Dom André Laberge, o.s.b. is the organist of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac (Québec, Canada). He first studied at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal where he had Bernard [...]
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J.S. Bach: Suites & Partitas
Bach’s genius is intimately linked to the keyboard instruments of his time. Throughout his life, he never stopped composing for the organ and harpsichord, and the extensive works devoted to these instruments constitute an essential part of his output. Able to play both with the same outstanding technique, he considered them, as well as the clavichord, pedagogical instruments par excellence, useful for all apprentice musicians in helping them understand part-writing, ornamentation, rhythm, harmony and accompaniment.
It must be remembered that in Bach’s era, transcriptions were often used as a tool for teaching composition. In his youth, Bach himself had transcribed for organ and harpsichord several concertos by Vivaldi and other masters as a means of understanding their style and structure. Of the four works by Bach featured on this recording, none were originally written for the harpsichord.
The first two were composed for the lute — perhaps in response to Bach’s contact with Silvius Leopold Weiss, lutenist at the Dresden court — while the last two were composed for solo violin. These suites constitute a wonderful example of the art of transcription as practiced by Bach and his students. They are also a major addition to the repertoire for harpsichord.
Suite (Partita) in C minor, BWV 997
As with all the pieces in this recording, no autograph manuscript of the C-minor Suite is known, although its authenticity has never been doubted. Prior to the Second World War, five copies of the Suite were preserved in the Preussische Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. The principal source is a copy made by Johann Philipp Kirnberger, a pupil of Bach, and entitled Klavier-Sonate von Joh. Sebastian Bach; another copy, made by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, has the title C moll Præludium, Fuge, Sarabande und Gigue für Clavier von J.S. Bach. The original version, composed in Leipzig around 1740, was in all probability destined for the lute. In the Berlin copies, the upper part is written in a soprano C-clef rather than in the treble clef normally used for the keyboard. This upper part is placed very high and reaches f”’, which makes it unique in Bach’s keyboard output.
On the other hand, the Leipzig Library contains a manuscript in lute tablature which includes three movements of the Suite in C minor whose upper part is transposed an octave below the corresponding part in the Berlin copies. Should we perhaps conclude that Bach wrote his lute music on two staves like keyboard music and that he relied on the lutenists to transpose the works in tablature? The old Bachgesellschaft edition followed the Berlin version whereas the compilers of the Neue Bach Ausgabe published in 1950 based their edition on the Leipzig version. The performer here follows the latter, better suited to the lower compass of the lute and which produces a marvellous effect on the harpsichord, taking the liberty of making slight changes wherever the transcription seems a little clumsy (in particular in the Sarabande) in order to adapt it more closely to the possibilities of a keyboard instrument. In general the writing and style are recognizably Bach’s.
The Prelude develops a three-part form very similar to that of the famous Præludium, Fuga and Allegro in E-flat , BWV 998. The freely composed fugue, more densely written, also takes up the da capo form (A-B-A). The noble character of the Sarabande bears a striking resemblance to the final chorus of the Saint Matthew Passion. Lastly, the Gigue includes a double, a variation containing motifs at double speed, bringing to a brilliant conclusion a work which deserves to be more widely known.
Suite in E minor, BWV 996
This Suite, composed in Weimar between 1708 and 1717, was probably intended for the lute or, as in even more likely, the “harpsichord lute,” if one judges by the inscription “auf Lauten Werk” in a copy by Johann Gott-fried Walther. Little is known of this instrument of which no authentic example has survived. Jacob Adlung, in his work Musica Mechanica Organoendi published in 1768 in Berlin, mentions a “Lautenwerk” (also known as a “Lautenclavicymbel” or “Lautenklaviere”); this hybrid instrument was a kind of harpsichord strung with gut strings and intended to imitate the lute. Bach’s cousin, Johann Nikolaus, made such instruments and Johann Sebastian apparently owned one made by organ builder Zacharias Hildebrandt.
The Prelude opens in improvisatory style and ends with a brief fugato of stirring rhythmic character. One is reminded of the tumultuous toccatas written by Bach as a young organist at Mülhausen around 1707. The Allemande is more akin to music of Handel than of Bach as exemplified in his Partitas. It is followed by a moving Sarabande which seems to call for ornamentation in the style of the French lutanists. The Bourrée, light and lively, is well-known through its appearance in numerous anthologies for the guitar or the piano. The imitative Gigue with its strong rhythms gives the performer a chance to end the Suite with panache. Sonata in D minor, BWV 964 This monumental Sonata which has come down to us through a copy made by Johann Gottfried Müthel, one of Bach’s most gifted pupils, is a transcription of Bach’s second Sonata for solo violin in A minor, BWV 1003, composed between 1718 and 1723.
The tempting hypothesis put forward by several musicologists suggesting that Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was responsible for the harpsichord arrangement is unfortunately unsupported by any serious proof. In this monumental work, Bach borrows from Corelli the old-fashioned form of the sonata da chiesa which alternates two slow movements with two allegros.
The Sonata opens with an Adagio which presents a violinistic melody, discreetly embellished, as a prelude to the highly developped and admirably austere Fugue which follows. The Andante, in the style of a two-part aria, is an exquisite piece whose moving melodic line unfolds over a pulsating bass. The final Allegro with its linear texture does not stray too far from the original version for the violin; the echo effect obtained on the second keyboard lends a special stamp to the harpsichord version.
Chaconne in G minor
The famous Chaconne which ends the D-minor Partita for solo violin, BWV 1004, has been transcribed for the harpsichord by Pierre Gouin at Dom Laberge‘s request, and is thus the only transcription of this recording which does not date from Bach’s time.
As one of the cornerstones of the violin repertory, the Chaconne has inspired numerous transcriptions such as the one by Brahms for the left hand and the virtuoso arrangement by Busoni, but, except for an unpublished version by Gustav Leonhardt, an effective harpsichord transcription has until now been lacking. The transcription presented here aims to be both faithful to the original text and written in a style suited to the harpsichord, as if written in the eighteenth century by a pupil of Bach. Transferred to the harpsichord, this masterwork sheds its tormented character — it is exceedingly difficult to play on the violin — and the music thus gains a new freedom of expression.