Known for his virtuosity and probing musicianship, violinist James Ehnes has performed in over 35 countries on five continents, appearing regularly in the world’s great concert halls and with many of [...]
They spoke about it
This disc completes the recordings by the James Ehnes and Luc Beauséjour duo of the known sonatas for violin and harpsichord by Jean-Sébastien Bach (1685-1750). Volume 1 featured the first four of a six-sonata cycle (BWV 1014–1019) in which Bach, by reinventing the Baroque concept of “trio,” led the sonata for violin and harpsichord into the dawn of the Classical period.
It was Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1715) who, in the years from 1680 to 1690, fixed the form of the so-called “trio sonata”: a work for three voices (two high and one low) in four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast, interpreted by not three but at least four instruments. A convention from the late 16th century dictated that at least one harmonic instrument such as organ or harpsichord should both double the bass line with the left hand and fill in the harmony, which was often notated over the bass with a system of figures. This was called the basso continuo or simply continuo.
When Bach, a master of the harpsichord, began to explore the genre a generation later, he adapted it to his own virtuosic hands (and feet, as it turns out). While Kapellmeister at the court of Cöthen, from 1717 to 1723, he composed a whole range of trio sonatas, including several for only two instruments: one high voice (violin, flute or viola da gamba) and harpsichord, with the latter’s entirely notated part comprising both the second upper part and the bass part. Around 1730, during his tenure as Kantor in Leipzig (from 1723 till his death in 1750), Bach also composed a cycle of six trio sonatas for solo organ, the two upper parts played with the hands on the organ manuals and the bass part played on the pedal board (i.e., with the feet). In these sonatas, Bach achieves a contrapuntal density that goes beyond anything previous in the genre.
The two first sonatas on this recording (BWV 1018 and 1019) are thus the last two of the cycle of six sonatas commonly referred to as “for obbligato harpsichord and violin.”
Like the first four, the Sonata No. 5 in F Minor (BWV 1018) follows the form of four contrasting movements (slow-fast-slow-fast) set by Corelli at the end of the preceding century. And while the fast movements remain in the trio sonata tradition, with two high voices echoing each other over a more autonomous bass line, the two slow movements emancipate themselves from the formal notion of “trio.” In the “Largo” that makes up the first movement, the harpsichord foreshadows a more classical sonata accompaniment, adding a fourth voice and completely harmonized cadences. The third movement (“Adagio”) holds even more surprises, with the violin playing sustained double stops, in effect accompanying the harpsichord part, which features a high voice and a low voice exchanging the same motif.
There survive three relatively different versions of the Sonata No. 6 in G Major (BWV 1019). All three go beyond the Corellian convention of four contrasting movements, but many of the five or six movements differ from version to version, along with their order.
The first version, for which there exist two copies, features three slow movements surrounded by the same “Presto”:
1. Presto in G major
2. Largo in E minor
3. Cantabile ma un poco adagio in G major (which corresponds to the aria “Heil und Segen” from the Cantata BWV 120)
4. Adagio in B minor
5. Presto in G major (Repeat of 1st movement)
A second version, of which there is only one copy, appears to date from Bach’s early days in Leipzig (ca. 1730). This version has six movements, two of which do not appear in version 1 and are in fact dances taken from Partita No. 6 for harpsichord (BWV 830):
1. Vivace in G major (Presto of the first version)
2. Largo in E minor
3. (Untitled) in E minor (harpsichord solo corresponding to the courante of Partita No. 6 BWV 830)
4. Adagio in B minor
5. Violino solo et basso l’accompagnato (corresponding to the gavotte of Partita No. 6 BWV 830)
6. Vivace in G major (Repeat of 1st movement)
Finally, a third version, of which there are four copies, would seem to date from 1749, the year before Bach’s death. On one of the sources is written: “He composed this trio just before the end.” This last version contains five contrasting movements without repeats, with the last three differing from the two preceding versions:
1. Allegro in G major (Presto & Vivace of the first & second versions respectively)
2. Largo in E minor
3. Allegro in E minor (harpsichord solo different from that of the second version)
4. Adagio in B minor (different from that of the two other versions)
5. Allegro in G major (different from the first movement)
This last version, considered the definitive one, is featured on this disc by the Ehnes-Beauséjour duo. However, to recreate the other versions, simply program your CD player to play tracks 5, 6, 10, 12 and 5 (1st version) or tracks 5, 6, 11, 12, 13 and 5 (2nd version).
As the great musicologist Manfred F. Bukofzer stated in Music in the Baroque Era, in the chapter entitled “Fusion of National Styles: Bach”:
The first movement of the sixth violin sonata—there exist altogether three versions—carries the da-capo principle to its highest point. The first movement, in itself a da-capo form, must be bodily repeated as a giant da-capo at the end and thus flanks three slow movements of pronounced lyrical affections. The manner in which Bach combined in his sonatas fugal writing with concerto style will always remain a marvel. Their contrapuntal brilliance and their wide range of affections have no equal in the entire literature of the trio or solo sonata.
In addition to this cycle of “trio” sonatas, there are two other sonatas for violin and harpsichord that are considered almost certainly to be composed by Bach. In these two sonatas the harpsichord has a more conventional accompaniment part, with the violin soaring freely above it. They were found in the course of musicological research and thus exist in one copy each. Both are likely in the hand of Anna Magdalena, Bach’s second wife, and appear to date from the 1730s; however, they may have been composed much earlier, perhaps during the Cöthen period, like the “trio” cycle.
In classic Corellian sonata da chiesa tradition, the Sonata in G Major (BWV 1021), discovered only in 1928, contains four contrasting movements. The figures over the continuo part were carefully written in by Johann Sebastian himself, probably for teaching purposes. The Sonata in E Minor (BWV 1023), which came to light in 1867, is more unusual. The sonata opens with a toccata in which the violin weaves an uneasy, Vivaldi-like perpetuum mobile theme that flows directly into a languid, melancholy “Adagio.” These are followed by two dance movements, an allemande and a gigue, making this sonata a hybrid work in which the first two da chiesa (church) movements are juxtaposed with two da camera (chamber) movements, illustrating yet again the fusion of styles and genres so characteristic of Bach’s genius.
© Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen