Adventurous Bach Arrangements from Jeffrey Cohan and the Salish Sea Festival

CanadaCanada J.S. Bach: Jeffrey Cohan (baroque flute), Ingrid Matthews (baroque violin), Hans-Jürgen Schnoor (harpsichord), Ryerson United Church, Vancouver, 17.4.2016. (GN)

 Jeffrey Cohan © Reed Carlson.

Jeffrey Cohan © Reed Carlson.

Bach, Sonata in G major, BWV 1019 (originally for violin and harpsichord); Trio Sonata in G major, BWV 1027/1039 (originally for viola da gamba and harpsichord, or two flutes and continuo); Chromatic Fantasia, BWV 903; The Musical Offering, BWV 1079

One has to admire flutist Jeffrey Cohan. His Salish Sea Early Music Festival has all the spirit of the early troubadours who moved between small villages, bringing music to the uninitiated as an act of love and devotion. Typically playing in the smaller communities and islands of Washington State, last year the festival crossed the border to Ryerson United Church in Vancouver. Cohan brings fine musicians with him: this time, baroque violinist Ingrid Matthews, who served as Music Director of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra from 1994 to 2013, and harpsichordist Hans-Jürgen Schnoor, a former student of Kenneth Gilbert in Paris, who is currently the music director and organist at the historically-famed St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck, Germany.

This was an all-Bach programme. Taking me back to Bach’s days immediately was Cohan’s art (and indeed, zeal) in transcribing and rearranging compositions to suit whatever instruments happened to be present. One can only imagine how often this was done during Bach’s time, and not just by the master himself. Cohan’s rearranged versions of the Sonata in G major, BWV 1019 and the Trio Sonata in G major, BWV 1027/1039 were sufficiently interesting that I asked him to write a few words about them:

“All four movements of the Sonata for two flutes and continuo, BWV 1039 were eventually to become the Sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord, BWV 1027, with the first flute part going to the harpsichordist’s right hand and the second flute to the viola da gamba. Keeping in this spirit, we gave the first flute and harpsichord right hand line of BWV 1039 to the violin, which feels particularly satisfying; in fact, we wondered whether there might have been an earlier version for violin. As for the other work, I’ve played the Violin Sonata in G major BWV 1019 many times as a flute sonata with obbligato harpsichord, but I had never heard of it having been done as a trio sonata with two ’solo’ instruments in addition to the bass. It makes perfect sense since the violin and right hand of the harpsichord share such similar material. I first had this idea about 10 years ago when Hans and I performed it at the Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival with Tina Chancey on pardessus de viole. Tina and I shared the violin and harpsichord right hand parts, switching back and forth quite a bit as felt most comfortable for our instruments, and Hans beautifully improvised a continuo part. For the current performance, however, I was able to fashion a fully satisfying flute part out of the harpsichord right hand alone, with Hans adding a continuo realization with his now-free right hand.”

I found these experiments stimulating, somehow giving a glimpse into the diversity of styles that might have been present in the renderings of Bach’s day. This was not the type of ‘ultra-considered’ Bach that one often associates with the authentic tradition nowadays. While sometimes finding a quiet peacefulness, this was playing with an expressive ardour and passion, not least because harpsichordist Hans-Jürgen Schnoor has a distinctly rhapsodic style, mixing ample rubato with a colourful virtuosity. I have seldom seen a more fleet-fingered, passionate performance of the short Chromatic Fantasia (BWV 903) than Schnoor gave between the two sonatas. Violinist Ingrid Matthews is very accurate stylistically, and often brings an uncommon expressive life to her phrases. Jeffrey Cohan is in some ways the most objective of the trio, guiding the music with true sensibility and taste.

I probably enjoyed the rearrangement of the Sonata BWV 1027/1039 the most. In this form, the piece almost feels like a miniature Brandenburg Concerto. In the first two movements, Cohan brought the ensemble to a lovely peace and flow, and a distinguished structural poise. Ingrid Matthews in turn brought both feeling and commitment to the Vivaldian Adagio and unbridled flair to the closing Presto. This violin adaptation was a genuine success, and some of the writing for this part actually took me closer to Bach’s famous concertos for the instrument than his sonatas. The Sonata BWV 1019 featured fine instrumental contributions as well, and I admired the ingenuity in the adaptation without perhaps finding the same overall appeal. The impetuosity of some of Schnoor’s continuo playing was distinctive.

The major work of the evening was the Musical Offering, and there are many instrumental variants to pick from here. I believe this was the first time that I have heard the glorious ‘royal theme’ initiated on the flute, but with only three instruments involved a core role was naturally assigned to the harpsichord. Again, it took a while to get used to Schnoor’s rhapsodic style and sheer speed, and my initial feeling was that the canonical variations needed to unfold (and breathe) at more deliberate pace: one would not think of the generic link to the Art of the Fugue here! Nonetheless, I eventually understood that the harpsichordist’s objective was to move the work through ‘blocks’ of colour and, from this perspective, I could see its innovation. The Trio Sonatas were the highlight, with real depth of expression. There was colour too: a sinewy, rustic fabric from the violin and harpsichord that played off splendidly against the refinement of Cohan’s flute. Ingrid Matthews absolutely excelled in bringing out the restrained, bittersweet feelings involved and often found a raw haunting beauty.

I found this performance moving. There is something remarkably ‘true’ that flows from Jeffrey Cohan and the Salish Sea.

Geoffrey Newman   

Previously published in a slightly different form on


Leave a Comment