CPE and JC Bach VdG Sonatas Arcana A543

Virtuosity and Grace – Sonatas for Viola da Gamba
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)
Sonata in C major (Wq 136 / H558)
Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782)
Sonata in G major (Warb B 4b)
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Sonata in D major (Wq 137 / H559)
Johann Christian Bach
Sonata in F major (Warb B 6b)
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Sonata in G minor (Wq 88 / H510)
Johann Christian Bach
Sonata in B flat major (Warb B 2b)
Sonata in F major (Warb B 15b)
rec. 2022, Église Saint-Pierre, Vabres, France
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from Outhere
Arcana A543 [77]

The viola da gamba was one of the most revered instruments during the late Renaissance and a large part of the baroque era. During the first half of the 18th century it faced the competition of the cello, but it could keep its ground thanks to the presence of virtuosos who continued to play the instrument and wrote music for it or inspired composers to write pieces for them. The latter was the case in Germany, where Ludwig Christian Hesse was the greatest gamba virtuoso in the mid-18th century. Thanks to his position as a member of the chapel of Frederick the Great, he stood in contact to a wide circle of composers, who wrote sonatas and concertos for him. Johann Gottlieb Graun was the composer of a number of virtuosic solo concertos, whereas Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote a few sonatas for his colleague.

The Bach family was well acquainted with the viola da gamba. In Johann Sebastian’s oeuvre it plays an important role, for instance in an early cantata as the Actus Tragicus (BWV 106) and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, which includes two gamba parts. In Köthen, the brilliant gambist Christian Friedrich Abel was his colleague, and he may have inspired Bach in the writing of some of his music for the viola da gamba, including the three sonatas with obbligato harpsichord. Later on, Abel’s son Carl Friedrich stood in close contact to the Bachs in Leipzig, and later became a colleague of the youngest Bach son, Johann Christian, in London.

Carl Philipp Emanuel composed three sonatas for the viola da gamba: two with basso continuo and one with obbligato keyboard. The former two follow the model common in Berlin in the mid-18th century: three movements in the order slow (or moderate), fast, fast. The Sonata in C is the most ‘galant’ of the three, and the least ‘personal’. One does not find that many features of the typical CPE Bach style, although they are not devoid from some dramatic moments. It is telling that the first movement is an andante rather than an adagio. The Sonata in D is more like what we expect from CPE Bach. It opens with an adagio, and especially this movement is harmonically daring, certainly in comparison with the previous sonata. The second movement is the most virtuosic, also due to the tempo indication: allegro di molto.

These two sonatas are from 1745 and 1746 respectively. The third piece, the Sonata in G minor, dates from 1759. The main difference is that the viola da gamba is partnered by a keyboard which plays an obbligato part. The thematic material is shared by the right hand of the keyboard and the gamba. Pieces like this were often derived from trio sonatas for two melody instruments and basso continuo. The oeuvre of JS Bach includes several pieces which have been preserved in both forms. The piece is dominated by imitative counterpoint. It is notable that this sonata suggests the viola as an alternative to the viola da gamba. This may well be an indication of the latter’s waning popularity.

The three sonatas by CPE Bach are available in several recordings. As far as I can remember, this disc is my first encounter with any piece for the viola da gamba by Johann Christian Bach. The sonatas included here cannot be dated with any certainty. Michael O’Loghlin, in his liner-notes, suggests that they were written between 1765 and 1772. All four of them have been preserved in different scorings, for keyboard and transverse flute, violin or viola. In New Grove the versions for viola da gamba Warb B 2b, 4b and 6b are marked as ‘arrangements’; it is not indicated who was responsible for these arrangements. O’Loghlin mentions that the printed editions date from the 1770s, which may suggest that it is the other way around: that the scoring for the viola da gamba was the original one. One is probably inclined to think that these sonatas may have been written for Carl Friedrich Abel, with whom JC Bach organized the ‘Bach-Abel concerts’. However, O’Loghlin suggests that others might have played them, such as the painter Thomas Gainsborough, who was an accomplished gambist. He was also a close friend of Abel, whom he portrayed with his viol.

The sonatas by Johann Christian Bach are typical specimens of the galant idiom. They are all in two movements, and in two of them the last movement is a rondeau. Notable is the second movement of the Sonata in F (Warb 15b), which is a pastorale, which has the typical traits of such a piece.

Like I wrote, CPE Bach’s sonatas are rather well-known, whereas JC Bach’s sonatas are largely unknown quantities. The inclusion of the latter makes this disc an important addition to the discography anyway. However, its value is also due to the performances. Guido Balestracci (viola da gamba) and Paolo Corsi (keyboard) deliver top-class performances, and are joined by Stéphanie Houillon (viola da gamba) in the two sonatas with viola da gamba. I am especially happy with the choice of the keyboard instruments. In two sonatas (CPE Bach, Wq 137; JC Bach, Sonata in B flat) Corsi plays a harpsichord (a copy after Taskin, 1769), whereas in the other pieces he plays a square piano. This was a very common instrument in the post-baroque period, but is seldom played in recordings today. The square piano is a much more appropriate instrument for music that was intended for domestic performance than a fortepiano. Corsi uses two different instruments: a John Broadwood of 1786 and an Italian instrument from around 1795. It results in an excellent balance between the keyboard and the viola da gamba.

This is a fascinating and musically captivating disc, which fully lives up to what its title promises.

Johan van Veen

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Guido Balestracci, viola da gamba; Stéphanie Houillon, viola da gamba; Paolo Corsi, harpsichord, square piano