About this Recording
8.570470-71 - BACH, J.S.: Lute-Harpsichord Music (Farr)
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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Music for Lute-Harpsichord


Johann Sebastian Bach composed for the lute throughout his entire professional career. His instrument collection included one lute and two lute-harpsichords, reflecting his keen interest in this timbre and instrument design.

After his initial employment in the churches of Arnstadt and Mühlhausen (1703-1708), Bach became court organist, and later Konzertmeister, to Duke Wilhelm of Sachsen-Weimar (1708-1717). His earliest surviving work composed for lute, Suite in E minor, BWV 996, is dated within this period shortly after 1712.

Around 1720 Bach composed the Prelude in C minor, BWV 999, the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, and the Suites for solo cello. At this time he was employed by Prince Leopold as Kapellmeister at the court of Cöthen (1718-1723). The Fugue in G Minor, BWV 1000, is a transcription for lute of the second movement of the first sonata for solo violin, dating generally from this period, possibly as late as 1725. Ernst Gottlieb Baron, who wrote an important volume on the history and practice of the lute in 1727, is believed to have met Bach in Cöthen around 1720.

Bach was appointed Kantor of the four major churches in Leipzig, and official Music Director of the city in 1723. There he was in contact with two renowned Dresden lute-players, Sylvius Weiss and Johann Kropffgans. During this period (1723-1750) he made a transcription for lute of his Fifth Cello Suite around 1730, changing the key from C minor to G minor (BWV 995). Then in about 1736 or 1737, he transcribed his Third Violin Partita for lute-harpsichord, retaining the key of E major (BWV 1006a). Two new works, Suite in C minor for lute, BWV 997, and the beautiful Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat major for lute or harpsichord, BWV 998, followed in the years 1740-1745.

The remaining two pieces included in this recording do not belong to Bach’s lute works, yet resemble their style in many ways. Sonata in D minor, BWV 964, is Bach’s transcription for harpsichord of his Second Violin Sonata (a change from the original key of A minor), possibly placing it within the same period as the transcriptions of other solo string works for lute. Sarabanda con partite in C major, BWV 990, a large set of variations ending with a four-movement suite, is difficult to date. Its predominantly brisé writing for keyboard is close in spirit to the texture of the lute works.

The opening Praeludio of Suite in E minor, BWV 996, exhibits the stylus phantasticus of Buxtehude and other northern composers for the organ in which free and strict sections are juxtaposed. It opens with dramatic flourishes, followed by a contrasting section in imitative style. The texture of the Allemande is one in which successive sixteenth notes (semiquavers) assemble harmonies. Sometimes chord tones are connected by ornamental notes or figures, or enriched by slurs and tied notes. This is the brisé texture of lute playing that, while largely horizontal, creates a sense of vertical harmonies being played decoratively. A similar texture is continued in the Courante in a more rhythmic way, and in the Sarabande in a more melodic way. The contrapuntal Bourrée is composed in two distinct voices, while the last movement, a Gigue in the Italian style, speaks with the breathless insistence of its compound metre.

Prelude in C minor, BWV 999, is often compared stylistically to preludes of Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Here, and throughout this recording, keyboard changes (that is, the alternate use of two separate eight-foot stops) are used in much the same way that a lute-player makes use of different timbres by playing closer or farther away from the bridge. The transcription of the Fugue in G minor, BWV 1000, originally for solo violin, exists in a copy by the lutenist J. C. Weyrauch. Bach also transcribed this fugue for organ, changing the key to D minor. Although one can easily recognise this piece in each of its three versions – solo violin, lute (lute-harpsichord), and organ – each instrumental sound gives it a unique communication and colours its affekt.

The final works for lute or lute-harpsichord come from Bach’s years in Leipzig. The Suite in G minor, BWV 995, is dedicated in the autograph score to “Monsieur Schouster”, probably a lute-player. This suite exhibits a pronounced French character. The opening Prelude is in overture style. In two sections, the slower first section is bold and improvisatory in character with frequent dotted rhythms, followed by a longer imitative section marked très viste. The Allemande grave continues the mood of the opening of the Prelude. Its slow harmonic rhythm gains continuity from noble, expressive melodic gestures. The Courante sounds free and improvised in spite of its clearly identifiable rhythmic scheme. The texture of the Sarabande is nearly completely brisé, with only eight instances of vertical alignment. The two Gavottes, played en rondeau, complement and contrast each other. The final Gigue is in the style of a canarie, with energetic dotted rhythms throughout.

The Suite in E major, BWV 1006a, the later of the two suite transcriptions, also has seven movements. The Prelude expresses pure joy as it traverses the keyboard with arpeggiated harmonies, scales, and swirling melodic segments accompanied by a repeated-note pedal point. The Loure, often described as a slow French gigue, expresses gentle pleasure with a sans souci attitude. Gavotte en Rondeau is a true French rondeau in which the primary thematic section alternates with four couplets or secondary sections. A pair of Menuets is played in the usual manner, en rondeau. The first expresses simple joy, while the second is richer and more sonorous. The Bourrée is eagerly outgoing, taking a slightly faster tempo. An Italian-style Gigue increases the energy level even further, in keeping with the celebratory, sunny nature of this entire work.

Two original works for lute, both from the 1740s, point to the master lutenists Weiss and Kropffgans. The Suite in C minor, BWV 997, begins with a harmonically rich Prelude that is followed by a da capo Fugue, in which the opening section is repeated. A poignant Sarabande follows, that melodically calls to mind the final chorus of the St Matthew Passion. The Gigue and its Double extend the treble range by over an octave to f’’’.

The Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat major, BWV 998, is specified for lute or harpsichord. The Prelude exhibits the open texture of brisé writing that we have come to expect, exploring the affekts of various key areas related to the tonic. Another da capo Fugue follows, in which the opening section is quite stalwart in contrast to the rippling arpeggiation of the second section. The Allegro is a brilliant fun-loving piece in binary form.

The Sonata in D minor, BWV 964, Bach’s transcription for harpsichord of his Second Violin Sonata (key of A minor), has a full rich texture that is only implied in the works for lute or solo violin. It is a masterful rendering of the original work that is completely idiomatic for keyboard. The possibilities for keyboard changes bring it to a new level of virtuosity. The Fugue is perhaps the most difficult of the solo violin fugues, and no less so when played in this manner on the transparent texture of the lute-harpsichord. The expressive first and third movements are matchless. The last movement echoes its own phrase motives almost competitively.

The charming Sarabanda con partite in C major, BWV 990, numbers its theme as the first of twelve variations. A short suite, variations 13–16, completes the work – Allemande, Courante, an untitled aria (substituting for the expected sarabande), and Giguetta. As is usual with variation sets, the theme is repeated as a closing reminder of where we first began.

Elizabeth Farr

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