Johann Sebastian Bach: The Italian Style

BWV 989-1021-1023-1033-1034-1035 for Archlute
transcribed by Paolo Cherici
Selected Works Transcribed for Lute
40pp, ISMN: 979-0-2153-2357-5
SDS 23 (Bologna: Ut Orpheus, 2016) €15.95

In his Preface, Paolo Cherici justifies the practice of transcribing music from one medium to another, something which many musicians have done in the past, and which Bach himself did with some of his own compositions. The skill of the transcriber is to adhere as much as possible to the original, but not slavishly so, because the transcription must be idiomatic on the new instrument. Inevitably compromises have to be made.

Cherici explains why he chose to transcribe Bach’s music for the 14-course archlute rather than for the 11- or 13-course baroque lute commonly used for solo music at the time of Bach. It comes down to tuning: he says that the archlute’s 4ths reduce technical difficulties. I agree, and would add that the first six courses of the archlute covering two octaves, usefully provides a wider range of notes than the baroque lute’s octave and sixth. Peter Croton, in the liner notes to his recording Bach on the Italian Lute (GMCD 7321) concurs that the archlute is preferable for Bach, and suggests that sometimes it may have been used in Germany for playing solos, not only for continuo.

You can buy the edition directly from the publisher here.

Cherici uses three ornament signs, but his description of them is confusing: a single cross x (“inferior mordente”); a left bracket (“inferior grace note, tierce coulée”); and a comma , (“superior grace note, superior mordent or trillo”). The first two signs sometimes appear with an open string, so they cannot always involve an ornament below the note. There is plenty of blank space on the page, where musical examples could have clarified what he means.

Bach’s Aria variata alla maniera italiana (BWV 989) was composed for harpsichord in A minor. The theme is reproduced in staff notation in the Appendix, in a version from the Andreas-Bach-Buch. Cherici transposes the music down a sixth to C minor for the archlute, so the highest note (c’’’) appears as e’’ flat comfortably at the 8th fret. That makes sense for the treble notes, but it causes problems in the bass, where many notes are too low, and have to be transcribed an octave higher, i.e. a third higher than the keyboard original. In effect one has to cram a range of four octaves on the keyboard into three on the archlute. Add to this the advantage of using the long bass strings of the archlute, which are always played unstopped, and so free the left-hand fingers to stop higher notes, and we have bass notes transposed down an octave, at pitch, or an octave higher. In bar 1, the first bass note is sensibly transposed an octave lower to enable the smooth passage of parallel sixths above, but it was unnecessary to transpose down the seven bass notes in bar 3, which creates a sombre effect, all notes lying an octave and a sixth below Bach’s original. Cherici uses upward transposition to good effect with the bass fill-in at the end of the first variation. As one would expect with Bach, the ten variations show a remarkable degree of imagination, and require considerable skill from the performer, whatever instrument is used. Cherici’s transcription is playable, and much of it falls well under the hand. However, there are tricky places, e.g. bar 55, where the chord h1+d2+e6 requires a barré across two frets.

Cherici provides transcriptions of three sonatas in the Italian style composed originally for flute and continuo. The first of these, Sonata in C major (BWV 1033), he transposes an octave lower, and it fits surprisingly well on the archlute. In fact with a few minor adjustments it fits well on a 10-course lute too, with many repeated low Cs easy to find at the 10th course. In the first movement, Andante/Presto, the flowing semiquavers of the flute part together with the slow-moving bass line, are enough to clarify the harmony, without the need for extra continuo fill-in chords, which Cherici saves up for important cadences. He tastefully adds in left-hand slurs, so the music flows effortlessly like something written by Weiss.

The second movement, Allegro, presents the transcriber with a dilemma: the bass line moves in quavers throughout the piece, often with each pair acting as an “um-ching” – for example, bar 1 has c g e g c g. To sustain all these quavers would create all kinds of technical difficulties, and the music would not flow smoothly. Cherici wisely removes many of the off-beat quavers, so the bass of bar 1 is reduced to crotchets c e c. In bar 2 the harmony changes to G major with B g d g B g, but removing off-beat quavers would lose the g needed to clarify the harmony. Here Cherici changes the bass line to three crotchets G B G – easy to play and harmonically unambiguous. The flute part moves in semiquavers, but to maintain momentum where it pauses for breath, Cherici imaginatively adds little semiquaver fill-ins to the bass. I like what he does with this movement. The notes fall well under the hand, and rarely venture to the 8th and 9th frets.

In the Adagio, Cherici enriches the two-part texture with chords, and substitutes long notes held on the flute with semiquaver divisions to maintain semiquaver movement. He does the same with the two Menuetti thoughtfully adding extra melodic notes where appropriate. I think he gets the balance right, removing some notes and adding notes of his own, to create a piece which is idiomatic for the archlute.

The Sonata in G minor (BWV 1034) was composed for flute and continuo originally in E minor. Cherici has transposed it down a sixth, but I looked in horror at bar 38 of the Allegro where there is a letter p for a note at the 14th fret, assuming your archlute has 14 frets, and in bar 21 there is even a letter q for the 15th fret. Should not Cherici have transposed the Sonata down an octave, when that rogue q would have been a more respectable n? It would certainly make bar 21 easier to play, but unfortunately, as I found when experimentally transcribing a few bars down an octave, it would bring the lowest flute notes down to the fifth course of the archlute, and create all sorts of problems squeezing in bass notes below. When I actually tried playing Cherici’s transcription, I got that q right first time. and although there was no fret, the note sounded fine. I had similar success with the p in bar 38, and conclude that Cherici was right after all to transpose the music down a sixth.

In bars 5-6 of the Adagio ma non tanto, Cherici has found an ingenious way of transcribing a high note on the flute: b’’, which lasts for a semibreve tied to a quaver. Normally one would simply re-iterate such a long note, because the plucked sound would otherwise soon fade. However, that would be rather crass for such an exposed note, so instead, Cherici plucks it once at the correct pitch, and then reiterates it seven times an octave lower, before retaking it again at the correct pitch for the next b’’ in bar 6. In this way the note is discretely sustained. Yet not only is this a satisfying solution from the musical point of view. There is also a technical advantage, because the note at the lower octave is an open string, easy to play, and allows the player’s left hand to deal unhindered with the bass notes.

Other pieces in this edition comprise two sonatas for violin and continuo (BWV 1021 and 1023), and another sonata for flute and continuo (BWV 1035). In the Appendix, Cherici gives an alternative transcription of the Adagio from Sonata BWV 1021, which includes his own diminutions. The Aria variata was composed when Bach was in Weimar (1708-17), and all the others when he was at Köthen (1717-23). In a footnote (only in Italian) Cherici suggests that BWV 1033 is probably by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach rather than Johann Sebastian. Cherici has succeeded in turning these pieces into fine solos for the archlute. They are not easy to play, but would be rewarding with practice.

Stewart McCoy