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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba (BWV 1027-1029)

Markus Hünninger, harpsichorda, organb; Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gamba; Michael Chance, altoc; Harry van der Kamp, bassd; François Joubert-Caillet, violonee

rec: May 2010, Bolland, Église Saint-Apollinaire
Glossa - GCD 920411 (© 2010) (59'44")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/S; lyrics - no translations
Cover & tracklist
Score (sonatas)

Sonata in G (BWV 1027)a; Sonata in D (BWV 1028)a; Sonata in g minor (BWV 1029)a; St John Passion (BWV 245): Es ist vollbracht, ariabce; St Matthew Passion (BWV 244): Ja freilich will in uns das Fleisch und Blut - Komm, süßes Kreuz, rec & ariabde

There is not exactly a lack of recordings of Bach's sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba. Bach didn't compose that much for an instrument which was becoming obsolete during the first half of the 18th century, and therefore gambists are keen to perform and record the three sonatas in which Bach offers the gambist an opportunity to shine. The Italian gambist Paolo Pandolfo has recorded them 15 years ago and decided it was time to record them again. I don't know his first recording, so I can't compare the two versions. But I doubt whether this new version is better than the previous.

To be honest I find very little in this interpretation which could make me recommend it. Pandolfo aims at integrating the two partners in these sonatas. That isn't easy because of their strongly different character, as he explains in his liner-notes. Instead of being a "musical argument" a performance should be a "musical conversation". But in my view this performance fails in this respect, probably partly due to the recording. I have listened through headphones, and the two channels (left the gamba and right the harpsichord) are too strongly separated. But it is mainly the playing of Paolo Pandolfo which puts me off.

He adds quite a lot of ornaments, in particular in the slow movements. That in itself is questionable, but it's not the main problem. Pandolfo's style of playing is often rough and even crusty; many notes are played forte and staccato. That is another reason why the sound of the gamba and that of the harpsichord don't integrate. In the middle section of the last movement of the Sonata in D (BWV 1028) the viola da gamba is reduced to playing supporting notes of accompaniment, and Pandolfo plays them pizzicato. That is not prescribed by Bach, and as a result they lose their effect. There are strong tempo fluctuations, something which can be effective if practiced sensibly, but here I can't make any sense of it. Unfortunately the rhythmic pulse is severely underexposed in the process. I also can't see any reason for including a short transition between the second and the third movement of the Sonata in g minor (BWV 1029).

The viola da gamba has traditionally often been associated with Passion and funeral music. It often appears in lamentos by German composers of the 17th century. Bach used it in his Actus tragicus (Cantata BWV 106) and the Trauerode (Cantata BWV 198). Therefore it doesn't surprise that the viola da gamba also appears in the two Passions which have come down to us. From the St Matthew Passion we hear the recitative 'Ja freilich will in uns das Fleisch und Blut' and the aria 'Komm, süßes Kreuz'. The performance fits in with that of this disc as it lacks the subtlety it requires. Pandolfo plays the gamba part too forcefully, almost overshadowing Harry van der Kamp. In the famous aria 'Es ist vollbracht' from the St John Passion his playing is more faithful to its character, but the arrangement of the middle section - 'Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht' - is utterly unconvincing and damages the contrast Bach intended.

I always try to find something to enjoy in a recording which I otherwise don't like. But I haven't found anything here.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Paolo Pandolfo

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