Bach’s methodic and ordered mind was evidently fond of collecting his previously composed works into cycles, bestowing on them a unitary shape, selecting the best materials from his earlier output, and integrating or completing the collections with what he may have found to be missing. Thus came to life most of his great collections, from the Well-Tempered Clavier to the Brandenburg Concertos, from the Solos for violin and for cello to the Orgelbüchlein etc. Such collections, therefore, achieve unity and completeness thanks to a later editorial work, which harmonises and unifies what had originally been conceived separately. This is not the case, however, with the three Gamba Sonatas, which were conceived separately as was the case with other sets of works, but were not given a unified form by the composer. In spite of this, they do constitute a “set”, inasmuch as they display – by their very variety – the possibilities of the chosen ensemble.
Indeed, not even the performing forces had been, in all likelihood, Bach’s first choice. In fact, these Sonatas can be rightfully described only as “Trio Sonatas”, a form frequently practised by Bach. A Trio Sonata is a work frequently composed in the form of a Church Sonata: this is a Sonata in four movements, following each other in the sequence slow/quick/slow/quick, and with the quick movements frequently characterized by a thick contrapuntal texture in imitative (fugato) form. Some of these were conceived for performance on the organ, Bach’s favourite instrument: the two upper parts were played on two manuals, while the bass part was entrusted to the pedal. However, this structure lent itself very well to other kinds of performances; for example, these Sonatas could be played by two melodic instruments (such as two violins, oboes or flutes) and a concertante continuo. As frequently happens with Bach, his music takes life principally from the very polyphonic structure and its organisation, and loses nothing of its beauty when performed with different musical forces than those originally intended by the composer. As we have seen, Bach himself was the first who did not hesitate in transferring an already-finished work from one instrumental medium to another. Of course, this was never done indiscriminately: one major limitation was represented by the contrapuntal rules. While these are impossible to explain within the short space of a CD booklet, what we may briefly say is that two contrapuntal lines whose compositional principles respect polyphonic rules when one part is played at a higher pitch than the other, would instead constitute a violation of contrapuntal role if the upper part is played lower than the other. (When this inversion is actually possible, and this happens rarely and only at the cost of a very elaborate construction, the result is what is known as “invertible counterpoint”). Therefore, it would be impossible, for instance, to play the bass part of a Trio Sonata on a violin and the other parts on the organ.
Another aspect that has to be taken into account is the balance of the parts. Since Bach purposefully builds his Trio Sonatas as a dialogue between three equally important parts (and therefore there are no “soloist” and “accompanists”), it is fundamental that all parts are equally audible. The beauty of Bach’s counterpoint only surfaces when the listener is allowed to clearly perceive the intertwining of all parts. Therefore, would one part be played by a trumpet and the others by a clavichord, the result would be probably far from optimal.
Bach was evidently aware of these issues, and his known self-transcriptions are always perfectly suited to the new destination. In the case of the Gamba Sonatas, we know for sure that BWV 1027 originated from youthful work for two transverse flutes and continuo, written probably in the early 1720s while Bach was in Cöthen; in turn, this version for two flutes and continuo may be a reworking of an even earlier work. (The version for two flutes is now known as BWV 1039). With a lesser degree of certainty, the hypothesis that all three sonatas originated from earlier works for other ensembles is commonly adopted in musicological circles.
In spite of this, Bach’s versions for gamba and harpsichord are absolutely magnificent; he masterfully manages to take advantage from the gamba’s wide range, from its agility, from its exquisite cantabile. Perhaps, one aspect which is better appreciated in the version for two flutes of BWV 1027 is the “tension” between two dissonant parts: two flutes, indeed, can sustain their sounds at leisure, thus highlighting the dissonance, whilst, in this respect, the disproportion between gamba and harpsichord is palpable, as the harpsichord’s sound dies rather quickly.
This problem does not arise when, as in this Da Vinci Classics album, the gamba’s part is played on the cello, and the harpsichord’s part on the accordion.
Cellos, of course, did exist at Bach’s time, although they had not yet conquered that position of pre-eminence among most other string instruments they presently enjoy. Indeed, Bach himself contributed to the elevation of the cello to a solo instrument, precisely thanks to his Suites and to the concertante role he assigned to the cello in many of his sacred works. However, at his time, the viola da gamba still enjoyed a higher rank than the cello, and was still living the last moments of his golden age. In terms of pitch, the two instruments do not differ excessively from each other; however, the gamba (tuned in fourths, whilst the cello is tuned in fifths) has six strings versus the four strings of most cellos (at Bach’s time, cellos with more strings did exist). The different tuning and wider upper range make the performance on the cello of gamba works rather uncomfortable in technical terms. The timbre of these two string instruments is also rather different; both, indeed, have a mellow, singing tone, which has enchanted countless composers and listeners through the centuries, but there are subtle differences easily discernible when comparing the two instruments.
A much more pronounced difference is that between harpsichord and accordion. By its very timbre, the accordion evokes a musical world very different from Bach’s. This happens even though the accordion’s means of sound production is not too different from that of the organ, Bach’s own instrument. In comparison with the harpsichord, however, the accordion’s timbre is worlds apart. In spite of this, the result of the combination of cello and accordion is convincing. It does not violate the requirements of counterpoint and of sound balance, even though these pose some very demanding requirements on the performers in order to be fully achieved.
This is the very first published recording of these Sonatas by a duo formed by cello and accordion. In the performers’ eyes, these Sonatas are particularly well-suited for such a rendition. The two instruments’ timbres merge beautifully with each other. The accordion is able to sustain the sound, thus making the dissonances particularly expressive. Its timbre is also closer to that of the cello than that of the harpsichord to the gamba. Therefore, the two artists may play on this similarity and difference, highlighting analogies and oppositions when each is needed. The intertwining of subjects, countersubjects and bass is always discernible in a very clear fashion; thanks to this innovative transcription, Bach’s masterpieces are reinterpreted in a modern key.
Many choices need to be undertaken by the performers in terms of dynamics, articulation, balance etc. Even though the accordion did not yet exist at Bach’s time, the artists chose to adopt a historically informed performing style: in other words, to reinterpret the rules of “authentic” performance practice while adapting them to a relatively new instrument.
Moreover, the performers chose to adopt different sound and timbre balances for the three Sonatas, mirroring their different composition epochs and their different styles. This resulted in a changing equilibrium in favour of transparency or solemnity depending on the performed Sonata.
This delicate interpretive work is always conditioned by the need to achieve perfect intelligibility in the polyphonic texture: the cello could easily disappear under the powerful sound waves of the accordion, if careful attention is not always dedicated to this aspect.
An entirely different approach was adopted by the two artists for the performance of the two interpolated pieces. These works are very seldom heard, but are extremely interesting both historically and musically. They consist of the addition of a new “melodic/contrapuntal” part to the original part of some Bach Preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Ignaz Moscheles belonged in the ranks of the first Bach enthusiasts; along with Mendelssohn or Schumann, he contributed to the so-called Bach Renaissance in the early and mid-nineteenth century. And just as Mendelssohn and Schumann had added piano accompaniments to Bach’s violin and cello Solos, so did Moscheles add a melodic part to the keyboard Preludes.
The performing artists chose two such examples from Moscheles’ collection, and decided to play them in a thoroughly Romantic fashion, as corresponds to the aesthetics of Moscheles’ time. The chosen pieces were selected on the basis of their character and key, in order to harmonise well with the Gamba Sonatas they have been added to.
Together, these five and very different works display the potential of this duo as an innovative and authentic medium for performing Bach. This corresponds to the trends of the German accordion school. Whereas the use of accordions in the continuo parts of Bach’s music, or for the performance of original keyboard works is now commonly accepted worldwide, in Germany this practice is more widespread and better known. Indeed, in this fashion we are allowed to better appreciate some evergreen works in a novel way, and to fully enjoy their beauty with new ears.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2021
Duo Alambic shows its artistic skills through a wide repertoire that ranges from baroque to contemporary music. The sound peculiarity of the Duo is precisely in the juxtaposition of two apparently distant instruments such as the cello and the accordion: the result is a rich and malleable sound mixture, able to explore both original and ancient repertoire.
The artistic merits of this Duo were recognized not only in international competitions (including the 1st prize at The World of Accordion, Castelfidardo 2013, the 2nd prize at Stresa International Music Competition 2018 and the 3rd prize at the Crescendo Prize, Florence 2018), but in particular thanks to the stable concert presence in internationally known festivals such as Bel Circolo Bellunese (IT), Mendrisio Music Festival (CH), Contrasti Festival (IT), Musica al Tempio Festival (IT).
The Shanghai International Culture & Arts Institute promoted the Duo's first Chinese tour in 2019 (between the stages: Grand Theater Ningbo, Kungmin Teather, Concert Hall Harbin, Development Grand Theater Dalian Area and Yangzhou Concert Hall).
Among the radio broadcasted, it is worth mentioning the program dedicated by Rai Slovenia to the Duo activity in 2017.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.