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Hyperion Records

CDA66843 - Bach: Six Trio Sonatas transcribed

Recording details: October 1995
St Paul's Church, New Southgate, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ben Turner
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: March 1996
Total duration: 69 minutes 58 seconds

'A marvellous way of getting to know the ins and outs of six superb examples of Bach's contrapuntal craft' (Gramophone)

'As played by The King's Consort, these sonatas have a deliciously intimate and conversational quality that is very difficult to achieve at the organ … Both playing and sound are stunning. If you love Bach's instrumental chamber music you must hear this disc. If you are an organist you may never think of these pieces in quite the same way again' (American Record Guide)

'An impressive combination of enterprising arrangements with outstanding musicianship. On all counts this is an outstanding release' (Classic CD)

'Un véritable petit bijou' (Répertoire, France)

Six Trio Sonatas transcribed
Andante  [4'50]
Adagio e dolce  [5'30]
Vivace  [3'38]
Vivace  [3'34]
Lento  [4'39]
Allegro  [3'19]
Andante  [5'18]
Poco allegro  [2'41]
Vivace  [3'22]
Largo  [3'01]
Allegro  [3'25]
Allegro  [4'16]
Largo  [5'32]
Allegro  [3'08]
Adagio  [4'59]
Allegro  [3'23]

It was Bach himself who founded the long tradition of transcribing his own music for varying instrumental grouping. The Six Trio Sonatas, BWV525-530, are here adapted to involve a wide rage of instrumental colours, with the five 'melody' instruments (two violins, viola, oboe, and obe d'amore) being paired in the manner most suited to each particular Sonata and being complemented by a similarly varied continuo.

Originally written as tutorial pieces for his son's organ lessons, the Trio Sonatas are true masterpieces, each providing ample opportunity for virtuoso playing and the enjoyment of Bach's melodic genius.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Unlike most of J S Bach’s organ music, the six Orgel-Trios, commonly known as the ‘Trio Sonatas’, were not composed for use in a church service. It has long been accepted that they were written for the composer’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann (b1710), probably being compiled or composed over the period in which Wilhelm Friedemann was learning the organ (from 1723), and completed before he was appointed Organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden in 1733. Bach clearly found the works useful, for he kept a copy of the six sonatas for himself and may well have used them in his tuition of other pupils. Teaching aid or not, Bach makes no concession to the learner, for there is no ‘easy’ sonata on which a beginner can cut his musical teeth. Requiring total independence of hands and feet, the sonatas resemble very few of Bach’s other works for the organ. Instead, their texture is much closer to that of the instrumental trio sonata, and is strongly influenced by the Italian chamber sonatas. So it is perhaps not such a surprise to find that the six sonatas include arrangements of earlier instrumental works.

As with so many of Bach’s instrumental pieces, most original sources are lost, but we know that the Adagio/Vivace of the E minor sonata was transcribed from the Symphony to Part II of the Cantata Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (BWV76), written for the second Sunday after Trinity, 1723. There the movement was scored for the delicious combination of oboe d’amore, viola da gamba and continuo. The D minor organ trio sonata also has known links with an instrumental work, being revised (around 1730) to create the second movement of the Concerto in A minor for flute, violin, harpsichord and strings (BWV1044). Scholars have suggested that other movements can also be traced back to instrumental pieces from Bach’s Cöthen period.

In the light of the composer’s own predilection for recycling instrumental works, the lure of re-orchestrating Bach’s works has always attracted performers. With evidence that Bach himself had turned both a trio sonata into an organ sonata and an organ sonata movement into a section of an instrumental trio sonata, performers have for many years looked towards the Orgel-Trios as the basis for ‘new’ instrumental works. Mozart was perhaps the most distinguished of these, for in 1780 he transcribed three organ movements for violin, viola and double bass for use at Baron van Swieten’s matinées as K405a.

These adaptations of Bach’s remarkable music involve plenty of instrumental colour, taking as their basis some of the composer’s own orchestrations from cantata movements. Giving ourselves a ‘pool’ of five melody instruments (two upper strings and one upper woodwind, and one each of mid-range string and wind instruments to take slightly lower-set lines) we have paired two violins, violin and viola, violin and oboe and the darker colour of oboe d’amore and viola, anchoring them over the traditional continuo foundation of string bass and chordal instruments. There too we have rung the changes, combining theorbo, harpsichord and organ with cello. We have retained Bach’s original keys and have chosen instrumentations which not only seem to suit the character of Bach’s writing but (bar the occasional note which we have transposed up or down an octave) allow us to leave Bach’s melodic lines untouched.

As to whether one should actually transcribe Bach organ music for instruments, one can argue both sides of the case, but the fact that Bach himself did just this does help that of the instrumental transcriber. Performance on an organ gives a wonderful purity to the counterpoint, but the use of ‘expressive’ instruments on all lines gives each line the opportunity to wax and wane: the addition of chordal continuo instruments provides a quite different harmonic foundation.

It was many years ago that The King’s Consort made its first foray into Bach organ transcriptions. With some trepidation, since we were to play to dozens of organists, we played three sonatas, sharing a platform with the distinguished Bach player Gillian Weir, who performed the ‘original’ versions. Our fears were groundless: the moment our cellist played an organ pedal line, with all the nuances that a bowed instrument can bring, Gillian literally danced across the platform, explaining to the assembled audience that she had waited for many years to hear a pedal part sound like that!

Much more important than academic considerations is the sheer quality of Bach’s music, for each sonata is a masterpiece. The Sonata in D minor (BWV527), with the upper line set around a fourth higher than the second part, brings a poised, melancholy opening theme which sits wonderfully on an oboe: the major-key slow movement is charming in its long-breathed phrases, and the last movement provides plenty of scope for virtuoso playing.

The highly Italianate Sonata in G major (BWV530) starts both voices together in concerto style, suggesting the need for two equal instruments, and maintains this equality throughout, even allowing the bass line a handful of ‘breaks’. For the tightly-woven, harmonically complex second movement we have introduced another texture, removing the chordal continuo instruments but allowing the cellist to improvise occasional chords. The third movement is a marvellously complex fugue.

The Sonata in E minor (BWV528) is the darkest of the six sonatas, not just in key colour, but in its tessitura. For our scoring we have Bach’s example to follow: the sound of the oboe d’amore is one of the most delicious of all baroque colours: we have combined it with viola (for his single movement transcription Bach used a gamba, but for all three movements together an even more nut-brown colour seems better suited), theorbo and organ, creating a sumptuous texture. The opening Adagio must rank as one of Bach’s finest, leading into a pastoral Vivace. The simple second movement is constructed largely from a pair of two-bar phrases, set over a simple bass line, very typical of early Bach, and full of wonderful suspensions for the chordal instruments to relish. The gently swinging feel to the last movement covers a surprising intricacy of individual lines.

The Sonata in C minor (BWV526) begins in dramatic manner, with Bach’s familiar bass octave drop introducing a complex, large-scale ternary movement. The second movement is glorious – Bach at his most appealingly melodic. The finale is a splendidly constructed fugue whose whacky second subject has, over the years, caused a few organists to slam on the brakes (or hope that the congregation has already left the building) as they turn the page and meet a surprise. Allowing the tempo to continue without faltering gives the music a marvellous inexorability as well as testing the resolve of any player, whether string or organ.

The first, ternary form, movement of the Sonata in C major (BWV529), which requires an alto instrument on its second line, is another test of players’ dexterity, with Bach again in Italianate, concerto mode and writing wide leaps and rapid arpeggios. The richly harmonised Largo, with its pastoral overtones, is again well suited to the oboe, and another example of Bach’s melodic genius, contrasted with the rather academic fugue of the final Allegro.

The Sonata in E flat major BWV525 may perhaps have been the easiest of the sonatas for Wilhelm Friedemann to master, but it is quite the opposite when given to two violinists, for the key is not an easy one when players are presented with Bach’s intricate figurations: if the composer had transcribed this sonata, he might well have transposed it into D major. The elegant central movement is surrounded by two good-humoured Allegros whose playful nature gives plenty of scope for spirited playing, as well as good exercise for the cellist’s bow and the harpsichordist’s rhythm section – or should it after all just be for the organist’s two feet? It doesn’t really matter, because it is such good music!

Robert King © 1996

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