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
Copyright © Ann Bond, November
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