In the years before mass media, UPS, FedEx, and e-mail, composers found ways to stay in touch with the latest trends in other parts of the European continent. These included subscribing to published editions as well as copying verbatim or transcribing published or manuscript works by their precursors and colleagues. Johann Sebastian Bach’s cousin, Johann Gottfried Walther, prepared adaptations for solo organ of string concertos by Telemann, Gregori, Gentili, and Meck to name a few. Bach himself is known to have owned, arranged, and performed music by a number of his relatives and colleagues, including Georg Phillip Telemann, Johann Melchior Molter, and Antonio Vivaldi. Perhaps the best-known
example of Bach’s interest in the work of other composers is his arrangement for four harpsichords and strings of the Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins, Op. 3/10 by Vivaldi.
The lion’s share of the transcriptions recorded on this two CD set by Hänssler are by Bach and stem from the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin as well as a set of trio sonatas composed by Johann Adam Reincken (1623–1722) and published in 1787 under the title Hortus Musicus, or Musical Garden. The adaptations of two works—the Sonata in A Minor and the Sonata in G Major may be by Bach but their provenance is uncertain. Robert Hill arranged the Partita in G Minor that opens the first disc and the Sonata in C Minor that concludes the second from the Bach unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas. The exact dates of the Reincken transcriptions remain shrouded in mystery, but Bach scholars speculate they came about between 1708 and 1717, while Bach was in Weimar. They may have been the result of Bach’s first introduction to—as well as his interest in—contemporary chamber music. They display the effective reassignment of three voices—two violins and a continuo bass—to a keyboard, to be executed by a single performer.
Today’s performers have relegated most of this literature to the artistic back burner. I do have obfuscated recollections of an old Archiv recording of the Reincken/Bach Sonata in A Minor and I own another disc (Dorian 9126) with the Partita in E Major played—on a lautenwerk as well—by Kim Heindel. In spite of the fact that some of this material is studentenmusik, arranged while Bach was on the path to the musical maturity that would enshrine his name in the halls of genius, it is still an important aspect of his art and deserves to be not only resurrected but also recognized. As I mentioned at the outset, Bach was keenly interested in the work of other composers and kept abreast of stylistic developments.
Reincken’s music was not outdated by the time Bach was introduced to it, and his efforts do not represent transforming a sow’s ear into a silk purse. Rather they are tantamount to burnishing semi-precious stones to the point that their luster is stunning. What immediately comes across and catches the listener’s ear is Bach’s ability to condense Reincken’s original scores with little if no loss of musical content and at the same time produce idiomatic, effective, and satisfying works for keyboard. True to this end, Robert Hill’s efforts exhibit the same prudence and care, resulting in adaptations that cannot be distinguished from the similar efforts of either Bach or Reincken.
Two of the instruments used are copies of museum originals: The harpsichord—built in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by Keith Hill in 1998—is a reproduction of a 1769 Taskin original; and the clavichord—also by Hill—is modeled after a circa 1750 Friderici original. The lautenwerk, a harpsichord strung with gut to produce a lute-like sonority, represents Hill’s concept patterned after notes and descriptions left by Bach and his friends and colleagues. While I have adored the harpsichord for years, I have only recently encountered the lautenwerk, but its unique sonority is quite captivating. As for the clavichord, it has never been a favorite of mine, but it is surely appropriate in this instance, given that Bach owned one—and a harpsichord and lautenwerk as well.
America has produced more than its share of exceptional harpsichordists, including Ralph Kirkpatrick, Albert Brewer, and many others. Clearly, Robert Hill’s name deserves to be placed in the pantheon with the greats. He is a musician of kaleidoscopic abilities with an interest and repertoire that runs the gamut from the Baroque to the 20th century. In addition to his extensive contributions to Hänssler’s Edition Bachakademie, Hill has recorded the Brandenburg Concertos and music of Schubert and Carulli (also for Hänssler), and Bach’s complete harpsichord concertos for Naxos. Hill’s technical and emotional arsenals are formidable; he is possessed of astounding dexterity and consummate insight. Further, his ability to seek and find the correct balance between the scholarly and the sensible is unmatched. He successfully reveals every aspect of these largely ignored works, making me wonder why they are frequently shown the door and not invited to sit at the table with other works of the Leipzig Thomaskantor.
The next time you entertain the thought of spending some of your geld on keyboard music by Bach, consider this option. After all, do you really need another recording of the partitas or the English or French Suites? FANFARE: Michael Carter