Johann Sebastian Bach: Viola Da Gamba Sonatas, Chorale Prelude BWV 731 ・ 645, Larghetto from BWV 972


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    Among the infinite challenges offered to musicians and audiences alike by Bach’s music, one is particularly puzzling and perplexing, i.e. the role of timbre in his works. On the one hand, musicians frequently speak of Bach’s music as almost independent of timbre, and partly this is correct. It is true, in fact, that Bach’s works not only tolerate, but seem even to invite transcription. Performances of Bach works on instruments which had not even been invented at his time are common – the modern piano being the chief example, but pieces from Bach’s oeuvre are normally played on such diverse sound media as the marimba, the accordion or jazz ensembles. Some of his most “speculative” works, such as the Art of the Fugue or the Musical Offering are performed by a variety of instruments and ensembles, and seem not to lose anything in translation.
    On the other hand, however, there are many pieces which are so strictly bound to their instrument that transcription seems unadvisable, if not outright impossible. Paradoxically, this seems to happen more frequently with concertante instruments found in Bach’s vocal works than with purely instrumental pieces. For instance, could we imagine Aus Liebe wird mein Heiland sterben, from the St. Matthew Passion, without the enchanting sound mixture of the woodwinds conjured by Bach to frame the soprano voice? Or can the mystical love arias resound without the warm and brilliant tone of the oboe d’amore? Or, to get nearer the point, can Komm, süßes Kreuz, again from the St. Matthew Passion, be conceived in a version deprived of the viola da gamba?
    Every instrument, both in the Baroque era and in our own, has specific qualities of its own: its unique timbre, its range, its playing technique (involving what it can and cannot do), and even its physical shape, which, in the case of the gamba, was far from irrelevant.
    A member of the august family of the viols, and the last one to surrender to the family of the “new” string instruments, the gamba was particularly appreciated for its warm colour, for its extended range, for its capability to play large chords thanks to its numerous strings, and also for its structure. Its soundbox covered almost entirely the performer’s body; the bow intersected its verticality. It appealed to many not just for its sound, therefore, but also for its clear allusion to the Christian symbol of the cross. Not by chance, Bach assigned to it the above-mentioned Aria, “Come, o sweet cross”: while the singer invokes Christ’s cross and expresses his desire to participate in Christ’s sufferings, the sighing and rhythmical pattern of the gamba punctuates his utterings, and the very process of playing seem to evoke the crucified Christ’s agony.
    Already the Church Fathers had frequently interpreted the “psalm and cithara” found in the Book of Psalms as symbols for Christ and his Cross; Dante Alighieri, in the Inferno from his Commedia, alludes to this imagery by staging a parody of the crucifixion, whereby Mastro Adamo’s body, lying on earth, is seen as similar to a stringed instrument. As medieval and Renaissance instruments became less common, the gamba was seen as the perfect continuation of that tradition, and therefore acquired an enormous symbolic power, besides the artistic worth of its sound, shape and structure.
    Bach was fond of employing this instrument – both, as said, in his sacred and secular vocal works, and in his purely instrumental output. This Da Vinci Classics album features the three Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and continuo, along with transcriptions after other works by the German composer.
    As we just said, two contrasting things could be said about his music: on the one hand, that timbre was an integral part of it; on the other, that timbre could easily be renounced, and works conceived for a particular sound medium could be transferred to another. This is demonstrated both by Bach and by the performing musicians in this Da Vinci Classics album, where a certain flexibility as regards timbre is a given, a presupposition.
    The most striking example, perhaps, is that of the Larghetto from BWV 972. This is one of the numerous concertos, mostly by Italian composers (and many of them by Vivaldi) which Bach transcribed for a keyboard instrument – the organ and/or the harpsichord. Vivaldi’s original work was a Concerto for solo violin, strings and Continuo (RV 230, in D major just as Bach’s transcription). Here we may observe a back-and-forth itinerary – from Vivaldi’s work written mostly for strings, to Bach’s manualiter transcription, to the version recorded here.
    A similar itinerary characterizes an original work by Bach – and one which is particularly cherished by his appreciators, i.e. Chorale BWV 645, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. The Chorale tune for this piece was written by Philipp Nicolai, one of the early Lutheran composers; it is inspired by the Adoro te devote, a Eucharistic anthem of the late Middle Ages. Notwithstanding the different confessional standing of those authoring the Catholic hymn and the Protestant chorale, the two sacred songs share numerous common elements besides melodic reminiscences. Nicolai’s Chorale is mostly focused on the parable of the Wise Virgins, but it profoundly adds references to Holy Communion, which is seen as the true “wedding banquet” offered by Christ to his Bride (variously identified as the Church, the faithful Soul, the New Jerusalem). All of these elements made it the perfect chorale for Cantata BWV 140, again one of the most beloved in Bach’s entire catalogue; here, as in many Chorale Cantatas, the tune and words of the Chorale are cited verbatim in several movements, and other allusions are present in the movements whose lyrics are in free poetry. At the Cantata’s heart, the tenor voice sings the Chorale’s bare melody (on lyrics from the stanza beginning with Zion hört die Wächter singen), while all violins and viola, at the unison, weave one of those enchanting Bachian counterpoints around it. Just as in Jesus bleibet meine Freude, it always amazes the analyst to consider how beautiful and seeming effortless is Bach’s contrapuntal part, which is nevertheless strictly bound to the rules of polyphony with respect to the given tune.
    Evidently, Bach himself was far from displeased with this creation of his, and, as happened with some of his finest works, creatively re-employed it on another occasion, transforming it into a Chorale Prelude, which is the very BWV 645 recorded here.
    Another Chorale Prelude is Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier, whose compositional structure and handling of the melodic line and of the ornaments are in turn reminiscent of the slow movements of his instrumental concertos. The Chorale tune elaborated here was normally sung at Whitsunday, and it invites the faithful to a touching prayer of contemplation of the Christ. This Chorale Prelude, just as BWV 645, has become one of the most famous and beloved in Bach’s entire output – also thanks to a skillful jazzy version by The Swingle Singers.
    The pieces hitherto discussed, however, constitute the frame (albeit a magnificent frame) surrounding the three Gamba Sonatas, BWV 1027-1029, which are among the finest examples of this genre in the entire history of Western music. Their dating has been controversial, since earlier scholars tended to assign them to the Cöthen period, whence most of Bach’s purely instrumental works originate, and where there was no shortage of excellent gamba players, most notably Christian Ferdinand Abel and Prince Leopold himself. For them both, Bach created the magnificent solo parts of the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto, which focuses on the viol ensemble.
    However, more recent studies tend to postdate these works, or at least their current version, to the Leipzig years. In the case of BWV 1027, three different versions of this piece were handed down to posterity. One (identified as BWV 1039) features two transverse flutes and continuo; another is BWV 1027, recorded here; and a further one is BWV 1027a, for a keyboard instrument with pedalboard (although this latter version is probably spurious). Once more, then, timbre is flexibly managed, and preexisting works for instrument with a very different range and texture are creatively re-elaborated for a new instrumental medium. In all cases, what seems to matter most is the three-part texture, which lends itself to be played by three “melodic” instruments, or by three melodic parts (such as the organist’s two hands and the pedal line), or by two instruments, one of which is fully polyphonous (as the harpsichord and the gamba).
    The first two Sonatas are written in the traditional form of the Church Sonata: in four movements, with the odd-numbered movements in a slow cantabile tempo, and the even-numbered movements in a brilliant fugal style. Sonata BWV 1029, by way of contrast, seem to predate the Classical sonata with its three-movement structure (quick/slow/quick).
    BWV 1027 features a touching opening, reminiscent of the pastoral style; in the other movements, the constant intertwining of the parts creates both amusing and powerfully expressive situations. Element of musical “modernity” are found more copiously in BWV 1028, where the second movement (Allegro) is a dance movement without the usual tight Fugal writing, and also the last movement eschews rigorously built imitations. At the Sonata’s heart, the third movement is a touching siciliano. Possibly the most beloved melodies of the entire series are found in the third Sonata, which offers us plenty of enchanting themes, both in the lively movements and in the calmer centrepiece.
    This entire programme, therefore, demonstrates on the one hand the unique features of the gamba and its potential in the fecund interaction with the harpsichord; on the other hand, it displays the fascinating abstractness of Bach’s underlying thought, which loses nothing when applied to another sound medium, and instead offers us constantly renewed opportunities for hearing well-known pieces with new ears.
    Chiara Bertoglio © 2023


    Roberto Loreggian, Organ, Harpsichord
    Having achieved, with the highest grades, a diploma in organ and harpsichord, he perfected his talents at the Conservatory of The Hague (NL) under the direction of Ton Koopman. His activities led him to perform in the most important halls: Parco della Musica - Rome, Sala Verdi - Milan, Hercules Saal - Munich (Germany), Teatro Colon - Buenos Aires, Kioi Hall - Tokyo... at highly important festivals: MITO, Sagra Malatestiana (Malatestiana Festival), Pergolesi Spontini Festival, Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Serate Musicali.. performing both as a soloist accompanist and soloist with numerous orchestras, Orchestra dell'Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Chamber Orchestra of Mantova, the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto, I Virtuosi Italiani, L'Arte Dell'Arco, I Barocchisti... He has recorded numerous CDs for record labels such as Chandos, Tactus, Arts... which have been internationally acclaimed. He has recorded the complete collection of keyboard music by G. Frescobaldi for the label 'Brilliant' winning the 'National Award for Classic Music Track 2009', for the same label he recorded the complete keyboard music of A. Gabrieli, the complete Harpsichord concerts of B. Galuppi and the harpsichord music of G. F. Haendel. His recordings devoted to harpsichord music by B. Pasquini (Chandos Chaconne) and by G. B. Ferrini (Tactus) received the award 'Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik'. He teaches at the Conservatory 'C. Pollini' in Padova, Italy.

    Francesco Galligioni
    He is a cellist who studied at the ‘C. Pollini’ Conservatoire in Padua with Gianni Chiampan. After completing his Diploma, he took part in masterclasses with Michael Flaksman and Teodora Campagnaro. He then studied with Franco Maggio Ormezowski at the Accademia Nazionale di S. Cecilia in Rome, where he was awarded a scholarship and obtained a further Diploma in just two years. Francesco has taken part in courses specializing in baroque cello held by W. Vestidello and G. Nasillo, and worked with soloists and conductors of international renown, such as Anner Bylsma, Giuliano Carmignola, Cecilia Bartoli, Max Emmanuel Cencic, Magdalena Kozena, Sergio Azzolini, Sara Mingardo, Victoria Mullova, Angelika Kirschlagher, Andrea Marcon, Federico Guglielmo, Sir J. E. Gardiner, Diego Fasolis, Gautier Capuchon, Pedro Halffter, Bob Van Asperen, Michael Radulescu, Gustav Leonhardt, Christopher Hogwood. His passion for early music led him to study viola da gamba with Paolo Biordi at the Conservatoire in Florence, where he obtained the Diploma in 2004. Francesco has recorded for ARCHIV, Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, CPO, Arts, ORF, Chandos, Brilliant, Naxos, and Sony Classical. His concerts as a soloist have been broadcast by WDR, ORF, SWR2, and MDR, as well as by ABC, NPR, BBC3, RDP, and Japanese television while touring in Japan in September 2005. In recent years, Galligioni has also explored contemporary music on period instruments, playing works by composers such as Philip Glass, Giovanni Sollima, G. Bersanetti, and J. Tavener. In 2011, he was the soloist in the Vivaldi Concerto RV531 with cellist Gautier Capuchon. Galligioni's recordings of Vivaldi's Complete Cello Concertos and Six Printed Sonatas were released by Brilliant Classics, as well as Salvatore Lanzetti's Printed Sonatas, J.M.C. Dall'Abaco's Capricci a Violoncello Solo, and Giovanni Benedetto Platti's Cello Sonatas. FraBernardo Records released his recording of J.S. Bach's Cello Suites. He teaches at the Conservatory 'A. Pedrollo' in Vicenza, Italy.


    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.