Monday, June 19, 2017

Harpsichordists Jochewed Schwarz and Emer Buckley's CD of J.S.Bach's Six Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530

Jochewed Schwarz (Sivan Farag), Emma Buckley (Veronique Allio-Vitrac)

                                       Johann Sebastian Bach

                                          “a 2 clav. Et pedal”

Six Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530 for two harpsichords

Emer Buckley & Jochewed Schwarz     CD PLUS (2012)

Among Johann Sebastian Bach’s extant trios of 19 trio sonatas, six are specified by Bach for “two manuals and pedal”, either to distinguish the three voices of the pieces or referring their performance on organ, pedal harpsichord or pedal clavichord.  The latter two instruments were commonly found in the homes of organists, in particular. Bach himself kept a pedal harpsichord at home, enabling him to practice of organ works there. Composed 1727-1731 in Leipzig, Bach’s Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530 served as instruction material in composition and organ-playing for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann; having been written for pedagogical purposes does not rule out the fact that these six works constitute one of the zeniths of organ repertoire.  As an organ teacher, it is clear that the older Bach wished to present his son with formidable technical challenges; he placed emphasis on clarity of texture, skill, coordination and complete independence of hands and feet. Johann Sebastian’s rigorous training paid off, for in 1733, Wilhelm Friedemann was offered the prestigious post of organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden.

Played on the organ, the Trio Sonatas give the two melody voices to two different manuals and the basso continuo to the pedals; in first movements, the pedals mostly supply bass support, whereas in last movements they assume greater melodic involvement. The counterpoint is played mainly by the upper voices. Yet, as organ fare, these works do not especially resemble Bach’s other organ repertoire in pathos, majesty and power, their grace and joy rather sounding like the traditional Baroque trio sonata. These small-scale sonatas offer some of Bach’s most delicate counterpoint; they are Bach’s chief works of this description, bearing the stamp of Italian music, adopting the three-movement form of the Vivaldian concerto. Bach was a keen recycler of his own music; several movements of the Trio Sonatas are re-workings of other works or would serve as later works, and he would surely have been quite happy about the many arrangements these trio sonatas have undergone, from the 18th century to today, including some by Mozart for string trio.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Emer Buckley studied at University College, Dublin, continuing her studies in France and Italy. She moved to Paris to perform as a soloist and continuo player; she teaches harpsichord and continuo at the Conservatoire de Rayonnement Régional de Lille, France. Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Jochewed Schwarz studied at the Rubin Academy of Music (Tel Aviv), the Schola Cantorum (Basel) and in Paris, then returning to Israel, where she performs, directs and produces concerts. Buckley and Schwarz met at the von Nagel harpsichord workshop in Paris. They enjoy every opportunity to perform together.

So what are the advantages of playing these works on two harpsichords? (E. Power Biggs recorded them on pedal harpsichord in the late 1960s.) With no play of organ registrations, other elements come to the fore. One prominent quality is tonal freshness; fast passagework can sound blurred in the acoustic of organ venues.  Enhanced by Buckley and Schwarz’s spirited, crystal-clean execution and internal rhythmic precision, one has a sense that the artists’ aim is to present Bach’s text as it is. Clean fingerwork and textural transparency are paramount in outstanding teamwork that presents playing that is vivid, shaped and robust.

With rhythmic flexing and ornamentation used sparingly, Buckley and Schwarz’s playing is intelligent and objective, staying well clear of subjectivity and sentimentality. This line of reasoning (and natural temperament) could lead to tempi falling just short of natural energy. Some listeners may hanker after breakneck speeds and showier playing of outer movements. This is not Schwarz and Buckley’s style. Clarity and transparency are never sacrificed for flamboyance.  Take, for example, the first movement of Sonata no.1 in E flat major, BWV 525. Bach gives no tempo indication here; some performers take it at a very fast pace. Buckley and Schwarz do not lose their heads; their playing of it is fresh and vital, energetic and well defined.  In the second movement of Trio Sonata no.5 in C major – Largo – the artists, however, strike a fine balance between the movement’s introspection, its harmonic and melodic course and its sheer beauty. They lean into key notes and dissonances, their playing inviting the listener’s ear to follow them through Bach’s fascinating text.

Harpsichords used for the recording were built by Reinhard von Nagel. Emer Buckley played on a harpsichord after an antique signed N. & François Blanchet, Paris, 1730 and Jochewed Schwarz played on an instrument after an antique by Michael Mietke, Berlin, c.1710. The disc, produced by Jochewed Schwarz, was recorded at the von Nagel workshop (Paris) in 2012, the result being that the sound is true, lively, intimate and unhampered. The liner notes are informative without being effusive.

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