musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Sonatas for harpsichord and violin (BWV 1014 - 1019)

[A] Ottavio Dantone, harpsichord, organa; Viktoria Mullova, violin; Vittorio Ghielmi, viola da gambaa; Luca Pianca, lutea

rec: March 16 - 19, 2007, Bolzano, Alte Grieser Pfarrkirche
Onyx Classics - ONYX 4020 (2 CDs) (© 2007) (1.53'30")

[B] Frédérick Haas, harpsichord; Mira Glodeanu, violin
rec: September 10 - 2, 2006, Thiérache, Abbaye Saint-Michel
Ambronay Éditions - AMY009 (2 CDs) (© 2006) (1.34'30")

[C] Christophe Rousset, harpsichord; Stefano Montanari, violin
rec: February 2006, Villecroze, Académie musicale
Ambroisie - AM 109 (2 CDs) (© 2006) (1.35'40")

[D] Giorgio Tabacco, harpsichord; Francesco D'Orazio, violin
rec: June 26 - 28 & Nov 28 - 30, 2004, Mondovi, Oratorio di Santa Croce
Stradivarius - Str 11033 (© 2005) (1.49'25")

Sonata for harpsichord and violin in b minor (BWV 1014); Sonata for harpsichord and violin in A (BWV 1015); Sonata for harpsichord and violin in E (BWV 1016); Sonata for harpsichord and violin in c minor (BWV 1017); Sonata for harpsichord and violin in f minor (BWV 1018); Sonata for harpsichord and violin in G (BWV 1019); [A] Sonata for violin and bc in G (BWV 1021)a; Trio Sonata for violin and bc in C (after Trio Sonata for organ in C, BWV 529)a; [C,D] alternative movements for Sonata in G (BWV 1019a); [D] alternative movements for Sonata in G (BWV deest)

The six sonatas for harpsichord and violin belong to the most popular pieces of chamber music by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is reflected by the number of recordings of these works in the catalogue. Recently no less than four new recordings were released.

As these sonatas are very well-known there is no need to tell that much about them. What is important here is to refer to the title of the sonatas: Sei Suonate a Cembalo certato è Violino Solo, col Basso per Viola da Gamba accompagnato se piace. Although the violin doesn't play a subservient role, it is clear from this title that the harpsichord has the lead in the partnership of the two instruments. The suggestion to use a viola da gamba to support the bass part (played by the left hand on the harpsichord) is very seldom followed. In none of the four recordings reviewed here the viola da gamba is used in the six sonatas.

Often the problem with recordings of these sonatas is the balance between the harpsichord and the violin. In the recordings [A], [B] and [C] the violin is too dominant most of the time. The reasons for that are different, and it isn't always clear whether it is a matter of artistic choice or recording technique.

I make some comments on the various performances, starting with [A] and ending with [D].
In the recording by Ottavio Dantone and Viktoria Mullova the violin tends to dominate. This is partly caused by the recording technique: the recorded sound is unsatisfactory, as it is much too distant. I miss the intimacy repertoire like this requires. The fact that the recording has taken place in a church is partly responsible for this. In particular at the end of a movement one hears the too large reverberation.

But there is another factor here. I wonder whether Viktoria Mullova is playing a real baroque violin. According to the booklet she uses a Guadagnini from 1750. But it does sound quite different from other baroque violins I have heard on disc, among them those on two other recordings of the same repertoire released recently. I just suspect has been revised at some time to meet the demands of 19th century repertoire. Ms Mullova uses gut strings, but these don't turn a modernised violin into a baroque violin. In particular when Ottavio Dantone uses only one 8' register the harpsichord is no match for the violin.

Viktoria Mullova is a product of the Russian violin school, which concentrates on technical brilliance and the interpretation of romantic repertoire. After she defected to the West she discovered the historical performance practice. She has worked with prominent representatives of this approach, among them John Eliot Gardiner and Il Giardino Armonico, often with wonderful results. But I have to say that her interpretation of these sonatas is very disappointing.
The interpretation is very inconsistent. In most movements there is too little differentiation between the notes and too much legato playing. As a result the adagio of the Sonata in f minor (BWV 1018), for instance, where the violin part is dominated by double stopping, lacks contrast and is simply boring. I wonder why in some movements there are dynamic accents – like in the allegro of the same Sonata in f minor or the opening movement of the Trio Sonata in C (BWV 529) – whereas they are very rare elsewhere.

Another issue of this interpretation are the fluctuations in the tempi of several movements. I don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong with that, and it can be used to increase the tension of a piece, on the basis of a thorough knowledge of baroque rhetorics and 'affetti'. The performances and recordings of the ensemble Musica ad Rhenum, for instance, show that tempo fluctuations can be used to great effect. But it shouldn't be exaggerated and not be applied at random. At that seems to be the case here. The 'dolce' from the Sonata in A (BWV 1015) is the worst: the rhythm is hardly recognisable, and one would think the piece doesn't have measures. Towards the end it almost comes to a standstill. The 'adagio' of the Sonata in b minor (BWV 1014) begins in a tempo which is too fast for an adagio but then the tempo speeds up, only to slow down some time later. The reasoning behind it escapes me, and instead of increasing the tension it is plain annoying and way over the top. And there is certainly no reason to increase the speed – which is generally too slow anyway – in the middle movement (for harpsichord solo) of the Sonata in G (BWV 1019).
In some movements the partnership between Dantone and Mullova doesn't work very well. 'Playing apart together' seems to be a suitable description of how some movements sound. In the opening movement of the Sonata for violin and bc in G (BWV 1021) Mullova all of a sudden uses more vibrato than as a kind of ornamentation.

There is very little in this recording which makes it recommendable. The Trio Sonata in C (BWV 529) (originally written for organ solo) is played rather well, and so is the last movement of the Sonata in c minor (BWV 1017). Apart from the vibrato in the opening movement the Sonata in G (BWV 1021) is one of the most satisfying items in this set. But this is just not enough to recommend this set. I don't think this interpretation is adding anything useful to the catalogue.

Eccentricities as in this recording are not to be found in the interpretation by Frédérick Haas and Mira Glodeanu. But here the balance between the two instruments is wrong as well, as the violin is far too dominant, even though the frontispice is the only one which mentions the instrument in the right order (the artists are mentioned in the wrong order, by the way). One of the reasons is that Frédérick Haas uses an instrument with a rather sweet, but not very powerful sound. Problematic is also the acoustics: these sonatas should not be recorded in a church which has too much reverberation. The interpretation is impressive because of its sheer beauty and the mild atmosphere, which is partly due to the low pitch (a'=405 Hz). After a while this becomes a little boring, though. There are just too few sharp edges here, too few contrasts and too few dynamic shades.

The interpretation by Christophe Rousset and Stefano Montanari shows the same problems of balance, as the violin is often too dominant. Otherwise these performances are much better. One need not to worry about contrasts here, as they are well explored. Also the articulation is much better and the notes are treated with more differentation. The acoustics are just right: the intimacy this repertoire needs is well served by the venue where this recording has taken place.

The fourth recording is the oldest of the four, and probably the least well-known, but taking all things into consideration I have enjoyed that recording most. Here everything is right: the balance is as it should be, the articulation and differentiation between the notes shows a thorough understanding of the rhetorical character of these sonatas. The slow movements are played with great expression, and the fast movements with a lot of swing. The interpretation often reminded me of the recording by Gustav Leonhardt and Sigiswald Kuijken which I have often returned to after hearing another failed attempt to interpret these sonatas convincingly. In a way one could characterise this recording as 'old-fashioned', as it returns in a way to the first stages of the historical performance practice. In this case I consider that a positive feature as in many later recordings too many compromises with the traditional performance practice have crept in.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

CD Reviews