Can you remember a moment when you were a child and felt really safe and cozy? Perhaps you sat on the sofa reading a good book on a cold, sunny winterday? Or cudded under your favourite blanket with your teddy bear? I had to think of such moments when I immersed myself into Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata No. 2 for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord in D major, BWV 1028. I listened to a recording by Mischa Maisky (cello) and Marta Argerich (piano). I sense beauty, I sense elegance and its comforting effect upon me is considerable.
Ban the cello and the piano!
But while I let my mind drift with the adagio, it occurred to me that Bach neither had a piano nor a cello. Hm. So I started looking for a recording with historical instruments to experience something as close possible to what Bach might have heard. I first came across a recording featuring a cello and a harpsichord, recorded by Paul Tortelier and Robert Veyron-Lacroix. Not bad. However, I realized to my dismay that once the harpsichord replaces the piano, the cozyness is gone. Which does not diminish the piece’s beauty. It’s just a different interpretation.
I looked further and found a recording by Jordi Savall and Ton Koopman. Two names I associate with historically informed performances*. Two artists I admire for their diligent musicological research, their broad interest and their unflawed instrumental skill. Certainly this was as close as I could get to the sound of Baroque. I like it better than the Tortelier/Veyron-Lacroix album and… the cozyness is back. It’s either all or nothing. Oh delight!
Bach most likely wrote this sonata and the two that flank it, BWV 1027 in G major and BWV 1029 in G minor, between 1736 and 1741. By then he had settled down in Leipzig as musical director of the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) and taken over the direction of the Collegium Musicum, a student music ensemble founded by Georg Philipp Telemann.
Proficiency on the viola da gama
A precise dating of the three sonatas is difficult, however Sonata No. 1 (BWV 1027) was written on the same type of paper that Bach had used for a transcription of a viola da gamba accompaniment for his Passion according to St. Matthew. The US musicologist Laurence Dreyfus has speculated that if Bach had a capable viola da gamba player to perform sacred music, he might well have decided to rewrite a sonata for two violins and basso continuo* for a viola da gamba and harpsichord.
According to the Washington Post critic Andrew Lindemann Malone wrote, Sonata No. 2 (BWV 1028) is “the most outwardly virtuosic” of the three sonatas. He notes that Bach must have known that the proficiency required of the viola da gamba player demanded an art that was at the decline at the time he wrote it. This seems to confirm Dreyfus’ theory. Bach would certainly not have written a demanding piece if he had not had a specific musician, able to perform it, in mind.
Excellence in composition requires excellence in execution. And Bach would not settle for anything less than excellence.
© Charles Thibo