As more musicians discover and take up ancient instruments, more listeners are exposed to the stark, sweet beauty of “early music.” In particular, the viola da gamba has experienced a renaissance in recent decades. Yet many classical music fans may not know that Johann Sebastian Bach himself wrote for the viola da gamba.
Listeners in the late 1730s, when Bach is believed to have written his three gamba sonatas, would have heard them played on harpsichord and the largest member of the gamba family, the bass viol. This six- or seven-stringed, fretted instrument has a similar range as the modern cello.
What we call the “viola da gamba” (or simply “viol”) is actually a family of bowed, fretted string instruments prevalent in the Baroque era. During the 18th century they were supplanted by the instruments that dominate string music today – the violin, viola, violoncello (or cello) and double bass.
So though there is a boom in early music performance, it’s only natural that musicians today, unless aiming for originalism, would play Bach’s gamba sonatas on the piano and cello. Indeed, of all composers, Bach may be the most transcribed. He fully expected his music to be played on different instruments depending on the performer, the setting, and the number of musicians in the ensemble. I’ve often wondered what he (or Mozart, or Beethoven for that matter) would have thought of the modern grand piano. More than anything, I imagine them gushing with excitement.
Transcribing Bach: The Neverending Story
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein is renowned for her emotional Bach interpretations. With her multifarious touch and free tempos, she can make the music sound timeless, even modern. She exercised this ability with what seemed additional incentive at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre the other night, with three remarkable piano transcriptions of Bach’s choral music, written for her by celebrated contemporary composer Richard Danielpour.
The unexpected abounds in Bach’s keyboard music; less so, to my ear, in his choral works. However, Dinnerstein’s rubatos and dramatic escalations made these pieces immersive and dramatic, revealing the heart of the melodies and harmonic movements that in original form can sometimes take second place to the sheer sound and many-voiced energy of choir and accompaniment. So the transcriptions, complete with their cargo of the unexpected, flowed well into the gamba sonatas.
An Emotional, Even Ecstatic Reading of Bach’s Gamba Sonatas
Trills stood out in the opening Adagio of the Sonata in G major (BWV 1027), including a jazz-like trill trade between the two instruments. Cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach used a gentle, satiny touch in this brief piece. During the ensuing Allegro movement we began to hear an imbalance that wouldn’t have happened with harpsichord and gamba: The piano at times drowned out the sound of the cello. I was glad I had a clear view of Gerlach, as watching her bow and fingers aided the ears. It might have been wise to have partially closed the piano’s lid.
Nonetheless Gerlach showed off a masterful nimbleness in that first Allegro. The duo played with such lively energy that the whole movement sounded like one big smile. The Andante that followed, with its ethereal arpeggios, felt like a lullaby. The final Allegro gave the musicians a chance to fill the room with what sounded like three instruments, Dinnerstein’s left hand dancing with a life of its own.
The duo had the superb synchrony required for the opening Vivace of the G minor (BWV 1029) and the delicate handling of space and quiet darknesses that makes the Adagio so compelling. They brought out equally well the complex counterpoint in the dramatic, fugue-like finale.
The gentle, imitative strains of the D major sonata’s (BWV 1028) introductory Adagio led into a busy Allegro in which the cello mostly carries the melody. The piano here threatened to overwhelm the cello in sheer volume, but it was still possible to appreciate the confluence of textures. The stately Andante showed Bach in a thoughtful mode, setting us up for the furious but ever-controlled finale with its 6/8 perpetual motion from the keyboard and its demand for extreme agility from the gambist/cellist.
The Miller Theatre concert season continues tonight with the legendary Orlando Consort on its final tour. Simone Dinnerstein returns December 8 with Bach keyboard concertos, followed by the Tallis Scholars on December 10 in a “Hymns to the Virgin” program.