Play your Bach the Leonhardt way

Play your Bach the Leonhardt way


norman lebrecht

August 27, 2015

A keyboardist at the Dutch Bach Society is making an edition of the old master’s scores. This from Siebe Henstra:

Gustav leonhardt


The Dutch harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt (1928-2012) transcribed/arranged the works for solo violin and solo cello for harpsichord in the years 1975-1978. His recordings and recitals were very impressive and successful. I am currently preparing an edition of them from his manuscripts.

The works are:
– violin solo: BWV 1001, 1002, 1004, 1005 (first movement Altnickol or WF Bach?), 1006,
– cello: BWV 1010, 1011, 1012
– Allemande (flute) BWV 1013, Sarabande (lute) 997.

This will result in some 150 pages of “new Bach harpsichord music”! Many of these pieces are among the most attractive Bach ever wrote (Ciaconna, Sarabandes etc).

In order to support me convincing an editor that believes in it and also that it will sell in printed form, you can help me by liking and sharing this message among your friends and colleagues! If you think you it is likely you will buy this book (perhaps 2 volumes) it would help me if you send your name and address to (without formal obligation of having to buy). I will do my best to keep the publication not too expensive.

Everything is typeset now, and I am in the course of a second correction round. 

leonhardt bach sample


  • James McCarty says:

    This announcement, which has spread far and wide today among the harpsichord world, is one I thought I would never see, having been an admirer of these transcriptions since the early ’70s. We all are most grateful to Siebe for doing this, and to Marie and Saskia Leonhardt for making it possible.

    The only downside is that Angela and her ilk will purchase these volumes and will flood the market with recordings of these sublime works on the modern piano. These recordings will receive glowing reviews in Gramophone, and yet another generation will grow up imagining that Bach had a concert grand in his living room.

    • Greg from SF says:

      “Angela and her ilk”….
      I assume you are referring to Angela Hewitt. I am no big fan of hers. I find her playing generically bland and inexpressive.
      However, I find no reason that Bach’s keyboard works should not be played on the modern piano.
      Bach himself, right at the end of his life, spoke words of praise for a Silbermann fortepiano that he heard, and I have no doubt that Bach would have welcomed performances of his music on an improved version of that instrument.
      There are a number of excellent pianists who currently perform Bach’s works with respect for the style, and with personal expressiveness. By doing so they are in no way invalidating or discouraging performances of these wonderful, universal works on the harpsichord or clavichord.
      (I’m not naming names because the usual SD trolls will flay me with their tiny little razor-sharp knives.)
      Why, James, should these “sublime works” (your words) NOT be played on the modern piano?

      • James McCarty says:

        I am not saying that Bach should not be played on the modern piano, but that there are adverse consequences from doing so. I will try to address your arguments, which are the same ones made by pianists everywhere. I write as someone who for many years had a Steinway D in my living room.

        Bach indeed played Silbermann fortepianos at the court of Frederick the Great. If you have ever played or heard a Silbermann fortepiano, you will now that its sound resembles the harpsichord much more than it does the modern concert grand. It is the height of presumption to say that Bach would have “welcomed” or liked, much less preferred performances of his music on the modern piano or any other instrument other than the ones he had at his disposal. It is an unanswerable question, and yet one constantly reads or hears pianists arrogantly assuming that their choice of instrument would have been shared by a composer who could have had no notion of what a modern piano sounds or acts like.

        The second presumption held by pianists is hinted at by your phrase “an improved version,” i.e., that all change is progress. Not all changes are for the better, and for every alteration that the piano underwent during its long and extensive evolution, some capabilities were gained and some were lost. To oversimplify, the more the piano changed into an instrument that was good for piano music, the more it changed into an instrument that was bad for harpsichord music.

        You contend that piano performances are “in no way invalidating or discouraging” harpsichord performances, and in an absolute sense, this is true. However, compared to a few years ago, when major recording companies were issuing harpsichord recordings regularly, the stream now has slowed to a trickle, to be replaced by piano recordings, not only of Bach, François Couperin, Rameau and Scarlatti, but also Louis Couperin, Froberger, and Frescobaldi. One senses the operation of Gresham’s Law (mediocrity drives out excellence.) No longer can one rely on the classical music press (Gramophone, Fanfare, etc.) to find excellent harpsichord performances. I would encourage anyone who is curious to seek out YouTube videos of some of the following players: Jean Rondeau, Benjamin Alard, Pascal Dubreuil, and Aurelien Delage, just to name a few.

        If one listens to these and other excellent harpsichordists and then decides that piano performances are the bomb, that’s all well and good. De gustibus non disputandem est. But it would be a crying shame if yet another generation of music lovers were to grow up imagining that Bach wrote “piano concertos,” or that the Goldberg Variations can be authoritatively performed on a modern grand.

  • Milka says:

    It is interesting to note that both GREG from SF and MCCARTY while making some salient
    observations completely miss the mark. In what is called the “classical world of music ”
    these sort of observations abound, most always wrong & missing the single most important point .

    • James McCarty says:

      A fascinating and enigmatic comment. What is your definition of the “classical world of music” (quotation marks yours)? And what, pray tell, is the “single most important point”? And why are you, unlike Greg and myself, unwilling to address the assertions and responses of the discussion? We await enlightenment, O anointed one.

  • milka says:

    Don’t be so snippy . quotes are not mine though you did seem to catch the point . You touch on the answer in your response to GREG of SF whose comments are the
    standard knee jerk observations of those who are not familiar or practice willful ignorance
    to the creative art of music especially in what is called classical music .