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

[A] Aapo Häkkinen, harpsichorda; Mikko Perkola, viola da gambab

rec: October 15 - 17, 2006, Siuntio (Finland), Olaus Petrin kirkko (St Peter's Church)
Naxos - 8.570210 (© 2007) (75'42")

[B] L'Armonia Sonora
rec: June 2007, Renswoude (Netherlands), Koepelkerk
Ramée - RAM 0801 (© 2007) (62'12")

Sonata for harpsichord and viola da gamba in G (BWV 1027)ab,cdeg; Sonata for harpsichord and viola da gamba in D (BWV 1028)ab,dg; Sonata for harpsichord and viola da gamba in g minor (BWV 1029)ab,def; [A] Sonata for harpsichord in D (BWV 963)a; Sonata for harpsichord in a minor (BWV 967)a; Trio for organ in d minor (BWV 583)ab; Trio for organ in g minor (BWV 584)ab; [B] Fantasia duobus subiectis for harpsichord in g minor (BWV 917)f; Sinfonia for harpsichord in D (BWV 789)g; Sinfonia in e minor, arr for organ and viola da gamba (after BWV 76)dg; Sonata for transverse flute, violin and bc in G (BWV 1038), arr for violin, viola da gamba and bccdeg

[B] François Fernandez, violinc; Mieneke van der Velden, viola da gamba [solo]d; Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda, viola da gamba [bc]e; Siebe Henstra, harpsichordf; Leo van Doeselaar, organg

Bach's sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba - to mention the instruments in the right order which is ignored on the tray of the Naxos recording - are not the last pieces ever composed for the viola da gamba, but they were written in a time when the instrument was beginning to be put into the sidelines. It was gradually overshadowed by the cello, although it would take some time before any music was written for the cello as a solo instrument.
Bach has used the viola da gamba in a number of works, including vocal works, like the Passions. It is mostly used for moments of deep expression, as in the famous Actus tragicus (BWV 106). When exactly the three sonatas were written is not quite sure, but what seems clear is that they are arrangements of sonatas for a different scoring.

There are plenty of recordings of these sonatas and it always confronts the artists and the record company with the question what to use as fillers. Not many companies dare to produce a disc which lasts less than 38 minutes (like the recording by Michael Behringer and Hille Perl in the Hänssler Bach Edition). One of the solutions is to play very slowly. I am sure that was not the reasoning behind the choice of tempi in the performances of Aapo Häkkinen and Mikko Perkola, but it certainly helps. And the tempi are generally very slow indeed. The three sonatas together take here more than 52 minutes. Admittedly, Behringer and Perl are pretty fast, but even performances in a more moderate tempo take less time, like Piet and Wieland Kuijken (Arcana): a little under 48 minutes. Most astonishing in this respect is the andante of the Sonata in D (BWV 1028), which takes more than 6 minutes and is without doubt the slowest performance I have ever heard. As a result this movement just drags on, and it easily can one lull to sleep. Most fast movements are slowish too, and in general the result is that the natural flow of the music is lacking and that too often all notes get the same weight. The rhythmic pulse is also underexposed in these performances.

In addition the balance between the two instruments is not satisfying. Right at the start, in the adagio which opens the Sonata in G (BWV 1027), the entrance of the viola da gamba is rather massive, almost overpowering the harpsichord. But at this moment in time in all sonatas for the combination of keyboard and melody instrument the former has the lead. The best example in Bach's oeuvre is the set of six Sonatas for harpsichord and violin (BWV 1014 - 1019). The sound of the viola da gamba is rather obtrusive anyway. In comparison the harpsichord sounds a bit thin, even though it is a fine instrument.

As slow as the tempi are there was still room for additional music. It results in a programme with a playing time almost 76 minutes, which is excellent. Four pieces have been added. The Trios in d minor (BWV 583) and g minor (BWV 584) (the latter generally being considered spurious) are just single movements from what could have been trio sonatas for organ, as they are stylistically close to the well-known six Trio Sonatas (BWV 525 - 530). Their structure makes it plausible to play them with an instrumental ensemble, and therefore a performance of these trio movements on harpsichord and viola da gamba is fully legitimate and musically convincing. The performances are generally better than those of the 'real' sonatas for this combination.

The other two pieces are for keyboard only and were written in the first decade of the 18th century. There is some similarity between the Suite in D (BWV 963) and the Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo (BWV 992). The suite ends with a fugue in which the call of the cuckoo is imitated. The tempi in these two pieces are a bit slow too, but it doesn't disturb me as much, which is also due to Aapo Häkkinen's playing which is well differentiated, with some nice ornamentation.

The keyboard parts in the sonatas for keyboard and viola da gamba are also played well, but as I indicated the strong sound of the viola da gamba often overshadows Aapo Häkkinen's contribution. It is just one of the features of this disc which have disappointed me. But in particular the slow tempi make these performances of Bach's sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba hard to swallow. The additional pieces are just not enough to really recommend this disc.

The performances by L'Armonia sonora can't be considered alternatives to those by Aapo Häkkinen and Mikko Perkola, as two of them are performed in a different scoring: only the Sonata in g minor (BWV 1029) is performed in its original scoring, with harpsichord and viola da gamba (although I think the bass part of the keyboard is supported by the second viola da gamba - unfortunately the booklet doesn't give any information as to who is playing in which piece). The Sonata in D (BWV 1028) is remaining most close to the original as the harpsichord part is performed on the organ. The Sonata in G (BWV 1027) is most moving away from the original scoring: the violin takes the upper part of the keyboard, and the organ plays the basso continuo. Apparently the fact that Bach used to adapt his own music to other instruments was the leading thought behind this project. One could also argue that there are enough recordings of the three sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba available as it is, and that there is no need to add another one to the catalogue. From this perspective one can only welcome these transcriptions, even though I had liked Siebe Henstra and Mieneke van der Velden to play the three sonatas in their original scoring, in particular after listening to Aapo Häkkinen and Mikko Perkola. The balance between the harpsichord and the viola da gamba in the Sonata in g minor (BWV 1029) is much better than in the Naxos recording, although the gamba is too dominant in the Sonata in D (BWV 1028) as the organ lacks the penetrating sound of the harpsichord in the upper voice. In all three sonatas the tempi are much more natural and in line with the character of the music than in the Naxos recording. The transcriptions are done well and played quite beautifully.
There are enough reasons for recommending this disc, which shows impressive musicianship and throws an interesting light on some of Bach's best-known works.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Aapo Häkkinen
Mieneke van der Velden

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