Born into a family of renowned Québécois musicians, Geneviève Soly was eight years old when she realised that she was going to be a performer. This revelation came while she was listening to an LP [...]
J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Harpsichord
They spoke about it
The trio sonata was the most popular form of chamber music during the High Baroque, with approximately 8000 works in the genre being produced during this period. The fundamental defining feature of the trio sonata is the union of a pair of upper voices who carry on a conversation above an independent bass voice. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed only two works following this traditional formula. His trio compositions (that is, works with three musical voices) are in fact quite atypical. They include six trio sonatas for organ as well as a body of eleven sonatas for obbligato harpsichord with a single melodic instrument, of which five are presented on this disc.
In general, Bach’s sonatas are modeled on Corelli’s sonata da chiesa a Tre, featuring four movements (slow-fast-slow-fast) not based on stylized dances, with the first movement being a single unit (only one formal section), the second fugal, the third cantabile in the relative minor, and the final brilliant, in a concerto or fugal style. However, what is truly innovative in 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 the rich inventiveness of this “obbligato” style, often leaving behind formal trio writing to create pieces for which there are simply no models.
This astonishing structural variety is equaled only by the inexhaustible personal musical expression, deep and intimate, that one finds particularly in the slow movements.
Sonata in B Minor, for Obbligato Harpsichord and Flute (BWV 1030)
Remaining sources for this sonata for obbligato harpsichord and flute include an autograph manuscript dating from the Leipzig period, as well as four other manuscripts, is in the handwriting of Johann Christoph Altnikol (Bach’s son-in-law), dated between 1748 and 1758, and included in a collection that also contains the six sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and violin. Bach usually reserves the key of B minor for highly developed pieces, often profound, full of pain and emotionally charged, as is the case in the first movement presented here.
Sonata V in G Major, for Obbligato Harpsichord and Violin (BWV 1019)
Most of Bach’s sonatas, indeed all those featuring violin, date back to the Köthen period (1717-1723). The genesis of the one in G major is, however, rather more complex. Bach reworked it in Leipzig around 1730 by adding a movement for violin and continuo, bringing to six the number of these movements. This specific sonata is an exception since it originally contained five movements, predominantly allegros. A later, third version from around 1749 returns to the symmetry of five movements (the first and last are fast, the second and fourth are slow, and a harpsichord solo, marked ” Allegro”, acts as a central movement). Here, Bach recomposed the last three movements which where not present in any of the previous versions. It is this final version— included on this recording—which one hears most often. Preceding the sonata, we have added the 4th movement from the first Köthen version (“Adagio” in B minor).
Sonata II in A Major, for Obbligato Harpsichord and Violin (BWV 1015)
Within the collection of the six sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and violin, 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: over an eighth-note walking bass, Bach builds a strict and perfect canon at the unison between the violin and the right hand of the harpsichord. Also worth noting are the forte piano echoes notated by Bach in the fugue-style “Allegro” (2nd movement), as well as the arpeggio that precedes the recapitulation, also notated by Bach.
Sonatas for Obbligato Harpsichord and Viola de gamba
The sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and viola da gamba are traditionally attributed to the Köthen period, but this is highly improbable, as is clearly demonstrated by Laurence Dreyfus in his excellent edition (Peters, 1985). Stylistic and source analyses seem rather to point to a compositional period occurring during the Leipzig years, from 1735. Indeed, several elements suggest that they were written for the gamba player who participated in the second performance of the Saint Matthew Passion, around 1740. Dreyfus also points out that the sonata BWV 1028 requires a large, seven-string viola da gamba, as in the passion’s solos. This theory is confirmed through several details, such as the type of paper and ink used, as well as the calligraphy of one of the rare existing autographs. The works may have been written for Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) who lived in Leipzig in 1743.
Sonata III in D Major, for Obbligato Harpsichord and Viola da Gamba (BWV 1028)
The source for sonata BWV 1028 is a manuscript copied after Bach’s death. This particular gamba sonata, for unknown reasons, seems slightly less popular than the other two, yet its writing is extremely varied, fresh and joyful in the opening “Allegro”, profound in the B-minor “Andante”, and brilliant in the final “Allegro”. This final movement, interestingly, makes a brief foray into concerto-like writing, offering virtuoso passage-work to both harpsichord and gamba.
Sonata III in G Minor, for Obbligato Harpsichord and Viola da Gamba (BWV 1029)
This sonata is in three movements (fast-slow-fast), in accordance with Adolph Scheibe’s description (1745) in Sonaten auf Concertenart (Sonatas in Concerto Style.) The first movement “Allegro” brings together a few elements of the Italian concerto style. The Vivaldi-like theme announces a ritornello similar to several used in the Brandenburg Concertos.
The first “orchestral ritornello” is accompanied by the continuo. Upon the entrance of the harpsichord’s theme, the writing becomes more typical of a polyphonic trio. The clearly orchestral character of the piece (note the unisons in two and even three voices near the end) has suggested the changes in harpsichord registration found on this recording.
In two parts (AABB), the unusual second movement blends the lyricism of the Italian adagio—with its abundant ornamentation, fully written out by Bach—with the French-style sarabande, characterized by its elegant ornamentation (appoggiature, coulés de tierces and pincés.) Bach reserves the lyricism of this “Adagio” for the viola da gamba in the first part, then transfers it to the harpsichord in the second half.
Conversely, the sarabande’s melodic line is found in the keyboard in the beginning of the movement, and then later moves to the viola da gamba. The atmosphere thus created underscores the eloquence of the rhetoric. Certain passages (bars 25 to 29 for example) recall the ornate organ chorales from the Clavier-Übung. In the final “Allegro,” a very lyrical melody, marked cantabile, makes its appearance in the viola da gamba part (bar 19), with a “melodic accompaniment” in the harpsichord. Later, this melody is given to the harpsichord (bar 24) and the accompaniment is played by the viola da gamba.
© Geneviève Soly
Translation: Alex Benjamin