Bach's sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba - to mention
the instruments in the right order - were not the last pieces
ever composed for the viola da gamba. They were however written
at a time when the instrument was beginning to be relegated to
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 used the viola da gamba in a number of pieces, including vocal
works, such as the Passions. It is mostly used for moments of
deep expression, as in the famous 'Actus tragicus' (BWV 106).
We do not know when the three sonatas were written, but what
seems clear is that they are arrangements of sonatas for a different
As there are only three sonatas the artists and the record company
have to think about what to use as fillers. Not many companies
dare to produce a disc which lasts less than 38 minutes although
the recording by Michael Behringer and Hille Perl in the Hänssler
Bach Edition is an exception. One of the solutions is to play
very slowly. I am sure that was not the reasoning behind the
choice of tempi in these performances, 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)
at a little under 48 minutes. Most astonishing in this respect
is the andante of the Sonata in D, which takes more than six
minutes and is without doubt the slowest performance I have
ever heard. As a result this movement just drags and can easily
lull one 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, the entrance of the viola da gamba is rather massive, almost
overpowering the harpsichord. But in Bach's 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
As slow as the tempi are there was still room for additional music.
It results in a programme with a playing time of almost 76 minutes,
which is excellent. Four pieces have been added. The two Trios
(BWV 583 and 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 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 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.
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 hard to swallow. The additional pieces are
just not enough to win a recommendation for this disc.
Johan van Veen
see also Review
by John Sheppard