More thoughts on the interpretation of Bach's trio sonatas

Re-listening to quick movements of my first and second series of interpretations of Bach's trio sonatas, recorded with the sound of the organs in Arlesheim and Tholen respectively, it occurred to me that in a possible third series I would take slightly slower tempi in order give more space to subtleties of expression which can't be realized in quicker tempi. Ideally, this would lead to a more detailed expression without losing the overall pace (in Dutch: "zonder de grote lijn te verliezen"). This kind of detailed and very sensitive expression is what I admire in the playing of, as I mentioned before, the oboist Marcel Ponseele and the bansuri player Hariprasad Chaurasia.

While it is very common and understandable to compare the interpretation of Bach's organ sonatas to his sonatas for other instruments, it seems to me that we should go one step further and return to the possibilities of the organ itself, in particular specific qualities that other instruments do not have. Consequently, I should say that while giving full attention to the texture of baroque trios in general, as organists we should explore the organ fully while playing Bach's trio sonatas, in such a way that other instrumentalists would like to learn from us.


CD Imaginary Day, track 21: Jeux de basson, hautbois et voix humaine - organ Stevenskerk, Nijmegen

The last piece of the CD is contemplative, with the atmosphere of an epilogue. It begins with a perfect fifth, on the gemshorn 8' of the great manual, maintained throughout the piece by putting weights on the keys. The sound is deepened by the subbas 16', the principal 16' and the violin 16 of the pedal (that wonderful ensemble of 16'). The melody is played on the first manual with a bassoon 8' in the Dorian mode. At the end, the organ point disappears and the low sound of the pedal remains.

The Koenig-organ in the Stevenskerk, Nijmegen, remains one of my most favorite organs.


CD Imaginary Day, track 20: Breakwave, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen - Would I dare to do something similar again or am I too old for it now?

Breakwave was originally used for the actor Henk van Ulsen performance in Job, to illustrate a terrible storm and the ominous stillness before and after the storm. The concept is simple and efficient, allowing me to produce a huge effect with often little time to prepare me on organs throughout the country that I did not know on beforehand. The pedal keeps two low organ point throughout the piece, the left hand plays the "storm theme" and also manipulates stops for crescendo and diminuendo effects. An African drum, on the organ bench, is played by a stick in the right hand. The stick is also used to play a tin jug (compare track 17) and the gosoeah, a pair of bells from Ghana, hanging above the organist's right knee. The climax is a resounding G major chord, followed by clusters played by the entire left hand, illustrating the devastating power of nature.

Re-listening to the piece, I found the effect on the powerful Koenig-organ in the Stevenskerk, Nijmegen very convincing. Would I have the energy to do that again? I might just be too old for that.


CD Imaginary Day, track 19: Three Trumpets and a Small Owl, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

Several types of trumpets are used: the delicate vox angelica 2' of the third manual, the bright trumpet 8' of the first, and the dark trumpet 16' of the great manual (one might say that a fourth type of trumpet is the bicycle horn used in other tracks). The beginning, however, is played on the echo 8' (a soft flute) of the third manual. The stop is only partially open, in order to create subdued sounds, like those of a little owl at night. Calm is restored at the end, with the deep sound of the violin 16', the naive call of the vox angelica and echoes of the little owl's hooting.


CD Imaginary Day, track 18: Pièce en trio II, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

Pièce en trio II is the night version of track 4. As in track 15, the trio was originally intended for research on organ and electronic music, particularly the mechanical "Midi-out" organ in Maurik. This can be seen in the sketches for the piece.
Comparing tracks 4 and 15 with the help of these sketches may give some insight in the way I used to improvise at the time.


CD Imaginary Day, track 17: Grand jeu de tierce, clairon, flageolet et bouteilles, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

The title refers to a registration used in organ music from the French Baroque, the Grand jeu de tierce. Here, we have the principles 16', 8', and 2', with flutes 8' and 4', the 6' and tertian 31/2' of the great manual. This registration is used for a left hand variable ostinato producing a sound reminiscent of bell-ringing. Except for a carefully made African drum, the percussion used here is quite primitive: two empty wine bottles, a smaller soft drink bottle, two copper jugs and a larger tin jug. Placed on a chair and to the right side of the organ bench, these can all be played by a wooden stick held in the right hand. The bottles were specifically chosen for their pitch and quality of sound in a large church. The main melody is for the Clairon 4' of the pedal, like a cantus firmus which distinguishes itself from the accompaniment by sustained notes and a different timbre. The piece is concluded with the modest, bright sound of the copper jugs, played with a small copper stick,  rather than the wooden stick used at the beginning. The video shows the sketches which serves the improvisation; melodic outlines for the left hand and feet and indications for the use of the percussion instruments.


CD Imaginary Day, track 16: African Drum, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

African Drum continues the mysterious mood of night, already provoked by the preceding piece. The upper voice is played by the right hand, alternating between the half-stopped 4' of the great manual and the bourdon 16' and bourdon 8' of the positive. The lower voice is played by the pedal, coupled to the great manual. The left hand plays a drum with an iron gosoeah (a Ghanian bell attached to a stick).

In the years after, I played the piece slower and it became then known as Stillness, also for piano.


CD Imaginary Day, track 15: Come and Dream, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

This track marks the beginning of the third group of seven pieces, representing late evening and night. The accompaniment is provided by a high aliquot of the third manual, only partially open, which means that some tubes make no sound at all, while other emit hissing sounds. Pressing certain combinations of key changes the colour, rather like an electronic filter. The melody, played with 8' foundation stops, has an ABACA structure. The C section ascends to the highest notes; after this there is a shortened recapitulation of the first section. Of the several recordings which were made of the piece, this has been selected to include the sound of church bells and children, which here contribute to the atmosphere.


Transcribing an improvisation: CD Imaginary Day, track 14: Dolcezza, organ Domkerk

From time to time, I think that in a certain improvisation every note is on the right place. That is the case with Dolcezza and I made a transcription of the improvisation, so that it may be played as a composition. The accompaniment figure, played with a stopped flute 8' above a low 16' organ point, should be steady but not metronomic. The melody, played with a flute 4', often sounds just before or after the accompaniment's beats, creating an impression of free rhythm.

It is with this kind of Dolcezza that I intend to play the slow movements of Bach's trio sonatas.

Originally, the improvisation was played on the Loret-organ at the St. Willibrorduskerk in Berkel-Enschot, where I was an organist at the time. A recording of this was issued on my CD Meditations for a lent.


CD Imaginary Day, track 13: Bagpipes, organ St. Willibrorduskerk, Berkel-Enschot

Bagpipes is cheerful from beginning to end. It begins with a canon between two voices, played on two manuals, using 4' flutes. The feet play a droning perfect fourth. Halfway the piece, the canon and drone are interrupted and the movements accelerates. Repetitive figures, with ascending chromatic alternations, establish a new tonal center. The main melody returns, quicker and more exalted than at the beginning. In the final section, both melody and accompaniment rise to the highest register, expressing a great joy.


CD Imaginary Day, track 12: Anyi Bialale, organ St. Willibrorduskerk, Berkel-Enschot

Anyi Bialale is a short religious song from Cameroon. The right hand plays the cheerful melody as a typical African ostinato and a rhythmical counterpoint, which gradually becomes more intense. The left hand plays a number of small Indian bells. At 1:18, the pedal, coupled to the trumpet of the manual, introduces a new motif. It sounds rather like a snarl, gradually swelling, and at the end explodes the entire scene, like an African part which goes out of hand. At the end there seems to be a certain perplexity about what has occurred.


CD Imaginary Day, track 11: Jeux de fonds, Carillon and Bicycle Horn, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

Jeux de fonds, Carillon and Bicycle Horn refers to the French tradition in the seventeenth and eighteenth century of naming organ pieces after their registration. The classical "jeux de fonds" (foundation stops) and the carillon are combined with a small horn, to be attached to a bicycle's steering wheel. This horn produces a interval of a major second corresponding to the A-flat and B-flat of the organ in Nijmegen. Because of this, F minor is the tonality of the piece. At the end, the left hand rubs a stick gently against a bottle, the glassy sound breaking the carillon tremolo. A fortissimo drum blow, also used in tracks 17 and 20, finishes the piece.