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Shades of Yo-Yo Ma?

Ann Bond reviews a new CD of Bach's Gamba Sonatas


When Pieter Wispelwey gives a disc the heading Gamba sonatas, Riddle preludes, Baroque perpetua, it is pretty obvious that some fairly brisk creative thinking has gone on, and this indeed proves the case. In fact, not a single one of the 17 tracks is played on the instrument(s) for which Bach originally scored it. The most important substitution is the violoncello piccolo for the gamba in the sonatas BWV 1027-9, but indeed hardly anything is as it seems. In the prelude which opens the disc, itself an adaptation of the famous prelude in C from the '48', Wispelwey intriguingly tunes the violoncello piccolo in scordatura. This extends the compass of the small instrument to a resonant low G (a fourth below the cello; clearly, it is an exceptional specimen to tolerate this sort of treatment) - thereby posing the first riddle: how are the other strings tuned? Next, the keyboard player Richard Egarr is set the kind of ergometric challenge which is become increasingly common in recordings - that of playing on two accompanying instruments at once. In the arrangement of the slow movement of the Italian Concerto, this means left hand harpsichord, right hand organ; in the Largo taken from Cantata 156, it is left hand organ and right hand fortepiano. And, yes, I do mean fortepiano - of which more anon.

If by now you are wondering how Bach comes out of all this, or whether he even survives, the overall answer is - fine! Given the artistry of Wispelwey, intelligently backed up by Daniel Yeadon (on baroque cello) and the versatile Egarr, it could hardly be otherwise. All three are experienced period musicians, and play with the utmost regard for Bach's articulation and the general mind-set of the period. Arrangements and modification of scoring has been sensitively done, and often results in greater clarity or better emphasis in the musical material. There are, however, some unanswered riddles lurking. Why not the gamba, in the gamba sonatas? (Bach could have indicated violoncello piccolo if he'd liked - he did so in nine cantatas and in Brandenburg 1). And when the writer of the notes cites new theories about where and when the gamba sonatas were composed, a whole can of worms wriggles ominously. In spite of his confident invocation of recent research, Clemens Romijn has managed to conflate Christian Ferdinand, who worked with Bach at Cothen and died in 1737, with his son Carl Friedrich, who went to Leipzig when his father died, and may have studied with Bach, but went on to the fleshpots of London and joined forces with Bach's renegade Catholic son Johann Christian. Their names both begin with C.F. and they both played the gamba; but you must read the booklet to appreciate what has resulted from this elementary confusion.

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Copyright © Ann Bond, November 7th 1999


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