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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Sonatas & Suites for viola da gamba

[I] "Sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord"
Lorenzo Ghielmi, harpsichorda, fortepianob; Vittorio Ghielmi, viola da gambac
rec: March 15 - 17, 2011, Antwerp, AMUZ
Passacaille - 976 (© 2013) (55'14")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list
Scores BWV 1027-1029

Prelude and fugue for harpsichord in c minor (BWV 847)a; Prelude and fugue for harpsichord in c minor (BWV 871)b; Prelude and fugue for harpsichord in G (BWV 884)b; Sonata for harpsichord and viola da gamba in G (BWV 1027)bc; Sonata for harpsichord and viola da gamba in D (BWV 1028)bc; Sonata for harpsichord and viola da gamba in g minor (BWV 1029)ac

[II] "Transcriptions for Viola da Gamba"
Susanne Heinrich, viola da gamba
rec: April 10 - 13, 2012, Toddington (Gloucestershire), St Andrew's Church - dagamba100 (© 2012) (79'30")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Partita for violin in d minor (BWV 1004); Partita for violin in E (BWV 1006) (transposed to D); Sonata for violin in a minor (BWV 1003)

In the 17th century the viola da gamba played an important role in Germany. It was often used in chamber music: many sonatas were scored for one or two violins, viola da gamba and bc, for instance by Dietrich Buxtehude. In sacred music it was also often used, especially in lamentos. The famous lamentos by Johann Christoph Bach spring to mind. After the turn of the century the viola da gamba started to fall out of grace, although several composers still regularly wrote music for it. Johann Sebastian Bach was not one of them. He hasn't written any original sonatas for the gamba or with an obbligato part for it. The three sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba are all arrangements of sonatas for two melody instruments and bc.

These sonatas are frequently recorded, and the release of another recording is hardly something to get excited about. The Passacaille disc with Vittorio and Lorenzio Ghielmi is different in that in two of the sonatas the keyboard part is played on the fortepiano. In the booklet the artists argue that there are historical reasons for the fortepiano to be involved in the performance of these sonatas. The facts they refer to are well known, and they have no new information to offer in this matter. What the consequences are in regard to performance practice is a matter of debate. The Ghielmi's don't come up with convincing arguments in favour of the fortepiano.

If it is indeed true that Bach in the last years of his life had a basically positive attitude towards the fortepiano, we still don't know whether he had a role for the instrument in mind in some of his latest works, and if so, in which. In the case of the sonatas for keyboard and viola da gamba there is a complicating factor in that scholars have different opinions in regard to their date of composition. If one or some were written during Bach's time in Cöthen, then the use of a fortepiano is out of the question.

Listening to this disc I have to say that there are also musical arguments against it. The only sonata which has survived in Bach's autograph indicates that this piece is scored for harpsichord and viola da gamba - in that order. In many recordings the viola da gamba is too prominent, and that also goes for this disc. This lack of balance is only enhanced by the use of the fortepiano which has less presence than the harpsichord. The viola da gamba also blends far better with the harpsichord than with the fortepiano. That is confirmed by the performance of the Sonata in g minor where the harpsichord is used. Because of that the passages where both instruments play in unisono come off well. However, I am not very impressed by Vittorio Ghielmi's playing. I was rather critical in my assessment of his disc "Barbarian Beauty" and I don't find this disc really better. His treatment of dynamics is rather odd and sometimes extreme. His performance isn't always very subtle. The keyboard pieces are the best part of this disc, but that is not enough to save it. It is useful to note that this is the second recording of the Ghielmi's of these sonatas. In 1997 they recorded them for Ars Musici, and in that recording all three sonatas are played with the fortepiano. In that and in the present recording Lorenzo plays a copy of a Silbermann of 1749.

If there is little music by your favourite composer to play you can try to find some pieces to adapt for your instrument. Among Bach's most popular works are his compositions for violin and cello solo. These have been arranged or transcribed many times, for all kinds of instruments. The cello suites have been performed on the viola da gamba by Paolo Pandolfo (Glossa, 2000), but as far as I know Susanne Heinrich's transcriptions of some of Bach's works for violin solo is the first of its kind. She had considered a performance of these works which she had fallen in love with when she had violin lessons at an early age. It was crucial for her to find out first how to approach these works. One problem was to find the right tuning of her instrument. However, that was not the main hurdle. "The biggest question throughout was whether to try to sound like a violin an octave down, or whether to make this music into something more idiomatic-sounding for the viol. The nature of my instrument made this decision mostly for me." And so we hear here idiomatic versions for the viola da gamba. This means that, for instance, the articulation is different from what we usually hear in performances on the (baroque) violin.

These performances sound very much like French music. That seems quite logical: in Bach's time the viola da gamba was still in vogue in France, but had become extinct in Italy. Moreover, the German gamba virtuosos were educated in France and clearly influenced by the likes of Forqueray. The preludio from the Partita in E (here transposed to D major) and the grave which opens the Sonata in a minor are very much alike the preludes as we find them in French gamba suites. Not every movement is equally convincing. That goes, for instance, for the fugue from the same sonata.

Obviously the pièce de résistance is the chaconne from the second partita. It receives an impressive and incisive performance from Susanne Heinrich. It is different from what one expects - it is almost impossible to listen to this recording without keeping one's favourite performance on violin in mind. However, one should really try to listen to this piece - and the whole recording - with an open mind, as if this music was origally written for the viola da gamba. That is how it often sounds anyway.

This is an impressive and generally convincing attempt to adapt these marvellous pieces to the viola da gamba. If you love them, give this disc a try.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Vittorio Ghielmi
Susanne Heinrich

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