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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Speculation on J.S. Bach - Reconstructed chamber music & chorals"

Michael Form, recorder; Marie Rouquié, violin; Étienne Floutier, viola da gamba; Dirk Börner, harpsichord

rec: June 2017, Mulhouse (F), Temple St. Jean
Pan Classics - PC 10384 (© 2018) (70'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

An Wasserflüssen Babylon (BWV 653) [2]; Concerto a 4 in g minor (after BWV 548 & 885); Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639) [1]; Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter (BWV 650) [3]; O Mensch, bewein' dein Sünde groß (BWV 622) [1]; Sonata in C (after BWV 1032) (ed. Michael Form); Sonata in D (after BWV 1028) (ed. Michael Form); Sonata in B flat (after BWV Anh 111, 655, 584 & 676); Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein (BWV 641) [1]; Dirk BÖRNER: Jesu, meine Freude (after JS Bach, BWV 794); Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten (after JS Bach, BWV 797)

Sources: Johann Sebastian Bach, [1] Orgelbüchlein, n.d.; [2] Achtzehn Choräle von verschiedener Art, n.d.; [3] Sechs Choräle von verschiedener Art 'Schübler-Choräle', n.d.

Johann Sebastian Bach's instrumental oeuvre raises many questions. A number of pieces date from the time when he was the director of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, but many of them are arrangements of compositions in different scorings which he wrote in Weimar or Köthen. While in some cases the original works are known, many compositions have only been preserved in their Leipzig versions. This has tempted scholars and performers to try to reconstruct the original versions. Some of the harpsichord concertos were probably originally conceived as solo concertos for violin or oboe; some of these concertos are regularly performed and recorded in their 'reconstructed' form.

The present disc focuses on two pieces which are the subject of research. It opens with what is generally known as a sonata for harpsichord and transverse flute, with the key of A major and catalogued as BWV 1032. Michael Form, in his liner-notes, states that it "is likely a case where the arrangement was not up to Bach's own standards". I wonder what is the foundation of this statement. In the booklet of a recording of Bach's flute sonatas, Bach scholar Werner Breig writes that the only source for this sonata "is one of the most remarkable Bach autographs that we know". He also states that this sonata "was intended from the very beginning for flute and obbligato harpsichord". The fact that the sonata has come down to us in Bach's own handwriting casts some doubt on Form's statement. He mentions that the first movement breaks off after 61 bars, suggesting that this was Bach's own decision as he was unsatisfied with the result. Werner Breig sees this as the result of the design of the manuscript. There is an additional issue here: the second movement is in the same minor key instead of the customary parallel key of f sharp minor. This seems to indicate that this movement was intended for a different sonata. According to Form, the sonata was originally conceived as a trio sonata with a part for the recorder. The problem was to find an appropriate slow movement. For this reconstruction the performers have turned to the Prelude in f minor (BWV 881) from the second volume of the Well-tempered Clavier.

There is less controversy about the three sonatas for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord, as it is generally assumed that they are arrangements of earlier works. The second of the set (BWV 1028) is the subject of reconstruction here. As the right hand of the harpsichord part never falls below the lowest note of the transverse flute or the voice flute (recorder in d), the performers presume that Bach composed this part for the latter instrument. It is therefore performed here as a trio sonata for recorder, violin and basso continuo.

The other two major works on this disc are no reconstructions, but rather new compositions, based on material from Bach's oeuvre. The Sonata in B flat was inspired by a sonata by his contemporary Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, who composed a quartet in whose third movement the flute plays the chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. Janitsch wrote this piece on the death of his daughter (recorded by Tempesta di Mare). It tempted the performers to put together a trio sonata in four movements. Its two fast movements are arrangements of organ works, the Trio super Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (BWV 655), one of the Achtzehn Choräle von verschiedener Art, and the Trio super Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (BWV 676), from the Clavier-Übung III.

The Concerto à 4 in g minor found its inspiration in Bach's Triple concerto BWV 1044, which is in itself a transcription of the Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 894) for harpsichord and the slow movement from the Trio sonata BWV 527 for organ. The piece played here is, as Michael Form describes it, a "quartet sonata 'in concerto-form'". The starting point is one of Bach's organ works, the Prelude and fugue in e minor (BWV 548). For the slow movement the performers turned once again to the second volume of the Well-tempered Clavier: this time they arranged the Prelude in g minor (BWV 885).

The chorale arrangements played here, are no attempts to 'reconstruct', but rather included as interludes. "Through the use of varying instruments, we thus imitate different organ registers". There are more recordings in which organ chorales are performed by an instrumental ensemble. Sometimes that works pretty well, in other cases too much is lost. It probably depends on which chorales are chosen and with which instruments they are played. Here the use of recorder, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord works rather well. Dirk Börner wrote two chorale arrangements himself, in the style of Bach. As not all chorale arrangements in Bach's time were intended for an instrument with pedal, such arrangements for harpsichord are in line with then common practice. Obviously one needs to take care that the chorale melody - with its sometimes long notes - is kept intact.

One may have his own thoughts about a concept as that on which this recording is based. Much about Bach's instrumental oeuvre is not known and therefore scholars and performers will continue to come up with their own 'solutions' and reconstructions. This is definitely a most interesting contribution, even though the 'spectulation factor' is pretty high. From that angle the title of this disc is well chosen. The performers defend their concept with much authority. There is some excellent playing here, and every Bach lover will enjoy this disc. Recorder lovers will be particularly interested in the role of their instrument: Bach has not left much for them to play, and these 'reconstructions' will definitely appeal to them.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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