INKPOT#89 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: J.S.BACH Gamba Sonatas. Riddle Preludes. Baroque Perpetua. Wispelwey/Egarr/Yeadon (Channel)

Johann Sebastian BACH
(1685-1750)

Sonatas for Gamba, BWV 1027-29
Riddle Preludes
Baroque Perpetua

Pieter Wispelwey violoncello piccolo
Richard Egarr harpsichord/organ/fortepiano
Daniel Yeadon baroque cello

CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS 14198
[59:17] full-price

by Adrian Tan

Wispelwey’s latest foray into the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is unusual in more than one way. For one, it is a disc of his own transcriptions of the viola da gamba sonatas for violoncello piccolo and continuo. Each sonata is preceded by a G major or G minor prelude from sources as diverse as the Cello Suites and the Well-Tempered Klavier; and followed by a slow movement (Siciliano, Largo and Andante) from the Harpsichord Concertos in E and F minor, and the Italian Concerto respectively.

For one whose scholarly knowledge of and intimate relationship with the music of Bach, this grand design is not without meaning surely. And this but one of the riddles Wispelwey and his team have generously scattered throughout the disc. What a refreshing change it is when an artist builds an album around a musical idea! In immaculate design, grand polyphony, the subdued but never absent sense of fun and the marvel of harmony – this is a tribute to Bach’s genius.

I had my reservations on hearing the famous G major prelude from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Klavier played on the piccolo cello but it was a performance that grew on me with repeated hearing. Wispelwey infuses this humble piece of music with such intensity and passion, the unless modulations have never sounded more natural and gripping. This prelude works almost as a deep breath before the Sonata in G. As with every prelude included, it represents a moment of contemplation and preparation before making way into the sonatas proper. And every postlude represented by the slow movements are like moments of indulgence and rest in Bach’s lush textures, the musicians still recovering from the adrenaline rush from what had gone on before. The most interesting of the three postludes is the Andante from the Italian Concerto which has Richard Egarr performing on harpsichord and organ simultaneously. The resulting sonority is so beautiful, Wispelwey’s soaring phrases endlessly unfolding.

Pieter Wispelwey The three gamba sonatas that are the centrepieces of this disc are performed exquisitely. Wispelwey’s impeccable technique is undubitable, and his transcriptions make these sonatas sound like they were written for the cello. Contrasted with the recordings of the sonatas I have heard played by the gamba, these renditions have the advantage of the cello’s natural expressiveness. This is almost over-whelming if not for Wispelwey’s acute sense of style. A second cello is employed in the first and third sonatas (ably performed by Daniel Yeadon) contributing to the sonority and also adding a third voice into the dialogue between soloist and accompanist. The transcription/arrangement is made not just so that another instrument might play the music, but one made with intelligence and an understanding of the music at hand. This is one of the reasons why this disc is a must-have.

Another point of interest is that Richard Egarr performs on three different instruments for the three different sonatas. It’s hard for this reviewer to imagine the reason for this except that the unique sound of each accompanying instrument accentuates the different quality of each work. I think the tootling organ works very well for the light-hearted mood of the First Sonata, while the dry and (when exployed by Bach) reverent tones of the harpsichord add to the gravity of the Third. Instruments aside, the accolades should go to Egarr whose musicianship as an accompanist matches every bit Wispelwey’s as a soloist. When you listen to the duets (or trios), every nuance is articulated and the sense of joy in the ensemble is never lacking.

Like a Stokowskian transcription, these pieces might sound vulgar to the ears of a scholar. But like the so many great performances of Bach, it is when the musician captures the essence of the music apart from historical conventions that we realise the greatness of every Bach piece, epic or miniature. This is what Wispelwey and company have done for these gamba sonatas.

Any performance so lovingly prepared and so committed deserves to be most heartily recommended. For those familiar with Wispelwey, you know you need not hesitate. With the large outpouring of Bach recordings this anniversary year, we will all be spoiled for choice (and budget) – but this one is a true gem.

In Singapore, Channel discs can be purchased (or ordered) from Borders (Wheelock Place) and HMV (The Heeren).

Adrian Tan hates deadlines.

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631: 11.1.2000 Adrian Tan

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