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  Bach: Trio Sonatas/Rakich et al. (2 CDs!)
J.S. Bach: Trio Sonatas/Rakich (2 CDs!)


 
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Program and Notes Reviews Organ Registrations
 
The Trio Sonatas of Johann Sebastian Bach
performed on a diverse collection of period instruments

Dana Maiben, violin (Nicola Amati, 1658)
Wendy Rolfe, flute (Rod Cameron, after G.A. Rottenburgh)
Alice Robbins, 'cello and viola da gamba 
     (Thomas Urquhart, and William Turner, respectively, after instruments from London c. 1680)
 
Christa Rakich, harpsichord (French double after Blanchet by Willard Martin)

Christa Rakich, organ (Brombaugh, Taylor/Boody, Fritts, Fisk, Richards/Fowkes, and Harrold)

Scored for organ (or pedal clavichord), the Bach trio sonatas can be played on a variety of instruments, as Christa Rakich demonstrates in this imaginative program. Six different organs, six different organ builders, and an assortment of period chamber music instruments are used on this double-CD set!

Audio sample here (CD1 track 4)


"Christa Rakich’s new recording of the Six Trio Sonatas of Bach is remarkable for its variety, ingenuity, elegance, and scholarship. Ms. Rakich has assembled a unique presentation of these notoriously difficult contrapuntal masterpieces. ...She is a serious, intellectual musician, cognizant of every detail in this intensely linear music. Whether in the three-part counterpoint of the sonatas, the massive textures of the preludes, the intricate four-part dialogue of the fugues, or her beautifully realized continuo in the two transcribed sonatas, Ms. Rakich exhibits a pristine technique. She sensitively conveys the unique character of each of the many themes as well as the special ambience of the various keys through which each movement progresses. Her registrations delight the ear with one beautiful combination on one superb instrument after another, and her embellishments and flourishes are always tasteful.

Ms. Rakich begins her program notes with a question: “Why another recording of Bach’s Trio Sonatas?” and she correctly acknowledges that “so many fine ones exist.” The varied instrumental color palette brought to this familiar repertoire by Ms. Rakich and her colleagues is itself a compelling reason to produce a new recording. Adding to that the precision, clarity, and vitality of the playing, there is every reason to welcome this outstanding recording to the Bach Discography."
—The American Organist



Disc 1

 

1  Prelude in b, BWV 544.1                                   

          Christa Rakich, organ
          Paul Fritts Opus 18 (2000), Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, WA

 

Sonata #1 in E-flat, BWV 525

2  [no tempo indicated] (alla breve)                                         

3  Adagio                                                  

4  Allegro                                                         

         Christa Rakich, organ

         Taylor & Boody Opus 14 (1988), Clifton Forge Baptist Church, Clifton Forge, VA

 

Sonata #5 in C, BWV 529

5  Allegro                                                    

6  Largo                                                      

7  Allegro                                                    

         Wendy Rolfe, flute 

         Alice Robbins, 'cello

         Christa Rakich, harpsichord (Willard Martin Opus 106 after Blanchet)

 

Sonata # 3 in d, BWV 527

8   Andante                                                  

9   Adagio e dolce                                        

10 Vivace                                                         

         Christa Rakich, organ

         John Brombaugh Opus 22 (1979), Christ Church, Tacoma, WA

 

11 Fugue in b minor, BWV 544.2                                

         Christa Rakich, organ

         Paul Fritts Opus 18 (2000), Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, WA


Total time: 53:41

 

Disc 2

 

1   Prelude in e, BWV 548.1

         Christa Rakich, organ

         C.B. Fisk Opus 56 (1971), Old West Church, Boston, MA

 

Sonata #6 in G, BWV 530                                         

2   Vivace

3   Lento
4   Allegro (alla breve)

         Christa Rakich, organ

         Richards-Fowkes Opus 1 (1991), St. Barnabas Church, Greenwich, CT

 

Sonata #4 in e, BWV 528

5   Adagio
6   Andante

7   Un poco allegro

         Dana Maiben, violin

         Alice Robbins, viola da gamba

         Christa Rakich, harpsichord

         Willard Martin Opus 106 (1981) after Blanchet

         Recorded May 23, 2000, St. Barnabas Church, Greenwich, CT

 

Sonata #2 in c, BWV 526

8   Vivace (alla breve)

9   Largo

10 Allegro

         Christa Rakich, organ

         Greg Harrold Opus 14 (1995), Residence of Alan Kay & Bonnie MacBird , Brentwood, CA

 

11 Fugue in e, BWV 548.2

         Christa Rakich, organ

         C.B. Fisk Opus 56 (1971), Old West Church, Boston, MA

   
T
otal time: 51:59

 

Program Notes

Why another recording of Bach’s “Trio Sonatas”? So many fine ones exist. To name just two, Joan Lippincott’s reveals the art of keyboard playing at its most refined (Gothic G-49116), while the King’s Consort recording, transcribed for instruments, is stunning in its variety of ensembles and colors.

The urge to find a third way is rooted in the unique character of the works themselves. Just what are they, really? Isolated movements from these sonatas appear in other incarnations: the opening of Sonata IV in e also exists as a movement for oboe d’amore, viola da gamba and continuo in Cantata 76. The middle movement of Sonata III in d also exists as the second movement of Bach's "triple" Concerto in C (BWV 1064). Other isolated movements were once included as middle movements between preludes and fugues. Does this indicate that the organ sonatas preexisted in now lost cantatas or other instrumental works? The proposition is tempting, if unverifiable.

But even more delectable is the idea of the organ as instrumental ensemble. I wanted in this recording to realize the sonatas as chamber music: to imbue the organ playing with the essence of instrumentalism, and to play in ensemble with the interpretation of an organist. I wanted to meld idioms too often held distinct in modern ears. Why should not the organ take its rightful place as an instrument among instruments, as another chamber music option? And why not invite a wider range of color by letting each piece suggest its own instrumentation? I wanted to listen from sonata to sonata as one would enjoy a chamber music concert, and to frame it all, as Bach might have, with cornerstone preludes and fugues. For these large framing works, I sought large organs, and for the sonatas, chamber-sized organs of two manuals and around 20 stops. Why these particular preludes and fugues? Along with the sonatas, they made their first public appearance in 1727: it was a very good year.
—Christa Rakich



Disc 1

The Prelude in b is a raw, edgy piece. It careens around corners on two wheels. Not least of all, its key touches major chords on F# and C#, purposefully dissonant in the Kellner/Bach temperament of Paul Fritts’s sublime organ at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. The prelude’s abrupt conclusion, an eighth-note B-major chord, does nothing to soothe.

Sonata I in E-flat, we move to the Taylor & Boody instrument in Clifton Forge, VA. It boasts a Glockenspiel stop, a two-octave set of bells delightful not only for their timbre, but also for the possibility of some dynamic range. In 1708 for the organ at St. Blasius in Mühlhausen, and again in 1712 for the organ at the court church in Weimar, maintenance contracts called for the addition of a Glockenspiel. The organist in charge was a younger Bach than the composer of these sonatas, but still, the thought that the master of counterpoint twice requested a Glockenspiel unsettles any concept of him as stodgy.

Sonata V in C begins with a question-answer theme: first a descending sixteenth-note arpeggio, then an answer in eighth-notes. It is quite rococo in its affect—one can easily imagine C. P. E. Bach, or even Mozart, writing such a theme. The final movement contrasts an “A” theme in eighth-notes with a separate “B” theme of running 16ths. This B theme is quintessential keyboard writing, easily played with just two fingers, one strong and one weak. This yields a charming lilt, here delightfully imitated by the flute.

John Brombaugh’s organ at Christ Church in Tacoma was the most trio-friendly of all the instruments on these discs. The singing quality of the first movement of Sonata III in d is perfectly at home with the warm sound of three 8-foot principals; the duet between the Krummhorn and the Harfenregal in the second movement is a delight to hear; and the brightness of 2-foot sounds sparkle in the last movement.

From the previous sonata’s key of d minor, it is a comfortable shift to the Fugue’s b minor, and back to the Fritts at PLU. The consistent stepwise motion of the fugue subject is placid, even serene. A long middle section with no pedal rocks playfully, gently. But it is with the pedal’s reentry, and combination of subjects, that the writing is at its most intense.

Disc 2

From its opening gesture, the Prelude in e is full of extravagances. Consider the downbeats of measures 27-30. This idea of releasing a chord from the top down, so that the bass note resonates longest in the room, was something Virgil Fox called the “acoustical release.” He used it to the horror of purists. Yet, here it is: the clear intent for the left hand to release before the pedal, and a thrill to play.

Or consider the audacity of the scale that starts on a high B in measure 125 and proceeds in 12-note increments down the circle of fifths to middle E, then to tenor A, tenor D, low G, finally ending on low C in measure 130, just eight bars before the end. The pattern occurs in other places, but nowhere else does it start one note shy of the highest pitch on the keyboard and end on the very lowest. On paper it reminds one of the old Victor Borge stunt, poking fun at Bach by playing a sequence until its iterations fell off the end of the piano. But Bach’s writing here sounds as powerful as a sledgehammer.

Sonata VI in G is the only piece written expressly for the collection of six sonatas. We hear it on the Richards-Fowkes organ in Greenwich, CT. The first movement is very busy on the sixteenth-note level, but heard in groups of measures, big, slow phrases emerge.
 
Sonatas I, III, and VI have binary middle movements in which each section repeats. Consistently, however, I found the second half to be harmonically so eventful that its repetition felt uneasy.

The opening movement of Sonata IV in e is transcribed from the “Sinfonia” from Cantata 76. In the cantata, the gamba plays the part transcribed for the left hand. So it was natural to leave it, add a violin for the upper part, and assign continuo to the harpsichord. In the final movement, the gamba played the bass line with treble voices assigned to the violin and harpsichord. But when it came to the middle movement, a bit of rehearsal horseplay yielded a stunning possibility where the gamba plays the middle voice, and harpsichord the outer two. (Note to violinists: don’t be late for rehearsal.)

Positioning Sonata II in c last provides the most contrast, both in key and color, with the concluding fugue. The tiny cleanness of 4-foot flutes makes for an airy, charming first movement, and the flexible winding lends a frail, almost human-voice element to the Largo. A reed in the pedal for the final movement might not be an organist’s first thought, yet the bassoon frequently served as a continuo instrument in the eighteenth century.

The Fisk organ at Old West Church in Boston recaps its earlier appearance for the closing Fugue in e. It is popularly referred to as “the Wedge,” an apt description of the shape of its subject. The great nineteenth-century biographer Philipp Spitta had this to say about this Prelude and Fugue: “. . . the whole energy and vitality of the master are displayed. It is a composition not sufficiently described by its present title; it should be called an organ symphony in two movements to give an adequate idea of its grandeur and power.” This is Bach’s longest organ fugue, and the only one to end with a da capo, or repeat of the exposition. This recapitulation, common to sonata form, makes the piece the obvious choice to end this program.

Johann Nikolaus Forkel, author of the 1802 Bach Biographie, mentions the trio sonatas with a reverence we can only second: “It is impossible to say enough of their beauty.”
—Christa Rakich
 


About Tempo and Time Signature in the Bach Sonatas

Bach composed his Six Sonatas for Two Manuals and Pedal in about the years 1727-1730. Although these sonatas are almost always performed on the organ, they were more likely composed for the two-manual pedal harpsichord, or, most likely, the two-manual pedal clavichord. Bach created this set of trio sonatas for the instruction of his prodigiously talented first son Wilhelm Friedemann, who was then in his late teens. For the development of pedal technique and coordination, these trio sonatas are the consummate challenge. In keeping with his pedagogical purpose, Bach also intended these pieces to refine his son’s awareness of important distinctions between various meters and tempo markings.

His first lesson begins with the first movement of Sonata I, written with the time signature (alla breve). Bach meant this composition to be an exemplary statement of alla breve: two half-notes to the bar, above all declared in the steady march of harmonies, but then animated by the interplay of notes in smaller values.

With this initial study Bach sought to warn his son about the common confusion between  (alla breve) and  (“common time”). This confusion was ubiquitous in Bach’s time, and would remain persistent for generations. For example, the first publication of these sonatas, C. F. Peters’ ground-breaking 1845 edition (still in print), uses the erroneous common time meter for this movement.

“Common time” means four beats to the measure, with steady accents on the quarter-notes. This, of course, is not what alla breve is all about. Alla breve means “[with the beat] on the half-note.” Performed alla breve, this music dances. Performed in “common time,” it plods.

In the third movement of Sonata II, Bach extended his introductory lesson regarding the alla breve. For this movement he drew on an archaic time signature, written as . The meaning of this unusual time signature is one beat to the bar, with no sub-beat. In this single-beat signature, the strong-weak flow in the music is so protracted that it moves in full measures.

In Bach’s plan for these six sonatas there are 18 movements (three per sonata), each sonata with a unique combination of time signature and tempo marking.

I

[no tempo marking]

12/8

Adagio

3/4

Allegro

II

Vivace

3/4

Largo

Allegro

III

2/4

Andante

6/8

Adagio e dolce

3/8

Vivace

IV

Adagio -

3/4

vivace

Adagio

3/8

Un poco allegro

V

3/4

Allegro

6/8

Largo

2/4

Allegro

VI

2/4

Vivace

6/8

Lento

Allegro

  
This systematic combination of meters and tempo markings cannot have come about by accident. Each movement in these sonatas was created to serve as an ideal example of a particular kind of music. This particularity has to do with meter and tempo, yes; but most importantly it has to do with mood.

In the early eighteenth century, composers used adjectives borrowed from Italian to suggest appropriate tempi. These words were centuries old, and originally expressed emotions of everyday life. As they became applied to music, however, and moved north to regions where Italian was not the language of everyday life, their meanings became less well understood, especially in comparison to one another.

One of Bach’s most important missions in these sonatas was to create sets of movements demonstrating the various inflections of these Italian tempo markings. The intent of these conventional terms becomes newly appreciated when we consider their original meanings:

  • Largo = broad. As we wend our way through the narrow alleys of Venice, now and then we encounter a largo—a space that arrests us because of its breadth.
  • Lento = slack, feeble. One dictionary describes lento as “moving like a person walking in sleep.” In order to heat a sauce without burning it, a cook must use a very low flame, a fuoco lento.
  • Allegro = happy. Already in the seventeenth century, musicians took this adjective to mean “fast.” One notes with interest, however, that in Bach’s scheme the only qualification of a tempo marking occurs in the third movement of Sonata IV, where he instructs un poco allegro.
  • Vivace = lively.

The meanings of andante and adagio are less evident. Andante is the present participle of andare, “to go.” Andiamo! is the colloquial “let’s go!” As Italian tempo markings moved north, it became common for German, French, and English music teachers to translate andante as a “walking tempo.” As a result of this off-the-mark translation, the understanding of the meaning of andante gradually slowed down. In reaction to this slowing down, composers added warnings: andante ma non troppo, andante con moto. “Moving along with motion” is, of course, redundant, but it was used as a corrective, to prevent music marked andante from being played too slowly.

In the first movement of Sonata III, Bach provided his son with music’s most elegant demonstration of a true andante. This piece, which moves so delightfully, was fittingly composed in 2/4. Then Bach added a second lesson about the andante. He taught his son to appreciate the delight of music that truly moves by following his exemplary andante with two other movements that use the same meter, but move at an even brisker pace: in Sonata V, a movement marked 2/4 allegro (happy) and in Sonata VI, a movement marked 2/4 vivace (lively). These three 2/4 movements must follow Bach’s instructive emotional advance from music that “moves,” to music that is “happy,” and then to music that is “lively.”

In 1619, Michael Praetorius, in his Syntagma Musicum, cited three Italian terms for slow tempi: adagio, lento, and largo – but translated all three of them with the same German word, langsam. In the history of music, adagio has always meant “slow.” The recurring problem is, how slow? To appreciate the differences between adagio, lento, and largo we must go back to the first. Adagio is a word born of two words, ad and agio, meaning “at ease.” In Bach’s day, composers were concerned that music marked adagio was being performed too slowly, and so they again arrived at one of those warnings: adagio ma non troppo.

Bach understood that adagio does not mean slow, it means at ease. In the second movement of Sonata III he composed music that is utterly “at ease”—and, to enhance the performance of this elegant, lilting adagio, Bach added e dolce. A winsome performance is one that understands Bach’s simple instruction, “at ease and sweetly.”

As in his second lesson about the andante (contrasting it with allegro, and then with vivace), Bach similarly added a second lesson about the adagio. On this occasion he addressed the subtle distinctions between adagio (music that is at ease, as in Sonata III, 2), lento (music that is slack or feeble, as in Sonata VI, 2) and largo (music that is broad —Sonata V, 2). As Bach sought to teach his son about these three stages of increasing musical introspection, he sensitively worked in 6/8.

In the first movement of Sonata I, Bach initiated his lesson plan by teaching his son the correct performance of music composed alla breve. This launching movement stands apart as the only one for which he provided no tempo marking. This omission was intended to pose a challenge to Wilhelm Friedemann. The gifted teen was asked to supply his own tempo marking, along the way pondering the influence of meter and harmonic rhythm. Bach’s absent tempo marking thus functions as a sphinx that yields the answer to the question posed in the first movement of the first sonata (here Disc 1, Track 2) . . . in the final movement of the final sonata (here Disc 2, Track 4). These two alla breve movements are to be performed at the same tempo. The missing tempo marking for the first movement of Bach’s first sonata is thus allegro.

The most important function of this ingenious alpha-and-omega sphinx is to make it clear that throughout these six sonatas Bach has created an embracing pedagogical plan. In the final movement of his final sonata Bach, in effect, signs his plan. What is so impressive, so delightful, and so moving about this amazing intellectual construction is that it was inspired by a father’s experience teaching his extraordinarily talented first son.
—Owen Jander


Average Customer Review: 5 of 5 | Total Reviews: 7 Write a review.

  0 of 0 people found the following review helpful:
 
Bach: Trio Sonata/Rakich et al. (2 CDs) March 31, 2009
Reviewer: Pamela Decker from Tucson, AZ United States  
The films "Babette's Feast" and "Chocolat" draw upon the viewer's experience of the joy, grace, and nurturance that great food can bring.  These films came to mind as I listened to "Christa's Feast" of immensely satisfying Bach performances.  Rakich is adept at allowing Bach to take center stage while still establishing that the performer makes an invaluable contribution.  The trio sonatas shine as works either for solo organ or for ensembles involving the various instrumentalists (all very fine).  In the ensembles Christa Rakich is a responsive teammate, offering elegant collaborative performances.  

Rakich offers an abundance of pleasure with this "feast" of musical delights.  Her splendid technique transcends the usual demands of precision to include many layers of interpretive subtleties, illuminating the included works with a marvelous blend of virtuosity and sensitivity.  The engineering is superb, as is customary with Loft Recordings.

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  1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
 
Glorious September 11, 2008
Reviewer: Jonathan Dimmock from San Francisco, CA United States  
Dear Christa,



I just finished listening to your Bach trio double disc.  What a great accomplishment.  Elegant playing, very creative programming, really enjoyable to listen to, lots of color variation.  I love the idea of using so many organs (although I'm sure that's about the most expensive way to do something like this).  And the gamba and violin playing on sonata IV is truly elegant.



Roger, nice job yourself!



Many congratulations on a superb project.



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  0 of 0 people found the following review helpful:
 
Definitive recording June 8, 2008
Reviewer: Leonardo Ciampa from East Boston, MA United States  
This disc reinforces Rakich's reputation as one of the supreme Bach players in the world.  

The six Trio sonatas are the 'most difficult' works ever written for organ.  Rakich increases the difficulties further by omitting 16' tone in all of the fast movements.  Her feet are as nimble as her hands; it really does sound like three hands are playing.  There's nary a moment of technical insecurity or coordination difficulty.  But when is the playing not graceful?  She neither rushes nor plays it safe.  It 'sounds easy.'

Several of the trios employ a chamber ensemble.  However, to me they give less insight into the pieces and more insight into Christa Rakich, who proves that she is just as musical without the other instrumentalists.  She is her own chamber ensemble.

If all this isn't enough, Rakich offers the addition of the two 'most difficult' Preludes and Fugues.  Rakich handles them the same way as she handles the trios: like music.  (Technical difficulties?  Where?)

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  0 of 0 people found the following review helpful:
 
A new favorite June 3, 2008
Reviewer: Greg Harrold from Culver City, CA United States  
What a wonderful recording you made! Your interpretation of the trios is so mature, with great depth and sensitivity. I was especially charmed by your reading of the gallant elements. The various organs all sound fine. That was such a nice idea, as was including two trios using traverso, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord. The playing by all was exquisite there, too. Opening and closing each set of trios with a prelude and fugue made for a perfect balance. In all, your Bach trio recording is a great achievement.

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  1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
 
Bach's Trio Sonatas April 13, 2008
Reviewer: Anonymous Person from Wellesley, MA United States  
This is organ playing as it should be heard;  completely compelling and captivating in the most satisfying way.  It takes the listener 'into the zone', so to say, of the greatness of Bach. The timelessness of his appeal is completely apparent in Rakich's artistry.  A 'tour de force' of the first magnitude.  Brava!

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