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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Viola da gamba Sonata in C major, Wq.136, H.558 (1745-6) [23:01]
Viola da gamba Sonata in D major, Wq.137, H.559 (1745-46) [23:26]
Trio Sonata in G minor, for viola da gamba and keyboard, Wq.88, H.510 (1759) [17:58]*
Dimitry Kouzov (cello), Peter Laul (harpsichord, *piano)
rec. 26 May and 1 June 2007, State Capella Recording Studio, St. Petersburg, Russia
NAXOS 8.570740 [64:42]
Experience Classicsonline


To have Johann Sebastian Bach as your father and Georg Philipp Telemann as one of your godparents is, musically speaking, to begin life quite exceptionally well supplied with father figures. For musicologists of a Freudian persuasion his relationship with those ‘fathers’ is a fruitful field for speculation, bound up, they would have us believe, with his rejection of many aspects of his father’s musical language - notably the fascination with counterpoint - and his widely recognised importance as a key figure in the transitional period which links and separates the Baroque and the Classical. The clash between the old and the new, between the conservative elements in his music - which he never completely lost - and his impulse towards innovation constitute an important dimension in C.P.E. Bach’s achievement as a composer.

One obvious – if minor – area in which such a musical tug of war finds expression is in his writing for the viola da gamba. The first two of these pieces were written in 1745-46, while Bach was court harpsichordist at the Berlin court of Frederick the Great. Frederick’s court was relatively conservative in its tastes, which was one reason for Bach’s dissatisfaction there; from at least 1750 he was applying for positions elsewhere. By the 1740s the viola da gamba has passed the zenith of its popularity and fashionability. A few players – such as Carl Friedrich Abel – would continue to make careers on the instrument until late in the century, but they were exceptions to the larger pattern. Frederick was evidently still a lover of the instrument, because in 1741 he added Ludwig Christian Hesse (1716-1772) to the roster of his court musicians. The death - at least temporarily - of the viola da gamba is perhaps neatly symbolised in Hesse’s eventual fate. He was later appointed gamba teacher to Frederick’s successor, Friedrich William II, who then discovered that he much preferred the cello. It was presumably for Hesse that Bach wrote the three pieces heard on the present disc.

The Sonata in C major is a pleasant enough piece, though one wonders how fully Bach’s mind and heart were engaged in the exercise. There is an air of routine to a good deal of the writing. The D major sonata is a more individual, more inventive piece. The opening adagio is graceful and somewhat grave - but never ponderous - and invites the performer to improvise a closing cadenza. The central allegro is vigorous, even passionate, and makes considerable demands in the soloist’s technique, full as it is of jumps and arpeggios. The closing arioso is attractively melodic and richly expressive, with Bach’s writing making full use of both top and bottom of the instrument. The interesting G minor sonata has often been played on the viola and, as here, on the cello. And that, indeed, brings me to my one substantial reservation about the disc.

Dmitry Kouzov is a very impressive cellist and throughout he is very skilfully accompanied by Peter Laul. But – and it is a big but – the cello really isn’t the right instrument for this music. Or, more precisely, it cannot help but change the nature of the music. The weight of sound isn’t fully appropriate, the colours of the instrument are not those of the viola da gamba. We get, therefore, the structure of the works and, to a great extent, their lines, but we lose out on the textures and masses of the music. If this doesn’t trouble you then the recording can be recommended – these are good performances. But it isn’t, I think, mere ‘authentic’ pedantry to feel that the music simply sounds better, more ‘natural’, played on the instrument for which it was written. If you share that feeling then you will be better served by, say the recording of the same three sonatas by Paolo Pandolfo (viola da gamba) and Rinaldo Alessandrini (harpsichord), formerly on Tactus and now reissued by Brilliant Classics (93362).

Glyn Pursglove



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