C.F. Abel: Solos for Viola da gamba
J.S. Bach: Solo Works, Transcribed for Viola da gamba

Media Review / Listening Diary 2024-01-02

2024-01-02 — Original posting

Lucile Boulanger, "Solo Bach-Abel" (CD cover)

Table of Contents


A couple of months ago, while roaming the on-line CD market for recordings for a bigger (still pending) project, I ran into the above CD set (for details see below). I don’t just love baroque music—I particularly love the sound of historic instruments. And within the latter, I have always had a soft spot for the viol (viola da gamba) family of instruments (as one could guess from an early posting in my blog).

Why This Recording?

Until recently I didn’t know about the French gambist Lucile Boulanger (*1986, see also Wikipedia.fr). However, that isn’t significant, as over the last years, concert reviews, and with that the classic — romantic — 20th century, and contemporary repertoires have hijacked most of my attention. That does not imply that I ever lost interest in baroque (and earlier) music. At least, I managed to complete a major comparison review on the “Sei Solo”, BWV 1001 – 1006 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). And more, similar projects are in the works.

I did indeed run into Lucile Boulanger’s 2011 debut recording of Bach’s Sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba, BWV 1027 – 1029, which I discussed in a recent comparison review. The outcome of that comparison led me to look around for more recordings by that artist. The CD set discussed here caught my interest not just because there is more music by Bach, but also because it features works by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723 – 1787). To me, the latter was unchartered territory. Abel is little known outside of the “viola da gamba scene”—yet one of the key composers for the viol.

Lucile Boulanger, Viola da gamba

For simplicity, let me quote the biographic information from my earlier review:

Lucile Boulanger took up the viola da gamba at the age of five. Her main teachers on the instrument included Jérôme Hantaï (*1961) in Cergy and Christophe Coin (*1958) at the CNSMD in Paris, where she completed her education in 2009. After winning prizes at several international competitions, she now pursues an active career as chamber musician and as member of notable ensembles, see her Web biography. In the early ‘2000s Lucile Boulanger also worked as voice actress.

Lucile Boulanger performs with (baroque) formations such as the Ensemble Correspondances, led by Sébastien Daucé (*1980) the Ensemble Pygmalion under Raphaël Pichon (*1984), and Les Talens Lyriques under the direction of Christophe Rousset (*1961). And it almost goes without saying that the gambist is also performing as member of consorts of viols, such as the Ricercar Consort with Philippe Pierlot (*1958), the ensemble L’Achéron led by François Joubert-Caillet (*1982), and Musicall Humors with Julien Léonard.

Johann Sebastian Bach and the Viola da gamba?

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

In a teaser video to this new recording, Lucile Boulanger ponders the question why Bach has written solo music for violin, for cello, for the flute, and the lute, but never for the viole de gambe. And Lucile Boulanger stated that with this recording she wanted to “explore why” (though, of course, we will never know the full reason).

Bach did of course know the instrument, and he even (rarely) used it for “special effects / sonorities”, e.g., in his passion oratorios. And he has written the three Sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba, BWV 1027 – 1029, see my earlier review. One might speculate that Bach—albeit not a “modernist” in his time—regarded the instrument as old-fashioned, realizing that it was losing popularity. Also, the viola da gamba was fairly popular in France and Italy (see also one of my earlier blog posts), but never really in Germany.

Bach possibly did not have the ambition to learn the instrument fully for himself. This contrasts with Bach’s relation to the cello. Bach presumably wrote the 6 Suites for Cello Solo, BWV 1007 – 1012 for the purpose of getting fully acquainted with the instrument.

Carl Friedrich Abel (1723 – 1787)

Carl Friedrich Abel (by Thomas Gainsborough, Public Domain)
Carl Friedrich Abel

The German composer Carl Friedrich Abel lived in the pre-classical era. His father, Christian Ferdinand Abel (1682 – 1737 or 1761), was the principal cello and viola da gamba player in the court orchestra of the prince of Anhalt-Köthen. In 1723, the previous director of the orchestra, Johann Sebastian Bach, moved to Leipzig, and Christian Ferdinand Abel became Bach’s successor in that position. Carl Friedrich Abel, was born in Köthen, in that same year. He later became a pupil at St. Thomas School, Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach was one of his teachers.

1743, upon Bach’s recommendation, Abel moved to Dresden, joining the Dresden court orchestra, under the direction of Johann Adolph Hasse (1699 – 1783). Abel stayed in Dresden un til 1759, when he moved to London, becoming chamber musician to Queen Charlotte (1744 – 1818). 1762 he was joined by Johann Christian Bach (1735 – 1782), the youngest of Johann Sebastian’s 11 sons. One result of their friendship were England’s first subscription concerts, the famous Bach-Abel concerts, which only ended with J.C. Bach’s death in 1782. Abel spent his remaining years between Germany, France, and England.

Abel’s Oeuvre as Composer

Abel’s official work catalog lists 18 opus numbers. With one exception, these are all collections of 6 published works of a kind, e.g., 6 symphonies, 6 overtures, 6 sonatas, 6 string quartets, etc.

However, it turned out that the majority of the works in Abel’s oeuvre remained unpublished. In 1972, Walter Knape (Knape, 1972) published a catalog (“Abel-Werkverzeichnis“) featuring 233 works. In the text below, work numbers from that catalog (which is still in use, also in the CD booklet and cover) are listed as WKO ###.

2015, new manuscripts of music for the viola da gamba were discovered in the library of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, in a collection from the palace of the (German) Maltzahn family. The collection once was brought from London to Poland by a member of that family. This new discovery warranted the creation of a new work catalog, now listing 420 works (von Zadow, 2023). The editor of that new catalog was Günter von Zadow, whose wife Leonore von Zadow-Reichling is a professional gambist. I have added references to that catalog (AbelWV ###) for all works in Lucile Boulanger’s CD set.

There is an interactive, sortable list of C.F. Abel’s works at IMSLP, listing AbelWV, WKO, as well as opus numbers, and more.

Ties between the Abel and Bach families existed in Köthen and Leipzig, as well as (later) in London, as outlined above. Lucile Boulanger assumes that the two families were close friends. For example, Wikipedia states that in Köthen, C.F. Abel’s father, Christian Ferdinand Abel, also worked with Johann Sebastian Bach, who was the godfather of Christian Ferdinand Abel’s daughter Sophie-Charlotte (*1720). In 1720, J.S. Bach and Christian Ferdinand Abel accompanied the Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen on his trip to Carlsbad. Also, there are claims that Bach wrote his 3 sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba, BWV 1027-1029, for Christian Ferdinand Abel, for Abel to teach Prince Leopold the viola da gamba.

Carl Friedrich Abel and the Viola da gamba

The inclusion of all the unpublished works in Carl Friedrich Abel’s oeuvre completely alters our view onto this composer. The unpublished compositions contain many chamber music works, but primarily a large body of solo works for the viola da gamba. Carl Friedrich Abel not only (probably) was the foremost virtuoso on the viol in Germany at his time—through his compositions he now also occupies a very central role in the repertoire for this instrument.

At Carl Friedrich Abel’s time, in France, the viola da gamba experienced its final peak in popularity. In Germany, however, there wasn’t much of a “school” or a tradition of major / famous gambists. In that sense, Carl Friedrich Abel was unique and singular (an anachronism, even?), his legacy astonishing.

Carl Friedrich Abel may have sensed that there wasn’t much of a “market” for literature for his instrument, and this may explain why his solo works for the viol remained largely unpublished. At the same time, he appears to have written these works primarily for himself. Without exception, the compositions for viola da gamba solo are single, individual movements in manuscript collections. They have no annotation other than (possibly) a tempo (Allegro, Minuet, Fuga) and a key signature, often just “Piece in D major”. There are numerous sonatas for viola da gamba and basso continuo, though.

Lucile Boulanger states that Carl Friedrich Abel was known as a master at improvisation on his instrument, and that the solos are likely written-down improvisations. The artist states that in terms of depth and musical quality these solos are not comparable to Abel’s often simple(r) published compositions.

The Music

Each of the two CDs includes works by Bach, as well as solos by Carl Friedrich Abel. And both CDs feature three groups of works each.

Works by Carl Friedrich Abel

Carl Friedrich Abel‘s solos are arranged that the listener experiences larger “units”, such as

  • Sonata in D minor“, in 3 movements (Adagio — Andante — Allegro) [CD #1, tracks 7 – 9]
  • Sonata in D minor“, in 2 movements (Arpeggio — Moderato) [CD #2, tracks 1/2]
  • Suite in D major” (Allegro — Fuga — Adagio — Minuet — Vivace) [CD #2, tracks 3 – 7]

Arrangements of Works by Johann Sebastian Bach

As mentioned above, none of the works by Johann Sebastian Bach are originals for the viola da gamba. Rather, Lucile Boulanger arranged a selection of movements by Bach for her instrument. Of course, movements that she deemed suitable for a transcription onto her instrument. And again, the resulting pieces are arranged into three larger sets:

Suite in D major

A Suite in D major that closely follows the path of (and using movements from) Bach’s Cello Suites, enriched with two “external” movements:

Solos in G minor

A two-movement set of “Solos in G minor“, arrangements of Bach’s

Sonata in A minor

The four-movement Sonata in A minor, consisting of viol arrangements of

The Experience

Lucile Boulanger named the first of the two CDs “La Chair” (The Flesh), while the second one has the title “L’Esprit” (The Spirit)—see below for the track listing. The artist (assuming the titles are hers, not the publisher’s) does not offer explanations for these titles but leaves this up to the listener. To me, this clearly indicates that Lucile Boulanger isn’t just presenting a loose collection of pieces / compositions by Bach and Abel. Rather, she carefully selected and arranged the movements into larger units, and those again are consciously arranged in a kind of recital program with two halves (around 45 minutes each) and an intermission.

The Choreography

Just some scarce comments about the artist’s “choreography” in this CD set:

  • The artist maintained a careful balance between the two composers. 11 tracks are based upon compositions by Bach, 11 tracks are Solos by Abel.
  • Overall, though, focus and attention are drawn towards Bach. On the artist’s side this is driven by the question why Bach did not write for the viola da gamba solo. Bach’s compositions (i.e., their arrangements) fill 50 minutes, Abel’s Solos 40 minutes. Bach’s compositions are prominently placed at the beginning and at the end of the first disc, and they also form the end of the recital.
  • The recording opens with Lucile Boulanger’s transcription of Bach’s Prelude in C major from BWV 846 (transposed to D major). The promotion video for the recording indicates that the artist regards this the recording’s “signature piece”.
  • The grouping of the pieces into “logical units” (sonatas, suites) makes sense and gives the individual movements (in particular, Abel’s Solos) extra context and meaning. Also, it helps appreciating the value of Abel’s Solos next to Bach’s masterworks.

For the most part, though, I leave it up to the listener to live through—and experience—Lucile Boulanger’s “recital”, and to ponder the relationship and relative merits of Bach’s and Abel’s compositions.

A Precautionary Note

In my comments below, I won’t elaborate in detail about every movement. For some of Bach’s movements, though, I may add references (and more comments) to Lucile Boulanger’s transcriptions and interpretations in the context of other existing and ongoing comparison posts. Examples: the movements from Bach’s Cello Suite No.3 in C major, BWV 1009, and No.6 in D major, BWV 1012 (comparison posts planned / in preparation). I may also add references to this recording in the existing comparison posts on Bach’s Sonata in G minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1001, and on the Sonata in A minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1003.

Bach, “Suite in D major” (arr. Lucile Boulanger)

Lucile Boulanger’s aim was not to present the musical substance of one of Bach’s Cello Suites “through the eyes of the viola da gamba“. Others have done that, see my ongoing comparison review of Bach’s Cello Suites. Rather, she meant to show in examples, how well Bach’s compositions are suited for the specific characteristics of her instrument. Or, more ambitiously put, how Bach might have composed for the viola da gamba. For this purpose, she resorted to some degree of “mix and match”, by selecting movements from different, possibly unrelated works.

To double up on my precautionary note above: in my ongoing comparison review of Bach’s Cello Suites, I’m discussing two full performances of the Bach Suites by Paolo Pandolfo (*1964), and by Myriam Rignol (*1988). I can only fully appreciate the merits and qualities of Lucile Boulanger’s interpretation / arrangements of movements from Bach’s Cello Suites by comparing them with those other viol interpretations (and, ideally, the “regular” cello interpretations) of the same pieces. In this review, I can only briefly touch upon comparison aspects. I cannot and don’t want to anticipate the full comparison results. So, please be patient: these reviews will take at least a few months to appear.

I. Preludio for Keyboard, BWV 846/846a

Bach’s original Präludium is “merely” the introduction / preparation for the first fugue out of a large collection of 24 preludes and fugues through all major and minor keys, the first book of two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier. That doesn’t diminish the value of this piece. However, this prelude does “live” in the context of a large body of keyboard pieces.

Lucile Boulanger leaves the musical / harmonic structure untouched. However, she transposed the piece to D major and replaces Bach’s regular, ascending quaver figures with freely preluding arpeggiando (often expanding or shifting the original’s chords). This is a natural and logical solution / option on the viola da gamba—and far better suited for this instrument (the original keyboard work may be hardly playable at all on the viol). The result: simply magnificent! I would even claim that with her transformation, the artist lifts the prelude to a bigger, much more significant format. Even though the only “real” addition is the beautiful closing formula / fioritura. A worthy opening to this recording!

II. Allemande for Cello, BWV 1012

Here, by and large, Lucile Boulanger stays close to Bach’s text, mostly just narrowing / altering a few chords. These are minor modifications, to accommodate the setup of the 7-string viola da gamba, as opposed to the original designator instrument, a 5-string violoncello piccolo. Even the repeats don’t deviate much from the first passes (Bach’s text is already richly ornamented), and the tempo is that of typical cello interpretations. With this, the artist appears to state that this movement might just as well be a piece for the viola da gamba.

Of course, Lucile Boulanger plays out the beautiful, rich, and specific sonorities of the viola da gamba, profiting from the instrument’s rich, internal resonances. This differentiates this recording from all cello interpretations. The listener should keep in mind, though, that these rich sonorities of the viol only really play out in intimate, close settings: the viol is not an instrument for big concert venues.

Just a glimpse onto “competitive” viola da gamba interpretations (for more see the upcoming reviews):

  • Paolo Pandolfo also keeps this movement (the entire Suite No.6) in D major, but he takes substantially more liberty in agogics, often abundant ornamentation, even occasionally adding extra voices / chords. A viola da gamba in the extreme, out-of-the ordinary.
  • Myriam Rignol transposes the Suite No.6 to C major. Her tempo is much slower, defeating any dance character. But text-wise, her interpretation remains closest to the original among the three viol performances.

III. Courante for Cello, BWV 1009

To make the Courante fit into the Suite, Lucile Boulanger transposed it from C major to D major. For the most part in the first half, she remains close to Bach’s text: a statement that this could just as well be a piece for the viola da gamba? In the first repeat, though, starting in bar #29, she changes Bach’s quaver motifs into rapid semiquaver figures. In the second part there are occasional extras (ornaments, transition notes, and the like). The free rhythm and the extra ornaments in the last bars of the second repeat (starting in bar #80) make the ending feel like a cadenza: beautiful!

Another glimpse onto the “competitive” viola da gamba interpretations:

  • Myriam Rignol transposes the Suite No.3 to D major, so she ends up in the same key as Lucile Boulanger (albeit at a slightly lower pitch of a’ = 400 Hz, as opposed to Lucile Boulanger’s a’ = 415 Hz). She is again closer to the original cello text than Lucile Boulanger.
  • Paolo Pandolfo, however, performs the Suite No.3 in F major, moving it into a higher register altogether. This is not as extraordinary as it may seem: one can argue that Bach wrote this for a 5-string violoncello piccolo. And again, Paolo Pandolfo takes considerable liberty in adding chords, ornaments, etc.

IV. Sarabande for Cello, BWV 1012

Bach’s Sarabande is a marvelous piece that does not call for lots of extra ornaments, and the like. Consequently, Lucile Boulanger remains close to the notation at least in the first passes (although Bach’s double-, triple- and quadruple-stop cello chords may often be challenging on the viola da gamba!). However, the articulation, and the instrument’s characteristic response still make this a true viola da gamba interpretation—as if Bach indeed had written for this instrument!

For the key / pitch relations in the “competitive” viola da gamba interpretations see above.

  • For once, Paolo Pandolfo is very close to Lucile Boulanger’s interpretation (and as in the Allemande, pitch and key are identical). As stated, the piece doesn’t lend itself to adding extras. My comments above also apply to this interpretation.
  • Among the tree viol performances, Myriam Rignol‘s is closest to a typical cello interpretation in terms of articulation and phrasing. An interpretation of Bach’s cello suites, not primarily demonstrating the abilities of the viola da gamba. Here, the main differentiator to the cello is the darker, often almost somber sonority (to which the lower key and pitch, as well as the recording technician may have contributed).

V. Gavottes for Cello, BWV 1012

The Gavottes may be the closest to a typical cello performance in Lucile Boulanger’s interpretation of this Suite, given the prevalent staccato articulation. In the first Gavotte, the artist also stays close to Bach’s notation. In the second Gavotte, Lucile Boulanger omits the second repeat. That’s understandable, given that the second part includes two instances of the first segment (BACA). With all repeats, the structure would be AA-BACABACA, i.e., there would be six instances of the initial 4-bar theme.

However, a lot is happening in Lucile Boulanger’s second Gavotte, even without the repeat: with each instance of the theme, the artist adds more extra (casual, fitting) ornaments. And in the C part (Musette), Lucile Boulanger uses diminution, performing the upper voice in semiquavers, which makes it even more sound like a hurdy-gurdy—very nice!

A final glimpse onto the “competitive” viola da gamba interpretations:

  • Paolo Pandolfo is not far from Lucile Boulanger’s interpretation of the first Gavotte. His sonority is a little more austere, though. A major difference happens in Gavotte II, where Pandolfo takes back tempo and volume (pp), retracting into total intimacy. In addition, he uses jeu inégal on the quavers almost throughout (except for the Musette). And he alters the structure, doing the second repeat in two parts, which yields AA-BABA-CACA.
  • Myriam Rignol: the lower C major key, as well as the darker sonority make the Gavottes assume quite a different character. The structure of the second Gavotte is again different: AA-BAACAA, i.e., there is no overall repeat in the second part, but each instance of the theme is repeated. An argument for this solution is that the Musette (C part) consists of two (almost) identical parts in itself.

VI. Gigue After Abel‘s Allegro in A major, AbelWV A33 (WKO 212)

As one could already see from her replacing the Prélude and selecting an alternate Courante, presenting an interpretation of Bach’s very challenging D major Suite was not Lucile Boulanger’s primary goal. So, in lieu of one of Bach’s Gigues, she rather chose Carl Friedrich Abel’s lovely, playful Allegro in A major, AbelWV A33 (WKO 212). The booklet refers to a “Gigue after …”; in the absence of the manuscript, I cannot judge whether apart from the transposition to D major the artist made additional adaptations. In any case, the result (a Rondo with three episodes / couplets) is fitting and beautiful, even though the movement is easily recognizable as “not Bach”, I think.

Abel, 3 Solos in D minor

In Abel’s work catalogs, the three D minor solos below appear to fall into one and the same group (WKO 205 – 209, AbelWV A26 – A30) as the D minor solos in the second part. So, shouldn’t they be played together? Not necessarily. These catalogs (and even the associated manuscript collections) are simply ordered by key, not chronologically. The proper chronology of Abel’s solos may not even be known.

Adagio, AbelWV A30 (WKO 209)

A movement that starts as a solemn, intense lament, often richly ornamented. This evolves into an artful, multifaceted piece, alternating between recitatives / reflective monologs, arioso, at times also dialogues between different characters. Changes in mood an atmosphere create the impression of a rich, elaborate narration. A masterpiece!

(Andante), AbelWV A27 (WKO 206)

Another artful piece, very atmospheric and reflective: a duet, really—mostly in two parts / double-stop playing, performed with exceptional intonation purity and clarity: beautiful—a little gem, really.

Allegro, AbelWV A28 (WKO 207)

The most complex of these tree solos, alternating between reflective moments, playful segments, and highly virtuosic parts, featuring rapid figures and wide jumps, quasi-polyphony, and movements into the viol’s highest registers.

To me, the combination of these three Solos forms a conclusive, dramatic unit—even though their main connection is in the key: there is no obvious thematic connection.

Bach, “Solos in G minor” (arr. Lucile Boulanger)

Prelude in G minor for Lute, BWV 999

Given the similarities in the tuning between a lute and the viola da gamba, Lucile Boulanger’s transcription may seem like a logical choice. To exploit the sonorities of the bass viol, Lucile Boulanger transposed that prelude from C minor down to G minor. With this Bach’s lute piece translates into beautiful, full sonorities on the viola da gamba.

That said: as the lutenist’s right-hand fingers can easily alternate between all the strings (or touch multiple strings simultaneously), the transcription onto the viol poses substantial virtuosic challenges, such as frequent jumps between non-adjacent strings. However, in Lucile Boulanger’s interpretation, the listener is unaware of the piece’s high virtuosic demands. A masterpiece in a master’s hands / fingers!

Bourrée angloise for flute solo, BWV 1013

Bach’s fugue for lute, BWV 1000 is in G minor already, so may seem like a logical pairing to BWV 999 (and may appear in this sequence in lute recitals). However, BWV 1000 at the same time is Bach’s own transcription of a fugue for violin solo (from the Sonata No.2 in G minor, BWV 1003), and so, the artist decided to combine BWV 1000 with her arrangements of movements from Bach’s Sei Solo, BWV 1001 – 1006.

Instead, Lucile Boulanger chose to combine BWV 999 with the last movement, Bourrée angloise, from the Partita in A minor for flute (traverso) solo, BWV 1013, which she transposed to G minor. The fact that the traverso is not a polyphonic instrument does not imply that the arrangement for the viol it is easy to play. Yes, there are no double-stop passages—but the piece is full of wide jumps. Yet, Lucile Boulanger makes this sound like a genuine piece for her instrument.

With this, the artist selection includes examples from all of Bach’s genres for non-keyboard solo instruments (and there is even a transcription of a prelude for harpsichord!).

Abel, 2 Solos in D minor

(Arpeggio), AbelWV A26 (WKO 205)

In analogy to the first CD “La Chair“, the second CD, “L’Esprit” also starts with an arpeggiando movement. Its atmosphere, however, is quite different. This one is by Abel and in a minor key, hence more earnest in character, and often even dramatic (as opposed to the almost dreamy Preludio BWV 846). Beautiful and interesting, nevertheless.

(Moderato), AbelWV A29 (WKO 208)

This is Abel’s longest Solo in this recording (together with the Allegro, AbelWV A28 / WKO 207). Among the five Solos in D minor, this is the one that most clearly retains the character of an improvisation: rich, multi-faceted, and evolving though various moods, with moments of reflection, recitative-like segments, as well as virtuosic and cadenza-like passages. Much more than entertainment music, for sure!

Abel, 5 Solos in D major

Among Carl Friedrich Abel’s Solos for viola da gamba, compositions in D major make up for the biggest segment: 21 out of 33 Solos. These are followed by the 5 Solos in D minor AbelWV A26 – A30 (WKO 205 – 209), all of which are included in this recording. The selected Solos in D major are all between 2.5 and 4 minutes. A high-spirited and very entertaining selection: “L’Esprit“!

Allegro, AbelWV A5 (WKO 186)

As much as the D minor Solo WKO 208 is an improvisation, this is clearly “properly” composed—a piece in AABB form, lively, virtuosic—and truly beautiful: a joy to listen to!

Fuga, AbelWV A16 (WKO 196)

A proper, 4-part fugue—though not as academic as one might suspect. It sure must present its share of technical challenges to the artist. Nevertheless, the piece retains a serene, bright, even joyful, atmosphere throughout: another little gem!

(Adagio), AbelWV A6 (WKO 187)

Couldn’t this just as well be an Adagio in a sonata by Bach? Although different in texture (but also in AABB form), it feels like a sister composition to the Sarabande from the Cello Suite No.6 in D major, BWV 1012. To me, at least, it approaches the level of Bach’s masterpiece: a movement of otherworldly beauty!

Minuet, AbelWV A21 (WKO 200)

A very nice, peaceful Rondo with a catchy, melodious theme like a folk song—though varied in every instance, so it does not turn into an earworm. The two episodes (the second on in a minor key) offer gentle contrasts.

Vivace, AbelWV A9 (WKO 190)

Playful, ornamented, full of actual and hidden polyphony, often very virtuosic, and highly original: Lucile Boulanger ends the “Abel section” with a marvel, a true highlight. Needless to say that her playing is flawless!

Bach, “Sonata in A minor” (arr. Lucile Boulanger)

In the last segment, Lucile Boulanger returns to Bach. This time, however, she transcribed a selection of works for violin, from Bach’s Sei Solo, BWV 1001 – 1006, which to this day are the pinnacle of works for the solo violin. Her selection follows the scheme of a solo sonata with four movements (slow — fugue — slow — fast). The artist combines arrangements of two movements from the Sonata No.2 for Solo Violin in A minor, BWV 1003 and two from Sonata No.1 for Solo Violin in G minor, BWV 1001 (transposed to A minor):

Grave for keyboard (BWV 964) or violin (BWV 1003)

Lucile Boulanger decided not to arrange the first movement from BWV 1003 directly. Rather, she turned towards the equivalent movement from the keyboard sonata in D minor, BWV 964, allegedly (authenticity contested) Bach’s own arrangement of BWV 1003, which she transposed back to A minor. BWV 964 adds a left-hand accompaniment (basso continuo) to the (slightly simplified) violin part. In her adaptation, the artist used just elements from BWV 964 (extra chords / harmonization) in her arrangement of the original text from BWV 1003.

The result sounds mostly like the violin sonata BWV 1003. The ingredients from BWV 964 are subtle / inconspicuous, and Bach’s masterpiece truly sounds as if it was written for the viola da gamba, leaving the listener unaware of the original violin designation: stunning!

Fuga for lute (BWV 1000) or violin (BWV 1001)

Bach’s fugues for solo violin are masterpieces, especially given the limitations of the violin in performing polyphony. Nevertheless, Lucile Boulanger mostly resorted to Bach’s own transcription of the fugue in G minor from BWV 1001 onto the lute (BWV 1000). Bach’s transcription makes adaptations to adopt the specific disposition (tuning in fourths and thirds) of the lute, especially in the chords. Even though the viola da gamba requires further adaptations (considering the use of a bow as opposed to multi-finger plucking), with the similarities between the tuning of a lute and that of her instrument it makes sense to stay close(r) to Bach’s lute arrangement.

The result: huge! Lucile Boulanger stated herself that transferring Bach’s text onto the viol was a tricky, challenging task. And performing the arrangement is an enormous, towering challenge for any musician. Consequently, one cannot expect this to sound easy or effortless: the technical intricacy is tangible. However, it is mastered with technical and musical excellence. Of course, Bach meant to present a complex masterpiece, at the very limit of what the violin can achieve—and that’s what it is, also on the viola da gamba.

Siciliana for violin, BWV 1001

As much as the fugues in Bach’s Sonatas for Solo Violin are pinnacles in technical demand and complexity on the violin, the slow movement in these compositions (certainly also with their share of technical challenges) are among the most beautiful of Bach’s slow movements, not just for the violin.

Lucile Boulanger’s arrangement for the viola da gamba required only few and minor adaptations to the text. In my opinion, the performance on a viola da gamba (in C major, rather than the original B♭ major) even enhances the movement’s beauty. Here, the pitch is closer to that of a human voice, offering warm, full, and rounded sonority. And with the viol’s intimacy and extra colors, the music speaks (more) directly to the listener’s soul: touching and heart-warming!

Allegro for violin, BWV 1003

The closing Allegro in A minor from BWV 1003 isn’t so much of a technical / polyphonic challenge, but rather (possibly) a demonstration of agility—in the left hand, as well as with the bow, and in articulation. Some violinists take Bach’s Allegro movements as a sporty challenge. Sure, the violin offers lightness in articulation and tone—but tempo and endurance aren’t the ultimate goal.

In her interpretation on the viola da gamba, Lucile Boulanger rather adjusts to the intimate nature of her instrument. She combines lightness and agility in the articulation with virtuosity in large jumps, yet retains an extraordinary richness in Klangrede, i.e., in phrasing and agogics. In Bach’s time, such type of virtuosity may have been unknown for the viola da gamba. I actually prefer this interpretation over typical performances on the violin.

Competition from Cello or Viola?

I could not resist having a look not just at Bach’s original works for solo violin, but specifically at two interpretations that transfer these violin works onto different instruments of the violin family:

I don’t want to create a “sidetrack comparison” here. Both these recordings move the violin scores into a different register. However, otherwise (with very minor adaptations), they remain faithful to Bach’s score. Albeit in a different pitch / key, and offering extra colors, these interpretations imitate the violin. Hence, they don’t make efforts to make the compositions sound as if they were originally written for these instruments. Very interesting approaches, for sure, but not comparable to Lucile Boulanger’s “transmutations” into works for the viola da gamba.


As for the compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach: some may criticize that Lucile Boulanger does not present complete works (suites, sonatas). She creates new “entities” by collecting movements from various compositions. However, that was not the goal, the intent with this recording. Rather, the artist wanted to show what the viola da gamba is capable of, using movements of works that Bach (regrettably) did not intend for her instrument. And in this, her recording can be regarded a full success.

The viol community by now is fully aware of Carl Friedrich Abel’s as a composer. Yet, his solo works for viola da gamba are mostly still unpublished, and for general audiences, this largely is unknown territory. Abel’s Solos may not be quite at the level of complexity of the works by Bach in this recording. Still, Lucile Boulanger selected 11 Solos that are representative. They can very well exist next to Bach’s masterworks. And they offer interesting discoveries, insights and experiences to listeners who are not (yet) insiders to music for the bass viol.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this recording, from beginning to end!

Media Information

Lucile Boulanger, "Solo Bach-Abel" (CD cover)

Solo Bach — Abel

Lucile Boulanger, viola da gamba

Alpha Classics / Outhere Music France
Alpha 783 (2 CDs, stereo, ℗ / © 2021)
Booklet: 19pp., fr/en/de

Lucile Boulanger, "Solo Bach-Abel" (CD, EAN-13 barcode)
amazon media link

Track Listing (as per booklet):

The track and CD durations are taken from Apple Music (after ripping / importing the disc). Relative to the booklet information, there are a few rounding differences, and one error in the booklet (duration of WKO 207) is corrected:

CD #1, “La Chair” (The Flesh)

  • Bach, “Suite in D major” (arr. Lucile Boulanger):
    • I. Preludio for keyboard, BWV 846/846a [1’45”]
    • II. Allemande for cello, BWV 1012 [8’38”]
    • III. Courante for cello, BWV 1009 [4’00”]
    • IV. Sarabande for cello, BWV 1012 [5’23”]
    • V. Gavottes for cello, BWV 1012 [4’05”]
    • VI. Gigue after Abel‘s Allegro in A major, AbelWV A33 (WKO 212) [2’09”]
  • Abel, Solos in D minor:
    • Adagio, AbelWV A30 (WKO 209) [4’19”]
    • (Andante), AbelWV A27 (WKO 206) [2’06”]
    • Allegro, AbelWV A28 (WKO 207) [5’26”]
  • Bach, “Solos in G minor” (arr. Lucile Boulanger):
    • Prelude for Lute, BWV 999 [1’49”]
    • Bourrée angloise for flute solo, BWV 1013 [3’13”]

Duration CD #1: 42.54″

CD #2, “L’Esprit” (The Spirit)

  • Abel, Solos in D minor:
    • (Arpeggio), AbelWV A26 (WKO 205) [2’35”]
    • (Moderato), AbelWV A29 (WKO 208) [5’47”]
  • Abel, Solos in D major:
    • Allegro, AbelWV A5 (WKO 186) [3’29”]
    • Fuga, AbelWV A16 (WKO 196) [2’32”]
    • (Adagio), AbelWV A6 (WKO 187) [3’58”]
    • Minuet, AbelWV A21 (WKO 200) [3’02”]
    • Vivace, AbelWV A9 (WKO 190) [3’59”]
  • Bach, “Sonata in A minor” (arr. Lucile Boulanger):
    • Grave for keyboard (BWV 964) or violin (BWV 1003) [5’22”]
    • Fuga for lute (BWV 1000) or violin (BWV 1001) [6’41”]
    • Siciliana for violin, BWV 1001 [3’28”]
    • Allegro for violin, BWV 1003 [6’52”]

Duration CD #2: 47’46” — Overall duration: 90’40”


Knape, W. (1972). Bibliographisch-thematisches Verzeichnis der Kompositionen von Karl Friedrich Abel (1723–1787). Cuxhaven (self-published), DNB 730471519. https://d-nb.info/730471519

Schmieder, W. (1990). Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke von Johann Sebastian Bach : Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV). Breitkopf & Härtel.

von Zadow, G. (2023). Catalogue of Works of Carl Friedrich Abel (AbelWV). Ortus Musikverlag, Beeskow. http://www.ortus-musikverlag.de/en/home/om322

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