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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Concertos for Organ and Strings"

Bart Jacobs, organ
Les Muffatti
Dir: Ryo Terakado

rec: May 2018, Bornem (B), Parochiekerk Onze-Lieve-Vrouw en Sint-Leodegarius
Ramée - RAM 1804 (© 2018) (79'59")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto in D (after BWV 169 and 49); Concerto in d minor (after BWV 35 and 1055); Concerto in d minor (after BWV 146, 188 and 1052); Concerto in g minor (after BWV 1041 and 1058); Sinfonia in D (after BWV 29 and 120a); Sinfonia in G (after BWV 156); Sinfonia in G (after BWV 75)

Ryo Terakado, Marie Haag, Catherine Meeùs, Marrie Mooij, Laurent Hulsbosch, Jorlen Vega García, violin; Manuela Bucher, Sylvestre Vergez, viola; Corentin Dellicour, cello; Benoît Vanden Bemden, double bass; Bart Rodyns, harpsichord

In the 17th century, harpsichord and organ were used for the performance of keyboard music and for the realisation of the basso continuo, in support of singers and/or instrumentalists. This was going to change in the early 18th century, when keyboard instruments were given solo or obbligato parts in the orchestral fabric. The first composer who contributed to this 'emancipation' of the keyboard was Johann Sebastian Bach. During his years as Kapellmeister in Köthen, he composed his Brandenburg Concertos; the fifth concerto included a solo part for the harpsichord. The same is the case with the Triple Concerto. In Köthen he also started the composition of his sonatas for harpsichord and violin. Later he would compose sonatas for obbligato keyboard and flute or viola da gamba. It was only a matter of time before this practice would be applied to the organ.

In 1726 Bach composed a number of cantatas which included movements with an obbligato organ part. Some of these have become quite famous, such as Geist und Seele wird verwirret (BWV 35), Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (BWV 169) and Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170). Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has suggested that these pieces, mostly called sinfonia, may have been part of a programme which Bach played at a concert on the Silbermann organ of the Sophienkirche in Dresden in 1725. A newspaper report referred to "various concertos with sweet underlying instrumental music". It seems quite possible that these concertos were adaptations of solo concertos which Bach had written in Köthen, as the sinfonias in the cantatas of 1726 have also been identified as arrangements of existing concertos. Bach used several of them once again when he arranged them to harpsichord concertos for performances of the Collegium Musicum in Zimmermann's Kaffeehaus. This leads to the conclusion that some pieces, originally written in Köthen, may have been reused three times: first in Dresden, then in Leipzig as part of cantatas and as movements of solo concertos for public performances.

It is not entirely clear who played the obbligato parts in the cantatas, but it seems likely that it was Bach himself. After all, the singers and players were standing at the organ gallery, and it would not have been a great problem for Bach to play the obbligato organ parts and at the same time direct the ensemble. It is important to realise that in Bach's cantatas the basso continuo was not performed on a small organ, but on a large instrument with several manuals and pedals. Some obbligato organ parts in sinfonias from cantatas cannot be played on a single manual at all.

These facts have inspired Bart Jacobs to put together a number of movements with obbligato organ parts to concertos for organ and strings. In the booklet he explains which pieces he has taken and how he has arranged them. The programme opens with a concerto whose first two movements are taken from the above-mentioned cantata BWV 169. Bach later adapted them for harpsichord and strings (BWV 1053). The last movement of that concerto was taken from the Sinfonia to cantata BWV 49. Jacobs plays these three sinfonias as a Concerto in D. However, not all pieces are based on cantatas. The last item is a Concerto in g minor which is based on the Concerto in a minor (BWV 1041) for violin, which Bach later turned into a harpsichord concerto (BWV 1058). Jacobs plays the solo part from the violin concerto, with some adaptations on the basis of the harpsichord concerto. The latter's string parts are played by the orchestra.

In the middle of the programme we hear some separate sinfonias. The cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (BWV 156) is scored for oboe, strings and basso continuo. Bach used it later as the slow movement in his harpsichord concerto BWV 1056; originally it was part of an oboe concerto which has been lost. Another kind of adaptation concerns the Sinfonia to Cantata BWV 75, Die Elenden sollen essen. It has a part for tromba, which plays the melody of the chorale Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan. This part is played at the organ and the result is a chorale prelude, in which the orchestra provides the polyphony. The third sinfonia is an intriguing example of reuse and adaptation. The first version is the prelude from the Partita in E (BWV 1006) for solo violin. Bach later adapted it to include it in a wedding cantata and then used it as the basis for the sinfonia to Cantata BWV 29, Wir danken dir, Gott. The latter is performed here.

This disc is a model of creative programming and music making. Obviously, it is impossible to know whether the pieces performed here are anything like those that Bach played in Dresden. Bart Jacobs, in his liner-notes, rightly calls them "hypothetical reconstructions". However, they give us a most interesting insight into the widespread practice of arrangement and adaptation in the baroque era. George Frideric Handel is often mentioned as the champion of this practice, but Bach applied it frequently too, as this disc shows. Whether such a programme will convince the listener, depends on how it is worked out and performed. The use of a larger organ is a precondition: a programme like this could hardly be realised with a small organ. Jacobs turned to an instrument by the Belgian organ firm Thomas, which is based on an organ by Gottfried Silbermann in the Marienkirche in Rötha, which Bach may have known. It is placed on the floor of the church, which makes it possible for the orchestra to be seated close to the instrument. This allows for a direct contact between Jacobs and the instrumentalists, just as in Bach's days. Jacobs is a highly gifted player, who performs the organ parts with much flair and imagination. He uses the organ stops to good effect to single out particular parts in the score. I especially liked the combination of Nasat 3' and tremulant in the sinfonia to Cantata 156. Les Muffatti is an outstanding ensemble and is Jacobs' perfect partner in this recording.

Bach lovers and organ aficionados will greatly enjoy this disc, but I encourage any lover of good music to investigate it. Even organ haters may change their mind.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Bart Jacobs
Les Muffatti

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