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"Bach & his pupils (Bach & seine Schüler)": Sonatas for keyboard and violin

Christine Schornsheim, harpsichorda, fortepianob; Ulla Bundies, violin

rec: Jan 3 - 6 & July 16 - 19, 2002
Querstand - VKJK 0211 (55'16")

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 - 1788): Sonata in b minor (Wq 76 / H 512)b; Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750): Sonata no 1 in b minor (BWV 1014)a; Sonata no 2 in A (BWV 1015)b; Johann Philipp Kirnberger (1721 - 1783): Sonata in Ea

Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the first composers to give the harpsichord a concertato role in his chamber music. Others followed in his footsteps. This recording is the first in a series of three which will contain the six sonatas for harpsichord and violin by Bach. In addition sonatas are performed which follow his example. On this first disc in the series the first two of Johann Sebastian’s six sonatas are combined with a sonata by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and one by his pupil Johann Philipp Kirnberger.

The result is very interesting, in that it shows the differences and similarities between them. Whereas in Johann Sebastian Bach's sonatas the musical material of keyboard and violin is closely connected, with a lot of imitation and forms like canon and fugue, Carl Philipp Emanuel gives them more independence. One of the most striking examples is the first movement (adagio) of the Sonata in b minor. Both instruments express their own ideas, but gradually the violin takes over those of the keyboard. Another feature of this sonata is the fact that there are more and longer passages where the keyboard is playing alone, in comparison with Johann Sebastian's sonatas, where those passages don't take more than a couple of bars.

Johann Philipp Kirnberger was a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach between 1739 and 1741. He acted as a violinist at the court in Berlin from 1751 - 1754 and from 1758 until his death he was curator of the music library of Princess Anna Amalia. Kirnberger was a vehement defender and propagandist of Bach's music and style. In the liner notes Peter Wollny writes: "Kirnberger saw the discovery of the secrets of Bach's genius as his life's prime purpose and vocation."
His sonata in E links up quite strongly with the sonatas of his teacher. The first two movements do sound a lot like those of the old Bach. But it is also a sonata with two faces: the next two movements (polonaise and menuet) are much more light-weight, typically galant pieces.

I have mixed feelings in regard to the interpretation by Christine Schornsheim and Ulla Bundies. Two keyboard instruments are used: a harpsichord by Christoph Kern, "copy based on an instrument by Michael Mietke", as the booklet says. But that is not quite the same as what the original German text says: "free after an instrument of". This means it is not really a copy, but an instrument 'in the style of'. That is a choice one may support or reject, but one shouldn’t call a copy what in fact isn't a real copy. The harpsichord is not, as one would expect, used in both sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, but only in his Sonata in b minor and in the sonata by Kirnberger.
The other instrument is a fortepiano, a copy of an instrument which was built in 1749 by Gottfried Silbermann. This is the right instrument for the sonata by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach which dates from 1763. But to perform Johann Sebastian's Sonata in A on this fortepiano is historically unjustifiable, since Bach's sonatas date from the 1720's.

This is not just a matter of what is 'historically right'. The actual performance is unsatisfying. On this disc the balance between the instruments is very good - with the exception of this sonata. Here the violin dominates, since the descant of the fortepiano is not as penetrating as that of the harpsichord. In the third movement the score asks for 'staccato sempre' in the left hand. On the fortepiano this makes much less sense, because its sounds ring through longer than that of the harpsichord.

There is certainly a lot to enjoy in this recording. The second movement of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's sonata is a typical example of the Empfindsamkeit, and its character is realised very well here. And the sonata by Kirnberger is given a fine performance. The rhythm of the polonaise is nicely accentuated.
On the other hand, there is too little variety in the treatment of the notes. A less straightforward approach would have made this performance more interesting. In the first movement of Carl Philipp Emanuel's sonata the playing of Christine Schornsheim is so mechanical that it made me think of a rattling alarm. The tempo here is too fast considering the indication of 'allegro moderato'.

This is not a boring recording in any way, but it could have been much better with a less straightforward approach and a less arbitrary choice of keyboard instruments.

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

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