Paolo Pandolfomba, Rinaldo Alessandrini - Harpsichord
About Sonatas for Viola da Gamba BWV 1027-1029 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
About Suites for Solo Cello BWV 1007-1012 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
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Johann Sebastian Bach's sonatas for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord belong to those central works of the gamba repertory with which every generation, every ambitious player, must come to terms anew. Their technical demands and compositional complexity make the sonatas' interpretation a delicate task and, at the same time, a major challenge.
The tradition of music for viola da gamba in German speaking countries is long, yet disposed very differently than in France or England. In Germany, the viola da gamba was first of all an ensemble instrument consigned to the middle or low register. It is to be found in this function as late as 1700, particularly in church music. Bach took up this practice in the "Actus tragicus" and applied it to the concertato style in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. The viola da gamba was also used in newer kinds of chamber music, above all in the trio sonata. There, however, it retained its function as melody instrument as well, as many prints of the second half of the 17th century make clear (Buxtehude, Buchner, Erlebach, Finger, Schmelzer). In each of the examples named, the trio partner is the violin. Bach makes subtle use of this idiom in his sonatas: he gives the right hand of the harpsichord part the written-out first voice of a trio movement in the upper range. He gives the second voice to the viola da gamba and the third voice, the bass, to the left hand of the harpsichord part. The origin of Bach's sonatas in trio instrumentation also explains why they include hardly any multiple stops, as found in French and English solo repertories; indeed multiple stops occur only rarely in the gamba repertories of German speaking countries at all. Bach himself, however, was well aware of the differences between the two techniques, as chordal treatment of the viola da gamba in the aria "Komm, sussies Kreuz" of the St. Matthew Passion demonstrates.
A second peculiarity of the sonatas is that they show signs of being arrangements. For the Sonata BWV 1027, this has been proven beyond a shadow of doubt. According to research by Hans Eppstein, namely, Sonata BWV 1027 is based on a lost sonata probably for two violins and basso continuo, of which a further adaptation for two flutes survives (BMV 1039). The same finding, although incapable of proof, is likely for the other two sonatas.
The viola da gamba sonatas are not transmitted as a coherent group of works. The manuscripts containing them are scattered, and it wasn't until 1860, in the Bach edition of Philipp Spitta, that they were brought together for the first time. In each of the three works, Bach's concept of the sonata form is different. BWV 1027 and 1028 are examples of the four movement (slow-fast-slow-fast), Corelli-type trio sonata. The cheerful G major Sonata follows this pattern relatively unproblematically. The D major Sonata, on the other hand, presents itself, in spite of structural similarity, in a completely different musical guise. It contains unusual galant elements, evident above all in the lively manner in which upper voices move in tandem with, then in opposition to one another. Contrapuntal severity yields again and again to shared figuration and truly soloistic sections for viola da gamba with figured bass.
The situation is completely different, however, in the G minor Sonata. It consists of only three movements (fast-slow-fast), and its diction recalls that of the Brandenburg Concertos. In 1740, Johann Adolf Scheibe described this three movement form as "Sonata in concerto-style" ("Sonaten auf Concertenart"), in which "twisting and changing sections" ("krauselnde und verandernde Satze") can be applied. Indeed, a true double concerto with precisely those "twisting" sections of virtuosic figuration described by Scheibe is developed in Bach's sonatas. One even seems to hear a quotation of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto in the "cantabile" section of the third movement (measure 19ff.). It is very difficult to assign the compositions a chronological order. Whereas the works were long considered to be creations from Bach's Coethen period (1717-1723), Laurence Dreyfus now suspects them to have originated in Leipzig. Which players Bach may have had in mind for his pieces is also a matter of speculation. Whoever it may have been, it must have been a master of his instrument.
In the 17th century and above all in France, the viola da gamba possessed an idiom all of its own representing a happy synthesis of the Italian "jeu de melodie" and the English "jeu d'harmonie" of the lyra viol repertory. Via its lute-like fretted fingerboard, the gamba retained the possibilities of the chordal instruments, while, on the other hand, use of the bow opened up many possibilities of melody formation, including numerous types of register change. The gamba idiom was excellently suited to making use of both characteristics, which in turn complemented each other in continuous alternation of "sung" parts, chords, and register change.
Except for a few measures in the last movement of the Sonata BWV 1028, the three sonatas of J.S. Bach are held to a purely melodic style and therefore make use of only one of the gamba's many possibilities. This, in my opinion, is a matter of great interest, because Bach, in his six suites for solo violoncello, gave that instrument something which, until that time, had been considered to be typical of viola da gamba style. Not only did he make the sonorant aspect of gamba music - alternation between melody and chord - available to the violoncello, but also the musical form itself. The suite, namely, was the predominant genre in soloistic gamba playing und represented the formal framework for the idiomatic development of the instrument in France. In a single artistic act, therefore, Bach transposed two characteristics of viola da gamba music to the violoncello, an instrument which at the time did not possess a wide solo repertory but which was on the verge of major development. One could speak of a handing over of the legacy: an instrument which had already reached the zenith of its development gives its inheritance to another which at that moment stood only at the beginning of its development and which was preordained to replace the predecessor. Paradoxically, therefore, it is possible to argue that the six suites for solo violoncello are in fact the actual solo compositions by Bach for viola da gamba: typical/idealized gamba suites in - virtual - transcription for violoncello.
As for the fifth suite in particular, there are two additional elements which make transcription for viola da gamba "necessary", as it were - at least from the point of view of a gambist:
1) the scordatura (a tuning different from the standard sequence of fifths) required of the violoncello. The interval of a fourth arises between the two upper strings - as is the case with the viola da gamba.
2) The existence of a version of this suite for lute (BMV 995), hence for an instrument which, in terms of its historical development, stands closer to the viola da gamba than to the violoncello.
Transcription of this suite for viola da gamba would therefore appear to be the natural consequence of the transmitted material (BWV 995 as autograph and in contemporary tablature, BWV 1011 in the hands of Anna Magdalena Bach and Johann Peter Kellner as well as in an anonymous hand). In the present version I have attempted a synthesis of the gamba idiom as I understand it and the original source. It is of course only one of all conceivable possibilities of realisation, namely that one which at the time of arrangement convinced me most of all.
Transparence of articulation, ease of register change, richness of timbre, together with the vocal quality of the viola da gamba: all that gives this suite, in my opinion, a reading full of fascination and strong expressivity. Perhaps it approaches that synthesis of "jeu de melodie" and "jeu d'harmonie" evident in Bach's writing and which will remain the ideal of every viola da gamba player.