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J.S. Bach: The Complete sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and a melodic instrument, Vol.2

Album information

This is the second of three volumes presenting the complete Bach Sonatas for Obbligato Harpsichord and a Melodic Instrument: Six sonatas with violin, three with viola da gamba and two with flute.

The originality of this approach resides in the fact that the sonatas are not compiled by instrumentation. The performers—except for the harpsichordist—also vary with each volume. This collection was recorded in the autumn of 1995 as part of Montreal’s 9th season of Les Idées heureuses.

The Trio Sonata

The trio sonata was the most popular form of chamber music in the high baroque era, with more than 8,000 works written at that time. With only two original works, Bach’s output in this genre is practically non-existent, and his trio writing is completely atypical: He uses the texture to highlight the virtuosity of the organist (the six trio sonatas for organ), or the many possibilities of the obbligato clavier (the eleven sonatas in this collection).

In fact, the eleven sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and a melodic instrument offer a glimpse at the repertoire of classical and romantic sonatas (for piano and violin, for example): we witness the end of a great musical tradition and the genesis of a new form. Putting aside the normal accompaniment role of the harpsichord (continuo, thorough-bass or figured-bass), Bach brings the instrument to the forefront in a melodic capacity: the right hand plays a fully notated upper-part (as opposed to the figure-notated chords of a continuo), hence the name “obbligato harpsichord” or “concertante harpsichord.”

However, the most innovative aspect of these works (45 movements in all) is that Bach did not limit himself to surpassing a form in creating a new one, but also outdid himself in richness of invention, often leaving behind formal trio writing to create pieces for which there are simply no models. This astonishing structural variety is only equaled by the copious personal musical expression, particularly deep and intimate in the slow movements.

The three aspects of Bach’s work that made the greatest impact on us are the rigor of his musical construction, the depth of his musical expression and the apparently inexhaustible inventive resources of his genius. Generally speaking, the Bach sonatas are modeled after Corelli’s sonata da chiesa a Tre, in other words, sonatas in four movements (slow-fast-slow-fast), without dance, in which the first movement is in a single strike (one section), the second fugal, the third cantabile in the relative major or minor, and the last one brilliant, in a concerto or fugue style.

The Sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and flute

Of Johann Sebastian Bach’s nine works for Querflöte (transverse flute), four contain a part for obbligato harpsichord. Due to the apocryphal nature of sonatas BWV 1020 (in G minor) and BWV 1031 (in E-flat major), only sonatas BWV 1032 and BWV 1030 have been included on this recording. In all likelyhood, sonatas BWV 1020 and 1031 were composed by Carl Philipp Emmanuel: gallant, undeniably pretty, these sonatas do not correspond, harmonically and structurally, to Johann Sebastian’s style.

Sonata in A major (BWV 1032)
(Sonata a cembalo obligato e traverso)

The only source for this sonata is a autograph dating from the Leipzig period (around 1736) which contains only part of the first movement. The end of this movement has been reconstructed exclusively with Bach’s musical material. This sonata is, for the most part, written in a concertante and virtuoso style. The third movement, a typical concerto-style allegro, contains a daring harmonic gesture, worthy of some 20th-century music: for a bar and a half (215-216), Bach uses “polytonality,” the flute progressing in E major while the harpsichord klings to A major.

Sonata in B minor (BWV 1030)
(Sonata a 1 traversa e cembalo obligato)

Remaining sources for this sonata include an autograph manuscript dating from the Leizig period, as well as four other manuscripts, one of which is in Johann Christoph Altnikol’s handwriting (Bach’s son-in-law), dated between 1748 and 1758, and included in a collection that also contained the six sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and violin. (There also exists a version in G minor of this sonata, dating from Bach’s Köthen period. All that remains of this version, however, is the harpsichord part. It is possible that the melodic instrument used in this case was the oboe.)

Bach usually reserves the key of B minor for highly developed pieces, often expressing profound pain or sorrow—in other words, for pieces in which we sense the purely human side of Bach. This statement is confirmed by the character and style of sonata BWV 1030. The first movement is of unusual length, filled with rich and subtle imitative writing. The second movement is exclusively dedicated to the flute’s expressive powers. Here, the harpsichord part has little to do with the style of trio writing described in the introducion: it is a very elaborated “melodic continuo,” with short melodic passages, in which Bach precisely notates the syncopated rhythms of the broken chords. The last two movements, a presto followed by a gigue (this title is not indicated by Bach) are written—as they should—in a highly virtuosic style. Sonata V in F minor for obbligato harpsichord and violin (BWV 1018) The first movement of this sonata—titled Lamento in one of the sources—is, in my opinion, the greatest and most beautiful of the entire collection. It is permeated with an atmosphere of timelessness, due, in part, to the more “archaic” style of four-part writing (three in the harpsichord, the other in the violin) that follows the model of the Sonata a quadro, bringing it close to the spirit of the motets. The Allegro that follows is built as a three-voice fugue. Bach comes back to three-part writing in the extended Adagio, allocating two of the voices to the violin. Only the final Vivace contrasts with the other movements of this sonata by its brevity and slightly chaotic character.

Sonata II in A major for obbligato harpsichord and violin (BWV 1015)

Within this collection, the A-major sonata certainly has the most extensive canonic writing. Present in the first movement (the canon at the unison in the first two bars, for example) and in the last movement (entries half a bar apart), it is omnipresent in the Andante un poco (3rd movement). This explains the strangeness of this unique piece, in F-sharp minor: on an eighth-note walking bass, Bach builds a strict and absolutely perfect canon at the unison between the violin and the right hand of the harpsichord. Also worth noting are the ƒorte, piano echos notated by Bach in the fugue-style Allegro (2nd movement), as well as the arpeggio that precedes the recapitulation, also notated by Bach.

© Geneviève Soly
Translation: Alex Benjamin

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