Guido Balestracci - Viola da Gamba, Blandine Rannou - Clavecin
J. S. BACH (1685 - 1750) Sonatas for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord BWV 1027-9 Trio Sonata no.4 BWV 528
About BWV 1027-1029 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
About Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
Bach wrote these sonatas at Cothen between 1717 and 1723, probably to be played by the court virtuoso Carl Friedrich Abel or by Prince Leopold in person. While works for cello were invading Europe, Germany continued to give an important role to the viol throughout the eighteenth century, as can be seen in the works of such composers as Bach, Telemann, Abel, and Schaffrath (honoured by Guido Balestracci's most recent recording).
These splendid pieces are composed using Bach's new model of the sonata for melody instrument and obbligato harpsichord, as in the Violin Sonatas BWV 1014-19 and the Flute Sonata BWV 1030: the part for the keyboard player's right hand is fully written out by the composer instead of being left to be realised freely in continuo style. The affect of the works conforms to the viol's traditional associations with gently melancholy tone-colours, appropriate for lamenti and Passion settings.
Guido Balestracci and Blandine Rannou offer as a complement the transcription of the Trio Sonata no.4 BWV 528 for organ, whose first movement, appropriately enough, is itself 'a transcription of the introductory sinfonia to the second part of the Cantata BWV 76, Die Himmel erzahlen die Ehre Gottes, which in fact features the viola da gamba alongside an oboe d'amore' (Sebastien Gaudelus).
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When Johann Sebastian Bach composed his three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord BWV 1027-29, doubtless at Cothen where he was Kapellmeister from 1717 to 1723, the viola da gamba was still a favoured instrument of composers in Germany, whose repertory would be constantly enriched until around 1780. Although, in the early eighteenth century, it had a well-defined role to play in many chamber works (such as the sonatas for recorder, oboe or violin, viola da gamba and continuo of Johann Christian Schickhardt, or Georg Philipp Telemann's Taris Quartets' for flute, violin, viola da gamba and continuo), it was probably most regularly called on as a solo instrument, as can be seen from the works specifically written for it by Telemann, Carl Friedrich Abel and Christoph Schaffrath. This exceptional flowering of the instrument, encouraged by a long tradition, naturally reached its apotheosis at the Berlin court of Frederic the Great, where a number of outstanding musicians performed, among them Ludwig Christian Hesse.
In this context, the three sonatas BWV 1027-29 are far from being the only instances of the use of the viola da gamba in Bach's output. As well as featuring regularly in the continuo team, it was also assigned an important role in several instrumental works (determining the tone-colour of the sixth Brandenburg Concerto, BWV 1051) and in vocal music. In the latter sphere, Lutheran tradition employed the viol more or less systematically to accompany singing, most especially in lamenti and funeral music. Faithful to this spirit, Bach used it several times in his cantatas and Passions: two violas da gamba in the cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit of 1707 (BWV 106) and the Trauer-Ode 'Lass, Furstin, lass noch einen Strahl' of 1727 (BWV 198), and a quartet consisting of gamba, flute, oboe and viola d'amore in Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn of 1714 (BWV 152). In the two extant Passions, as an obbligato instrument, its timbre is blended with low voices (alto in the St John Passion, bass in the St Matthew) to provide a grave and meditative commentary on the death of Christ and the bearing of the Cross: 'Es ist vollbracht' and 'Komm, susses Kreuz' exploit the dark, melancholy timbres of a consolatory viol.
However, Bach composed his sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord using new methods. He bent the heritage of the Corellian trio sonata to his own ends in order to create a new form, the sonata for a single instrument and obbligato harpsichord, in which the part for the keyboard player's right hand is written out by Bach instead of being left to be realised freely in continuo style. Thus the two instruments engage in concertato dialogue and genuine imitative polyphony. This form - chosen by Bach for his sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord BWV 1014-19 and for flute and obbligato harpsichord BWV 1030 - was to have a distinguished future in Germany, in the hands of such men as Johann Gottlieb Graun, Schaffrath and C. P. E. Bach, as well as in France with Mondonville and Rameau (Pieces de clavecin en concert), and later in England with Abel and Charles Avison. The highly virtuosic gamba part, especially in the allegros of BWV 1028 and 1029, attests that these pieces were intended for a seasoned musician, perhaps Christian Ferdinand Abel, then a member of the Cothen collegium musicum, or even Prince Leopold in person.
These three sonatas do not make up a unified and rationally arranged cycle, unlike other works written at the same period such as the sonatas and partitas for solo violin (BWV 1001-06) or the solo cello suites (BWV 1007-12). The first two adopt the four-movement scheme (slow-fast-slow-fast) inherited from the church sonata, while the last limits itself to the three movements of the chamber sonata or the concerto. It would even appear that these works were not composed at exactly the same date, for no manuscript or printed source contains all three of them. What is more, the Sonatas BWV 1028 and 1029 are found only in copies dating from after Bach's death, which tends to suggest that they were adaptations by the composer himself of earlier works. The Sonata for two flutes and continuo BWV 1039, an earlier version of the Sonata in G major BWV 1027, confirms this hypothesis. The widespread contemporary practice of transcription and arrangement, which extended to the works of other composers, legitimises modern transcriptions of compositions by Bach, provided that the musical language sounds idiomatic on the new instruments. Hence the case of the Trio Sonata BWV 528 which concludes this recording is interesting in more than one respect: each of the movements was the result of a reworking of earlier pieces. Whereas the second and third movements derive from organ works, the first is none other than a transcription of the introductory sinfonia to the second part of the Cantata BWV 76, Die Himmel erzahlen die Ehre Gottes, which in fact features the viola da gamba alongside a viola d'amore.