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

[I] "Sei Suonate a violino solo & cembalo concertato"a
Benjamin Alard, harpsichord; François Fernandez, violin
rec: Feb 8 - 11, 2009, Beaufays, Église Saint-Jean l'évangeliste
Flora - 1909 (2 CDs) (1.49'55")
No liner-notes
Cover & track-list

[II] "Sonaten für Violine und Cembalo"b
Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord; Florian Deuter, violin; Balász Máté, cellod
rec: Sept 2008, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
Eloquentia - EL 1131 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (1.47'45")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

[III] "6 Sonatas for harpsichord and violin BWV 1014-1019"c
Ton Koopman, harpsichord; Catherine Manson, violin
rec: May & Dec 2011, Amsterdam, Waalse Kerk
Challenge Classics - CC72560 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (1.39'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list


Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 1 in b minor (BWV 1014)abc; Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 2 in A (BWV 1015)abc; Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 3 in E (BWV 1016)abc; Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 4 in c minor (BWV 1017)abc; Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 5 in f minor (BWV 1018)abc; Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 6 in G (BWV 1019)abc; Sonata for harpsichord and violin No. 6 in G (BWV 1019a) (cantabile; adagio)c; Sonata for violin and bc in G (BWV 1021)abd; Sonata for violin and bc in e minor (BWV 1023)bd

There are quite a number of recordings of the six sonatas for harpsichord and violin by Bach on the market. Even if we confine ourselves to recordings with period instruments there are many to choose from. Apart from the interpretation one prefers - and that is partly a matter of taste - there is at least one issue which sets them apart from each other: the balance between the harpsichord and the violin. It is the harpsichord which is mentioned first in the title, and it leads the proceedings. At the same time, these sonatas are polyphonic in character, and the three voices - the two hands at the harpsichord and the violin - are treated on equal footing. If we listen to the three recordings which are the subject of this review they are quite different in this respect.

Benjamin Alard and François Fernandez got it just right: the harpsichord has a strong presence, but the violin is also clearly audible. The two instruments blend wonderfully well, and the ensemble is impeccable. Alard delivers marked impulses which results in an excellent exposition of the rhythmic pulse. Some may find it hard to keep their feet still while listening.

These two artists have opted for generally moderate tempi. In the slow movements they have found largely the right tempo, but I find the fast movements a bit too slow. As a result the contrasts between the slow and the fast movements are less marked than in other recordings. I would have liked a stronger differentation between good and bad notes, and the dynamic accents in the violin are a shade too modest. However, Fernandez produces a very beautiful tone, and his dynamic shading on longer notes is perfect. This recording is simply beautiful, although the dramatic character of these sonatas is a bit underexposed.

The recording by Florian Deuter and Philippe Grisvard is very different. I mention the two artists in the 'wrong' order, and that is on purpose. It reflects the way the roles are distrubuted: the violin is the dominant part, and the harpsichord is reduced to a subservient role. That has detrimental consequences. The rhythmic pulse which is so clearly conveyed in the performance by Alard and Fernandez is seriously underexposed here. It is true that Grisvard doesn't provide any impulses, but even if he was they wouldn't matter much as the harpsichord remains in the background. There are various (slow) movements where the violin part is rather introverted and quiet; there the performance is dull, because the harpsichord doesn't do anything notable.

The tempi are faster than in Alard/Fernandez; in the faster movements these are preferable. Some slow movements are too fast, for instance the largo from BWV 1017. Unfortunately there Deuter's tone is sometimes a bit abrasive and snappy; in general I don't like his tone very much, which is often rather cold and undifferentiated. His articulation lacks consistency; in some movements it is more clear than in others where he plays too much legato. In some movements he differentiates between stressed and unstressed notes, elsewhere there is too little contrast. I know Florian Deuter from outstanding recordings with his ensemble Harmonie Universelle. Therefore I am all the more disappointed by his recording of Bach's sonatas, of which I had high expectations.

The artists have added two sonatas for violin and bc to their programme. Considering the balance between the instruments these come off better. The Sonata in e minor (BWV 1023) is especially well done, and its virtuosic character is not lost on Deuter. Even so I find his tone not always pleasant; it tends to be a but too shrill. For that reason I prefer Fernandez/Alard in the Sonata in g minor (BWV 1021).

Ton Koopman and Catherine Manson are on the other side of the spectrum, as it were. Here the harpsichord is dominant - too dominant, as it overshadows the violin. That is not so much a matter of recording but rather of Ton Koopman doing far too much in his part. That is something we are used to: lots of ornaments, especially many trills, and some firm chords. Now and then he couples the manuals, for which I can't see any reason, and he also changes the manuals regularly. Ironically, despite Koopman's dominant role the rhythmic pulse is clearly under par. It is all too much fuss, taking the attention away from the violin.

Catherine Manson lets it happen, also because her own contributions are rather flat and colourless. There is little shading in the longer notes, and even in the busiest of violin parts she is restrained. The addition of a slight vibrato as an ornament on longer notes would have done her performance good. There is also too little differentiation between good and bad notes. There is hardly anything which makes a lasting impression. I find her playing rather dull, I'm afraid.

Neither of these recordings can really satisfy. As there are plenty of alternatives available there is no need to make a choice between these three. If I had to make a choice between these three I probably would go for Alard and Fernandez.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Florian Deuter
Philippe Grisvard
Ton Koopman

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