The six sonatas for
harpsichord and violin are amongst the
most popular pieces of chamber music
by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is reflected
by the number of recordings of these
works. Recently no less than three new
recordings were released, one of which
by the famous Russian-born violinist
Viktoria Mullova and the Italian harpsichordist
Ottavio Dantone. It is not by coincidence
that I mention them in this order: this
is the hierarchy on the cover.
As these sonatas are
very well-known there is no need to
say 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. 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. Here the viola da gamba is
only used in two additional sonatas,
as the track-list shows.
The clear indication
of the title-page notwithstanding, it
is the violin which attracts most of
the attention here. The fact that the
violin tends to dominate more often
than not isn't just a matter of artistic
decision. It is also a result of the
recording technique. I am disappointed
by the recorded sound, which is much
too distant. I miss the intimacy that
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 a far too long reverberation.
There is another factor
here. I wonder whether Mullova is playing
a real baroque violin. According to
the booklet she uses a Guadagnini from
1750. But its sound is quite different
from other baroque violins I have heard
on disc, among them those on two other
recent recordings of the same repertoire.
I suspect it has been re-engineered
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
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 disappointing.
In most movements there
is too little differentiation between
the notes and too much legato. 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
BWV 525 – whereas they are very rare
elsewhere. This is just one example
of the lack of consistency in this interpretation.
Another issue with
these performances is the fluctuation
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 should not be applied
at random. Yet 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 lacks measures. Towards
the end it almost comes to a standstill.
The 'adagio' of BWV 1014 begins in a
tempo which is too fast for an adagio
but then the tempo slows down. The reasoning
behind it escapes me, and instead of
increasing the tension it is plain annoying
and way over the top. 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
does not 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
elsewhere and certainly more than is
justified by the needs of ornamentation.
There is very little
in this recording which makes it recommendable.
The Trio Sonata in C - 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 BWV 1021 is one of the most satisfying
items in this set.
But this is just not
enough. This interpretation adds nothing
useful to the catalogue.
Johan van Veen