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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Harpsichord Transcriptions"

Benjamin Alard, harpsichord

rec: December 7 - 9, 2006, Saint-Martin-d'Arrossa, Église
Hortus - 050 (© 2007) (52'44")

Concerto in F (BWV 978); Prelude in C (BWV 966); Sonata in d minor (BWV 964); Sonata in a minor (BWV 965)

The pieces recorded here are usually referred to as 'transcriptions', as the title of this disc indicates. But considering the character of these 'transcriptions' it is more appropriate to call them 'arrangements', as Bach often goes well beyond simply adapting music to a different medium (here the harpsichord).

Arranging music is a practice of all times. In the 16th century, for instance, vocal music was arranged for instruments, often by publishers who wanted to make a profit from the popularity of certain pieces. In the baroque era it wasn't much different: copyright didn't exist, and music by, for instance, Corelli or Handel was adapted for other instruments, often including a transposition to another key. But arrangements were not always inspired by commercial motives.
Many composers of the 17th and 18th centuries made arrangements themselves, both of their own works and of compositions by others. One reason for arranging music by other composers was to pay tribute to them. A good example of this is Francesco Geminiani: although it isn't certain that he was a pupil of Corelli, he definitely admired him, and he arranged Corelli's Sonatas for violin and bc opus 5 as Concerti grossi for strings and bc. But arrangements were also made as part of a learning process: in his youth Bach copied and arranged music by masters of past and present to become an accomplished composer himself.

It is impossible to put an exact date to the composition of the Sonata in a minor (BWV 965) and the Prelude in C (BWV 966), but without any doubt they were written when Bach was still in the process of learning. Both pieces are based on sonatas for two violins, viola da gamba and bc from the collection Hortus Musicus (1688) by Johann Adam Reincken (1643? - 1722). In these sonatas Reincken combined elements of the style of his Dutch organ teacher Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and the contemporary Italian instrumental works. The importance of the middle voices in instrumental music of the North-German school, of which Reincken was an important representative, has considerably influenced Bach's compositional style.

What Bach did was much more than just transcribing these ensemble pieces for harpsichord. He added some passages of his own, and that makes the term 'arrangement' more appropriate to describe how Bach dealt with Reincken's music. It is not very different from his treatment of the Italian concertos he arranged for harpsichord and organ during his time in Weimar. One of them is the Concerto in F (BWV 978) played here. It was Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar who asked him to make these arrangements. From 1711 to 1713 he had studied at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and as it was an international centre of music printing he was able to purchase a large amount of the latest music by composers like Antonio Vivaldi and the brothers Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello. This is probably how Bach became acquainted with this music, and his studying and arranging of these compositions also had a lasting influence on his compositional style. Here again he does more than transcribing, by transposing to other keys - here Vivaldi's Concerto in G major, op. 3,3 (RV 310) is transposed to F -, changing the tempi and adding counterpoint to the given material.

The Sonata in d minor (BWV 964) is an arrangement of Bach's own music, the Sonata for violin solo in a minor (BWV 1003), and is of a much later date, probably from his Leipzig period. The arrangement is sometimes attributed to his son Wilhelm Friedemann; it is possible Bach had asked him to make this transcription as part of his musical education. But there is no certainty about that. What is certain, though, is that Bach himself used to play his works for solo violin on the keyboard. His former student Johann Friedrich Agricola wrote: "Their author often played them himself on the Clavichord and added so much harmony as he deemed necessary. In so doing he realised the need for a sounding harmony which he could not reach more fully in that composition". From this perspective one could say that this arrangement - whoever made it - is just an example of how Bach may have played his sonatas and partitas for violin solo on the keyboard.

As one may conclude from this description of the pieces on the programme, Benjamin Alard has made an interesting and variable choice from the many arrangements which are in the catalogue of Bach's works. He has made an astonishing career, winning the important Bruges International Harpsichord Competition in 2004, well before his 20th birthday. I have heard him live in the Holland Early Music Festival Utrecht 2006 and I was impressed by his technical qualities. I found his playing a bit mechanical, though, with little room for expression. I am happy to say that in this recording there is nothing wrong in that respect. His interpretation is very differentiated, with well-chosen tempi, nice ornamentation and with great clarity. Even in the most dense polyphonic movements, like the fugues, all voices are easy to follow. That is also to the credit of the recording technician, who has done a great job.

I can only find two points of criticism: with less than 53 minutes playing time this disc is a bit short. And at several moments there are some ugly sounds when Alard takes his hands off the keyboard. But it does nothing to diminish my enjoyment of this recording, which I recommend without hesitation.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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