The six trios for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach are well-loved pieces composed (as is believed) for study of the trio sonata form with the education of Bach's eldest son, W.F. Bach. Debate continues as to whether or not these works were arranged for organ from instrumental counterparts/originals, or if they were indeed originally (and solely) composed for the organ. In recent years, interest at the heart of the controversy has created several recordings where historically-driven performers have "arranged" the organ works for various combinations of instruments, creating a more-or-less standard baroque trio sonata. The works, however, are far from ordinary. Careful craft is evident, and for those who love these works on organ, they take on new character as instrumental ensemble pieces. Curiously, each sonata is in three movements. Bach's contemporaries followed Italian models, often in 4 or more movements. Bach instead adopted a concerto-like form, fast-slow-fast. The ability to attack these works with two individual performers on the two upper lines makes for interesting interpretation, added ornamentation, and dialogue in the form of coloring and dynamics. Some performers opt for embellishing the continuo. In addition, on these recordings we may find other Bach trio sonatas mixed-in with the offerings from the organ literature. I will comment upon these, but the transcribed organ sonatas are the focus. **Bach Trio Sonatas (BWV 530, 525, 527, 529 the Palladian Ensemble / (p) 1996 Telos / Linn** Wow, nine works on one CD, with 5 minutes left empty on a CD, quite an accomplishment. This group has changed members a couple of times, but here uses gambist Susanna Heinrich. This is the famous Palladian Ensemble, a mildly successful group of young Brits who here examine the Bach trio sonatas with some additions. The additions include organ duettos and the Goldberg Canons, BWV 1087. For the most part, a very well done recording. The Bach trio sonatas are well done. Not as well as the King's Consort below, who performs some of the same works, but well done. The sound I don't care for a lot is the recorder. Thorby does a good job at playing the instruments, but I'm not sure it works as well in the Bach sonata texture. And the entire ensemble, as a whole, doesn't have any semblance to a "typical Bach sound." They have their own sound, perhaps even rough on the edges in some respects (violin and recorder). These are never zestily played, but there is a fair amount of push to the style that pleases. The gems on the CD, in my opinion, are the organ Duettos and the concluding BWV 1087: the fourteen Goldberg Canons. There's a fair amount of arranging here but the performance is first rate and hearing this many times neglected music is quite a treat. In a final listen in writing this review, I have to say, as a suggestion, Thorby needs to play oboe in a few tracks to avoid the low range of the recorder in some tracks. It's just too soft. Even two stringed instruments would probably offer a better solution but this is an ensemble of recorder, violin, gamba/cello, and theorbo. What I admire most about the interpretation is the penetrating, yet rounded tone of the violin playing (Podger is quite good, and an asset to the ensemble) and some of the shapes of phrases from all involved in the slower movements. They explore the depth of line that is often lost. **The Rare Fruits Council: Bach Trio Sonatas BWV 527, 1030, 1037, 1029, 530** Here's a CD of arranged trio sonatas by Bach, some from the Organ sonatas, others for viola da gamba, and 1037 for 2 violins that was probably not by Bach at all, but by J. Goldberg. This group plays on mostly original instruments, and while the string sound at times can be thin and astringent, nothing comes across more noticably than the loud harpsichord and cello. Is that bad? Not at all. This is by far, due in part to the Bach selections, and to the performances, the best CD on this page. The recording quality, not real close, is still good, and captures a lot of the dynamic between the performers and the space. This is German zest. Firey playing by Manfredo Kraemer and Pablo Valetti. The masterpiece is the reworking of BWV 1029 for violin and viola instead of viola d'gamba and harpsichord. Genius! The playing is so well done, so together, and so vibrant. I'm not sure Bach would have heard these sonatas played so... well. But you'll have fun listening to this music which exposes the genius of these performers and moreso the genius of the composer. What I like about the two organ sonatas is the almost rustic quality that surrounds their performance. BWV 527 is my favorite of the organ set, and is here realized in a very energetic format. I've admired every CD by the Rare Fruits Council, and this one, despite the hodge-podge of offerings, is defintely one of their best. While the sensitivity offered by the Palladian Ensemble was admirable, this is matched here with a seemingly different language. The nuances of rhythm and shading are here, but in a different context. More speed, and drive for sure, perhaps it's hormones. But the music of Bach is such that, many times regardless of instrumentation, tempo, or style, its core strengths shine through. **Le Concert Français: Sonate a Flauto, Violno e Basso BWV 529, 525, 528, 598, 530, 1008 (p) 2000 Audivis Astrée** I was not familiar with all the pieces on this CD, here performed with a volley of recorders, violin, and the usual B.C. For the most part these are pretty straight readings of Bach sonatas arranged from other sources, the primary source being the trio sonatas for organ (BWV 525-530). The last offering is titled by Bach a suite, for solo cello, and is here transcribed for recorder, much in the same way Marion Verbruggen has done on a dedicated CD of the cello suites. I'm all for this rearranging, because it's great music, and I don't deny that these may actually at some point existed as regular chamber pieces. They work well, in that way, at least. There's not enough going on in terms on spontaneous excitement in these readings, however. Throw in an ornament here or there, gosh darn it! The music is good, and that's what keeps this otherwise somewhat dull recording alive. Don't get me wrong, these guys can play, but it could just be more exciting. The pieces featuring solo recorder are the worst on the CD, not to say they are horrible, but of all, they disappoint the most. People didn't write for the recorder in this way. It does not sound idiomatic for the instrument, although at times it can be rather beautiful in the acoustic. Playing organ pieces or solo cello music on a recorder is stretching the whole "I can rearrange Bach on original instruments idea" too far. Ultimately, I might have to call this recording a bit 'dry.' I much prefer the performer's brand of authenticity when married with the historical approach. The CD cover depicts mounds of (sand?) something, which reminds me, unfortunately, of the dry performances. Pierre Hantaï, harpsichordist here, is usually well known for his great performances. Grouped within Le Concert Français, however, is somewhat less exciting. Well read, but not well interpreted. **The King's Consort: Six Trio Soantas BWV 525-530 (p) 1996 Hyperion** This was my first introduction into Bach's trio sonatas for organ. But here are arrangements for oboe, violin, viola, and harpsichord and cello, much in the same vein as the recording by the Palladian Ensemble. If you don't know the CDs by the Kings Consort, some are better than others... Robert King, the group's leader, plays harpsichord and organ and likes to do vocal works. Nevertheless, this is by far the best CD this ensemble, here in Chamber-mode, has ever put out. While not as spicy or zesty as some other ensembles (Il Giardino Armonico), whose playing I adore, this is straight Bach with a very intelligent approach. I in fact, around 1996 when this CD came out in the US, used it as one of the 2 CDs I auditioned loudspeakers with when purchasing a stereo, as a test CD. Wow. Details I never heard in the music before popped-out, like clicks and clacks of the baroque oboe keys, or subtle nuances in the baroque string sound. While some passages go quite quickly, these players take their time and milk the slower passages for all their glory. If you only get one rearrangement of the Bach organ sonatas, this would be the one to get. After many listens, I think what I appreciate best about this release is the quality of the wind playing, the choice and variety of instruments, and (again) the well-recorded sound. The clouds on the CD cover suggest atmospheric music, and believe it or not, the results here range in the cloud-range. I'd recommend this disc too for the full collection of all six instrumental arrangements of the trio sonatas, preserved in original keys, with instruments chosen to match range. **Bach: Organ Works, volume 3 Ton Koopman, organ (p) 1996 Teldec** I thought it only fitting to return "to the original" in my final look at Bach's Trio Sonatas for this review. In this release, Koopman records all six trio sonatas (BWV 525-530) on a Hamburg, Germany organ. Gramophone magazine remarked: ...Here is almost superhuman co-ordination. It's as if each hand and foot has its own unique existence joining forces only...in rare moments of artistic unity....trio playing doesn't come any more skilled than this. I actually came to appreciate the organ-versions better after having admired the instrumental versions longer. I much admire the words from Gramophone's review... Koopman does add his own flare to the music, and for me, that makes it worth while. While some have commented his traversing of Bach's organ ouerve is peppered too heavily with ornaments and filligree, I think he approaches a personal style that meshes well with Bach's own line. And how are we to imagine Bach's own magnificent playing of these works? Did he not embellish, take liberties, and astound listeners with awesome ability and volume? If you want to admire these sonatas in their more-original format, you cannot do much better than this CD. It's widely acclaimed as the best currently available.
This review originally appeared online in December, 2004.