Scholars are not sure when Bach composed his three sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba BWV 1027-1029; the sonatas may have been written in Cöthen, where, as Kapellmeister,Bach was in charge of all instrumental music having at his disposal a small but highly specialized ensemble, or later in Leipzig in the 1740s, where Bach took responsibility for the Collegium Musicum. As to the viol, it had made its way from Spain to Italy, with many of the fretted, six-stringed instruments later being built by master luthiers in Europe and England. Bach became acquainted with the North German instruments owned by Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar; at the time of Bach’s death, an inventory of the composer’s instruments included a 100-year-old English viol. In Diego Ortiz’ groundbreaking instruction book on the playing of stringed instruments “Trattado di glosas” (Principles of Ornamentation for the Viol, 1553), the harpsichord’s role is to introduce themes to the viol for further elaboration. In his viol sonatas, Bach provides an extra dimension by having the left hand of the harpsichord play basso continuo and the right hand function as a melody instrument.
The PHOENIX concert opened with Sonata in G major BWV 1027, a reworking of the Sonata for two flutes and continuo (BWV 1039), somewhat galant in style, with all three voices engaging in intense contrapuntal interaction. In Sonata in D major BWV 1028, the viol part is decidedly virtuosic, with the keyboard not by any means taking a back seat! The Sonata in g minor (BWV 1029) differs from the previous two in that it is a 3-movement form, with the harpsichord scored in a decidedly orchestral style. The artists’ reading of these three sonatas was clearly the result of much deep enquiry into the repertoire and of good communication. Their choice of moderate tempi allowed for the works’ detail, their poetry, beauty and gestures to emerge. In this way, the wealth of Bach’s ideas found clear expression. Refreshingly different to the endless bedazzling ‘cello performances of them we have been hearing for many years, Herzog and Shemer moved the audience by presenting the music in the soundscape that Bach himself would have heard it. With much tender, cantabile, mellifluous playing, Dr. Herzog, playing on an instrument built in the Tyrol in 1730, reminds us that the viola da gamba is a reticent instrument, its mellow timbre inviting the harpsichord’s myriad of details and crystalline timbres to exist in their own right and in conjunction with the viol. Gentle flexing and minimal inégal playing graced melodies and countermelodies; harmonic developments provided interest and suspense. Faster movements carried no sense of dizzying breathlessness, their energy and brilliant moments, rather, taking reference from the most precise basic beat. With Herzog’s economical use of vibrato and the occasional breathtaking spread on either instrument, we were presented with the broad, rich and poignantly emotional canvas of the viola da gamba sonatas.
Composed in Leipzig between 1726 and 1730, J.S.Bach’s six keyboard Partitas were published by Bach himself as Opus 1 in 1731. Performing on a Martin Skowroneck harpsichord (2001) founder and musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra Dr. David Shemer played J.S.Bach’s Partita no.3 in a minor BWV 827, a work the composer had dedicated to his second wife Anna Magdalena. Opening not with an Overture but with a fiery, challenging two-part Fantasia, this first movement was followed by an Allemande alive with ornaments and interjections and pleasingly conversational, with Shemer’s playing of the Italian Corrente sparkling and gripping and drawing attention to the movement’s chromatic interest. The appealingly melodic and dignified Sarabande gave way to two non-dances – a solid Burlesca followed by a Scherzo (Bach’s only Scherzo) whose humor might be its labyrinth of enigmatic rhythmic displacements. Remaining in high energy mode, Shemer confronted the powerful, contrapuntally complex Gigue with a sense of immediacy carried through by fine passagework. Leading the listener far away from Bach’s Lutheran piety, Shemer’s intelligent, witty and joyful take on the work were exhilarating, making for fine entertainment.
Myrna Herzog and David Shemer are both key figures and pioneers in Israel’s musical life, in particular on the early music scene. In this prestigious Bach recital, they struck a fine balance between personal- and joint expressiveness. The concert was, indeed, one of the highlights of the 2012-2013 concert season.