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JS Bach: 6 Sonatas for harpsichord and violin (BWV 1014 - 1019)

Kay Johannsen (harpsichord), Christine Busch (violin)

rec: March 11 - 13, 2002, Stuttgart, Schloss Solitude
Carus - 83.164 (2 CDs; 45'27"/53'28")

Often Johann Sebastian Bach is considered a rather conservative composer. In some ways that may be true: he preferred polyphony to the more easy-going style which became fashionable in his day and therefore was accused of writing in a 'learned' style. But at the same time Bach was able to break new ground, as the six sonatas recorded here show.
Bach was one of the very first composers in history who wrote pieces in which the harpsichord wasn't reduced to accompanying one or more melody instruments. He accorded the instrument a concertato role which gave both instruments equal importance. In these six sonatas Bach linked up with the tradition of the trio-sonata. Here the right hand of the harpsichord plays the part which in the trio-sonata was played by one of the melody instruments - the violin plays the other. The left hand is playing the bass part, without adding chords.

These sonatas were composed in Köthen, when Bach was at the service of Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Cöthen, and where he composed some of his most famous instrumental works. But later in his career he reworked some of them. In particular the sixth sonata has undergone several changes over the years. It is thought that the last revision took place around 1740. This can be seen as an indication how highly Bach valued these sonatas. In fact, even his son Carl Philipp Emanuel held them in high esteem. In 1774, he wrote to Bach's first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel: "The six harpsichord trios (...) are among the best works of my late beloved father. They still sound very good, and give me much pleasure, although they are more than 50 years old. They contain some adagios which one can't make more melodious these days".

The fact that, whereas no original manuscripts have survived, no less than eight mostly complete copies are extant, shows the wide admiration enjoyed by these sonatas.
The oldest source is a manuscript for the harpsichord and violin parts. The harpsichord part was copied by Bach's nephew Johann Heinrich Bach in 1725. The folio jacket bears the title Sei Suonate a Cembalo certato č Violino Solo, col Basso per Viola da Gamba accompagnato se piace. It would be nice when the booklets of CD recordings would mention the instruments in the right order. But here we find the wrong order, as usual: 6 Sonate per Violino e Cembalo.
It is perhaps going too far to say that the harpsichord is the dominating partner; the violin certainly doesn't play a subservient role. But more often than not the harpsichord starts the proceedings. In many recordings this is not reflected by the balance between the instruments. It isn't here, either. Whether this is the result of an artistic choice of the interpreters or a matter of recording technique is hard to tell. But here the violin tends to dominate and sometimes even overpowers the harpsichord.
It has something to do with the instruments. Christine Busch's violin has a strong, penetrating sound, whereas the harpsichord's sound is somewhat muted, in particular in the descant.

But I am sorry to say that in the end it really doesn't matter that much. This is a very disappointing interpretation. The performance is very straightforward, without real differentiation in phrasing, articulation and dynamics. The same notes usually are played the same way, as if they are all equally important. It does sound very unnatural if - like here - there is no difference in length or strength between the notes in a sequence of semiquavers (Sonata I, adagio) or in a melisma of demisemiquavers, as in the adagio of Sonata III.
There is also often a lack of rhythmic pulse, for example in the andante of the first sonata. Here Leonhardt and Kuijken (dhm GD 77170, 1973) realise a wonderful softly swaying rhythm.
And when the liner notes refer to the 'sighing figures' (Seufzer) in the first movement of the first Sonata, one would expect to hear them. But that isn't the case.

In general I felt the tempi were slowish, but that is only the case in some movements. On the whole they are alright. But they seem rather slow, because nothing happens which catches the attention. The difference between this new recording and the one by Leonhardt and Kuijken is that between a lecture and a story. The latter do everything to make the audience listen and they appeal to their imagination.

The fact that a recording like this can't really compete with one from 30 years ago does give some food for thought ...

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

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