likely that Bach has not written more trio sonatas. After all, this was one of the main forms of chamber music at the time.

However, why do we have to assume that he wrote more trio sonatas, which have been lost? Earlier, Maren Ries states that "[neither] his official functions nor any commissions are likely to have prompted these compositions [i.e. the chamber music works that have come down to us], so it is not surprising that Bach saw no reason to make them easy or accommodating, but followed his inspiration without compromise. What we have here is a cosmos of complete compositional concentration, realized with a minimum of forces". Exactly that could be a reason why Bach may not have written any more trio sonatas. The trio sonata was first and foremost intended for amateurs, and that is the reason many of them were printed, whereas solo sonatas were often technically more demanding and rather intended for a performance by professionals in general, or by the composer himself and his pupils. However, only a relatively small part of Bach's instrumental music was printed, and - unlike his colleague Telemann - he seems to have written it mainly for performances with his sons and his pupils, in domestic surroundings and at the concerts of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. Bach may not have seen any reason to focus on the form of the trio sonata.

That said, it is useful to search for traces of trio sonata textures in pieces like those included here. The programme opens with two of the three sonatas known in the scoring for harpsichord and viola da gamba. It is assumed that all three are adaptations of pieces for other scorings. The first, the Sonata in G (BWV 1027) is an arrangement of the above-mentioned sonata for two flutes BWV 1039. It is possible that this version goes back to an earlier one for two violins. This has been recorded by NeoBarock on one of its previous discs. Here the ensemble focuses on the other two sonatas. The Sonata in g minor (BWV 1029) is the only one of the three which has three movements, and some scholars believe it may have been derived from a concerto, possibly for two violins. The last movement also appears in a manuscript as a trio for organ. Maren Ries believes that this is not a transcription of the sonata for harpsichord and viola da gamba, but that both are adaptations of an earlier work. "The original version of this sonata could have been a concerto, or a trio sonata auf Concertenart (in concert style), as Johann Adolph Scheibe defines this type in 1745 in his Critischer Musikus". Several proposals exist for the original scoring of the Sonata in D (BWV 1028), including transverse flute and violin (and then in the key of E or E flat) and the one performed here: two violins. This work exists in a copy for harpsichord and violin. "Some details of this manuscript make it obvious that the violin sonata cannot simply be a transposed version of the viola da gamba sonata, but harks back to a now lost earlier version of this work". Maren Ries discusses several features that point in the direction of a trio sonata for two violins and basso continuo.

Whereas there is general agreement that the three sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba are adaptations of earlier works, there seems less unanimity with regard to the Concerto in d minor (BWV 1043) for two violins, strings and basso continuo. At least I have never read any suggestion that it may not be an original work, but rather an arrangement of a trio sonata. That is not even mentioned in J.S. Bach, part of the Oxford Composer Companions (ed. Malcolm Boyd; Oxford, 1999). Maren Ries delivers several arguments for the assumption that we have to do with an arrangement here. Among them is that "[all] tutti parts in all three movements simply double the solo violin parts or accompany them in the manner of a realized thorough bass with harmonized parts filled in". Another one is that in the first movement the viola does not take up the fugue theme. "This is very uncommon in any fugue composition, but absolutely unthinkable in an original composition by Bach". The question, then - not discussed by Ries - is whether Bach did not see this as a problem in an arrangement of his own making. Do we have to conclude that this version was from the pen of someone else?

The German-born musicologist Hans Eppstein has suggested that several of the six sonatas for harpsichord and violin are adaptations of trio sonatas. As an example we get here the second, the Sonata in A (BWV 1015). It is interesting to note that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach described these sonatas as trios. That refers to the fact that they comprise three parts, two of which are played on the harpsichord. "Remarkable (...) is the use of different sets of thematic material for the two upper parts of the second movement. Bach scholar Klaus Hofmann took this as evidence that the original was a sonata for two different melodic instruments. He conjectured an original version for oboe, violin and basso continuo". In such a scoring, the sonata needs to be transposed to B flat. However, Maren Ries states that this in the second movement results in passages that are not very violin-like. Therefore we here get a performance with two violins in the original key.

This disc gives much food for thought, which makes it an interesting and important addition to the discography, whether one finds these reconstructions convincing or not. In the end, we will probably never know what Bach originally may have had in mind. Fortunately, these reconstructions are not presented with much aplomb and pretensions. They are rather proposals of what may have been the original versions of works by Bach that have come down to us in what are likely adaptations. The performances are an excellent demonstration of what Maren Ries discusses in her lucid liner-notes. NeoBarock has its origins in the former Musica antiqua Köln, and many early music lovers then known what to expect. This is something of the best the German baroque music scene has to offer: engaging performances, well articulated, with effective dynamic contrasts. These reconstructions of well-known works may need some time to get used to, but this disc is well worth exploring for any lover of Bach's music and of baroque music in general.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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