J.S. Bach

Recommended (or not) Recordings

Trio Sonatas

Main Performer
or Conductor:
E. Power Biggs
Instrumentation:Pedal Harpsichord
Individual Works:Sonata No. 1 in E-flat Major, BWV 525
Sonata No. 2 in C minor, BWV 526
Sonata No. 3 in D minor, BWV 527
Sonata No. 4 in E minor, BWV 528
Sonata No. 5 in C Major, BWV 529
Sonata No. 6 in G Major, BWV 530
Format:Compact Disc
Record Label:Sony Classical
Catalog Number:SBK 60290
Year Released/Recorded:1967
Total Playing Time:74' 16"
Comments:Paul West said:

Reissue on CD of some of the classic Biggs recordings on his Challis pedal harpsichord. If you like the Trio Sonatas on organ, try them this way too. The trio texture is ideal for harpsichord.

Thomas Hubeart said:

For a long time, considerable controversy regarding performance has attached to the Six Trio Sonatas. Bach designated these works "fuer zwey Claviere und Pedal," which simply means that these are for two manuals and a pedal. Forkel seems to have understood this as indicating something other than the organ, and Spitta claimed them unreservedly for the pedal harpsichord. Later, Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel in "The Bach Reader" (ed. 2, p. 346, note 54) dismissed the views of Forkel and Spitta on this, proclaiming that "the sonatas written for [Friedemann] are probably what they are usually called--Organ Sonatas." (However, enough uncertainty apparently remains that Christoph Wolff's revision "The New Bach Reader" completely removes this note by David and Mendel!)

Many performers, then, continue to play these works on the organ, but a considerable number find organ performances unsatisfying and manage to perform the sonatas in alternate ways. E. Powers Biggs, in this recording originally released in 1967, puts the Forkel-Spitta alternative to the test in this pedal harpsichord rendition. Now most remembered for his renowned organ interpretations of Bach's music, Biggs plays an instrument that is not described in the notes to this budget-priced reissue (which does list date and place of recording and the original producer--Andrew Kazdin, best known for his production work on many of Glenn Gould's discs); however, it must be a modern reconstruction, possibly conjectural, of a pedal harpsichord.

Biggs turns in a creditable performance throughout. I could wish that a few things had been done differently, such as less use of the 4" registration for the right hand (e.g., in the finale of BWV 528), which to my ear gives an overly precious sound that does not suit the aura of this music. Also, a few of the tempos seem awfully slow, although perhaps this is mitigated by the standards of the time in which it was recorded. (It's worth noting that the other recording I have of these works, Heinz Holliger's 1989 release on Philips [422 328-2], clocks in at 63' 07", over ten minutes less than the 74' 16" of this disc.) Nevertheless, the musicianship of Biggs is always in evidence; indeed, he is not afraid to add some ornaments that do not appear on the printed page, which is fairly surprising in a performance by someone not in the authentic-instruments vanguard of those days.

For my part, I find this performance much more satisfying than some of the pipe organ renditions I have heard over the years, where the fast passagework can tend to be swallowed up in a large church's acoustical reverberations. This disc by no means settles the question of whether or not the sonatas must be played on a pedal harpsichord, but it does show they are viable on that instrument, especially in the hands of a master performer. Especially at this price, the disc is highly recommended.

Jan Hanford:

Really interesting sound: one-of-a-kind. Highly recommended.

William Keevers said:

These pieces have really been enlivened by this recording. Biggs gives so much enthusiasm, that at times he perhaps isn't as careful in balancing the rate of his trills between the right and left hands. But the performances are so spirited, and otherwise so technically competent, that the effect is perfectly delightful. One see pictures and read about the pedal harpsichord instrument (upon which the player sits as upon an organ pedal set) at a site presently online at http://www.harpsichord.org.uk/pedal/pedalharpsichord.htm

Acknowledgements:Thank you to the following for submitting this recording and for your comments:
  • Paul West
  • Thomas Hubeart
  • William Keevers
And from the collection of Jan Hanford.
Date First Submitted:02/20/1999