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"A Cembalo certato e Violino solo"

Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord; Johannes Pramsohler, violin

rec: Jan 26 - 29/March 23 - 26/July 27 - 30, 2021, Kaiserslautern, Studio SWR
Audax Records - ADX13783 (3 CDs) (© 2022) (3.28'45")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/JP
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores JS Bach

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Sonata for keyboard and violin in b minor (Wq 76 / H 512)
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 1 in b minor (BWV 1014); Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 2 in A (BWV 1015); Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 3 in E (BWV 1016); Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 4 in c minor (BWV 1017); Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 5 in f minor (BWV 1018); Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 6 in G (BWV 1019); Sonata for violin and bc in g minor (BWV 1020) (attr); Sonata for violin and bc in F (BWV 1022) (attr)
Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1703-1771): Sonata for keyboard and violin in B flat (GraunWV Av:XV,46)
Christoph SCHAFFRATH (1709-1763): Duetto for harpsichord and violin in a minor (CSWV F,30)
Johann Adolph SCHEIBE (1708-1776): Sonata I for harpsichord and violin in D, op. 1,1; Sonata II for harpsichord and violin in b minor, op. 1,2; Sonata III for harpsichord and violin in A, op. 1,3
Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Concerto for harpsichord and violin in D (TWV 42,D6)

One of the most popular genres of instrumental music of the baroque period was the trio sonata. It came into existence during the second half of the 17th century, and soon developed into a genre to which almost any composer contributed. Such sonatas were the ideal way to show one's skills in the treatment of counterpoint, and it is no coincidence that often a set of trio sonatas was the first collection with which a composer presented himself to the music world. In the mid-18th century the trio sonata turned into a trio for obbligato keyboard and a melody instrument, sometimes with an additional bass part, which was often ad libitum. The keyboard trios of Joseph Haydn are perfect specimens of this development.

Some sonatas are known in different scorings: in the oeuvre of, among others, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Gottlieb Graun, we find several sonatas that were originally conceived as trio sonatas for two treble instruments and basso continuo and were later adapted for an obbligato keyboard and one treble instrument. It seems even possible that this could be the case with the six sonatas for obbligato keyboard and violin by Johann Sebastian Bach as well, or at least with some of them. It is not known for sure when he composed them; some date from his early years in Leipzig, but it has been assumed that he may have started the composition during his time in Cöthen. That is hard to prove, but it seems possible that some of these sonatas were originally conceived as 'traditional' trio sonatas. Whatever is the case, Bach was in fact ahead of his time when he composed or arranged sonatas with an obbligato keyboard part.

For some time Johannes Pramsohler and Philippe Grisvard have been looking for sonatas for keyboard and violin from the first half of the 18th century. The first fruit of their research was the disc "Bach & Entourage - Violin Sonatas from Bach's Circle". The set of three discs to be reveiwed here is a sequel. The artists felt that it was impossible to ignore Bach's sonatas, even though they have been recorded frequently and the artists, who are also the leading forces of the Ensemble Diderot, prefer to avoid the trodden paths. That said, this is not a conventional recording of Bach's sonatas. They are not performed as a cycle - it is questionable whether they were intended as such anyway - but rather put into a historical perspective. Each disc includes two of Bach's sonatas, performed in the usual order, which are surrounded by sonatas by contemporaries and representatives of a later generation.

This is all very interesting and instructive. Nearly all the sonatas by other composers than Bach and his son Carl Philipp Emanuel are first recordings. The only exception is the Concerto in D by Georg Philipp Telemann. Concerto is the title the piece bears in the manuscript, but in fact it is a sonata like those by Bach. Whereas Telemann is mostly associated with the galant idiom and not with counterpoint, in his early years - such as those he spent in Eisenach (1708-1712) - he composed many pieces in which his treatment of counterpoint is in no way inferior to that of his colleague Bach. It is an interesting question whether the sonata included here was written in this scoring at that time. That would make it probably the very first sonata with obbligato keyboard in Germany. However, it seems possible that this work was originally conceived as a trio sonata for two instruments and basso continuo and later adapted for the scoring in which it is performed here.

Particularly interesting are the three sonatas by Johann Adolph Scheibe. He has a pretty bad reputation in our time because of his sharp criticism of Bach. This has almost entirely overshadowed his own oeuvre. It is not easy to assess his qualities as a composer, as the largest part of his output has been lost. New Grove lists around 150 cantatas, a large amount of other vocal music and almost 200 concertos for transverse flute or violin among the 'lost works'. Pramsohler and Grisvard turned to three sonatas for obbligato keyboard and violin, which were published as his Op. 1; the year of publication is not known, but Peter Wollny, in his liner-notes, mentions the late 1750s. Pramsohler writes: "Astonishing was the extent to which the slow movements of the three sonatas resembled those by Bach in terms of structure, counterpoint, and the 'singability' so praised by C. P. E. Bach, and how precisely Scheibe notated embellishments - exactly one of the points for which he so harshly took Bach to task." And Wollny states: "The uniformly four-movement form is just as reminiscent of Bach as is the fine balance between the strict treatment of the three parts and the idiomatic character of the two instruments." There is indeed quite some similarity between these sonatas and those by Bach, stylistically and formally, and one wonders whether they may have been written some time before the year of publication. Traces of the 'galant' style are passages in parallel motion, and the Sonata III in A is quite close to the Empfindsamkeit.

Christoph Schaffrath is quite an interesting composer as well. He played a major role in music life in Berlin in the mid-18th century. In 1733 he applied for the position of organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden, but he was rejected - Wilhelm Friedemann Bach secured the post instead. The next year he entered the service of Frederick the Great, who was still Crown-Prince at that time. Frederick started his own chapel in Ruppin, which moved to Rheinsberg in 1736. With his accession to the throne in 1740 Schaffrath became harpsichordist in his chapel. But in 1741 he entered the service of Frederick's sister Anna Amalia. It seems this resulted in Schaffrath leaving the court, as his name does not appear in a list of musicians of the chapel from 1754. Anna Amalia's taste in music was rather conservative. She preferred the traditional German contrapuntal style over the modern fashion of her days, which gave prominence to melody. Whether Schaffrath adapted his style of composing to her taste or the Duetto in a minor - one of a substantial number of duets for different combinations of instruments - is an expression of his own preferences is difficult to say. The ensemble Epoca Barocca recorded two discs with his music for CPO, and they show two sides of Schaffrath, one with duets and one with sonatas and trios. In the duets he confirms the view of Ernst Ludwig Gerber, a writer of a lexicon on music, that Schaffrath was "one of our most worthy contrapuntalists". The trios are rather written in a galant idiom. In the duet performed here the central movement is the most 'modern'.

With Johann Gottlieb Graun we are in a different world. The order of the three movements of the Sonata in B flat reflects the fashion in Berlin in the mid-18th century: a slow or moderate movement (here grazioso) is followed by two fast movements. Wollny writes: "The treatment of the instruments is additionally informed by at times abrupt changes of mood, harmony, and tempo, unexpected virtuoso outbreaks, and a sometimes fantasia-like free structure." Those are features of the Sturm und Drang, which we also find in a number of pieces by CPE Bach.

The latter closes this project with his Sonata in b minor, which is a specimen of the Empfindsamkeit, which is one of the hallmarks of his style. It is one of four sonatas for this scoring which he composed in 1763. Wollny assumes that it is "the fruit of a long and tentative creative process". He points out that it includes quite some references to earlier works. One wonders whether at some moment in the creative process the old Bach may have played a role. In this respect the two remaining sonatas are interesting. There is little doubt that the Sonata in g minor (BWV 1020 is not from Johann Sebastian's pen. It has been attributed to CPE Bach, but Wollny suggests one of the youngest sons, probably Johann Christoph Friedrich. There are also doubts about the Sonata in F (BWV 1022). The fact that the bass is identical with the authentic Sonata in G (BWV 1021) suggests that it may have been written by Bach after all. It may also have been part of the musical education of one of his sons.

This production is a perfect example of how even traditional repertoire can be presented in such a way that it sheds new light on them. Some music lovers say 'Never a day without Bach', and obviously there is nothing against the love for his music. However, no composer has fallen from heaven, and even the most brilliant composer is part of his time. It makes much sense to put him and his music into their historical context. Therefore this set of discs is a highly important and valuable addition to the discography, not only the Bach discography, but also that of German music in the decades around 1750.

Philippe Grisvard and Johannes Pramsohler are outstanding and virtuosic performers, and one does not expect anything else from them than top-class performances. They don't disappoint. Those who remember the playing of Reinhard Goebel will recognize his approach in Pramsohler's interpretation, especially in his articulation, treatment of dynamics and differentiation between good and bad notes. He also plays the violin that once was owned by Goebel. It is the perfect instrument for this repertoire. It is interesting that the names of the two artists are printed in the right order: first Grisvard, then Pramsohler. After all, these sonatas are for keyboard and violin, in that order. Grisvard does not hold back in his performance of the keyboard part, and we also find 'dynamic' playing here, and a strongly rhetorical realisation of the keyboard parts. However, as in so many recordings the two artists have not found the perfect balance. The violin is too dominant, also due to Pramsohler's playing. I wonder if the violin should play at a lower dynamic level or the violinist should be standing behind the harpsichord.

A particularly notable feature of this recording is the choice of tempi. "We placed Bach's twenty-five movements, and by extension all fifty-seven movements of the present program, in relation to one another in a tempo coordinate system in order to receive, by means of historical sources concerned with the issue, logical tempo relationships that sometimes led to surprising results." I noted that some fast tempi are played faster than in most other recordings, but did not find them too fast. It is nice that andantes are treated as moderate rather than slow tempi, as is often the case. Only the largo opening the Sonata in c minor (BWV 1017 seemed to me a little too fast.

To sum up, this is a great set of discs to have, not only for lovers of Bach's music and especially his sonatas for keyboard and violin. This production also whets the appetite for more music from Bach's environment. Pramsohler mentions several names of composers whose music they have encountered during their research. I hope that we may see some of them in upcoming projects.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Philippe Grisvard
Johannes Pramsohler

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