The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 also including
Toccata in F-sharp minor, BWV 910 & Musical Offering: The two ricercres,
Sonatas for Viola da Gamba, BWV 1027-28-29-30a
Luolajan-Mikkola, viola da gamba / Miklós Spányi, tangent piano
BIS CD 1061
Do Bach's Goldberg Variations need any introduction? The result of
a 1741 commission, the work comprises an aria and 30 variations and is one
of Bach's great keyboard works, one of the great masterpieces of instrumental
music. Some variations require great virtuosity, while others may be more
easily negotiated technically, but demand especial sensitivity.
There is no doubt that Andrew Ragnell can get his fingers around the notes.
Beyond that I have three real problems with this CD, a re-release of a 1989
recording made at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, New York. The first
is that the acoustic is too warm and reverberant, taking the pristine edge
away from Bach's detached elegance. The second is the choice of instrument,
an 'American Steinway Model D concert grand'. The instrument sounds too me
at least, too big, too romantic. I'm put more in mind of a romantic
19th century vision of JS than the Bach we know today. The effect
is more akin to Liszt working his magic upon the Baroque. Finally, the sound
takes over from the music, the fast response of the Steinway seeming to encourage
Andrew Ragnell to get through the quicker passages at a rather undignified
gallop. The result is a recording for which I can find little enthusiasm.
All this is in marked contrast to the four viola da gamba sontantas recorded
by Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, with Miklós Spányi on tangent-piano.
Starting his musical life as a cellist at the Sibelius Acadmy, Baroque music
led Markku Luolajan-Mikkola to the viola da gamba, as a founder of the Phantasm
viol quartet winning a 1997 Gramophone award for Best Baroque Instrumental
Recording for Henry Purcell Complete Fantasies for Viols. Miklós
Spányi meanwhile has won first prize at the Nantes (1984) and Paris
(1987) international harpsichord competitions and given recitals throughout
Europe on various keyboard instruments - organ, harpsichord, clavichord and
fortepiano. It would seem obvious to record this programme with harpsichord,
except a document contemporary to Bach's time records that the composer 'played
the clavichord, the harpsichord and cymbal with equal creativity', the 'cymbal'
being a giant dulcimer developed by Pantaleon Hebenstreit, the instrument
from which the tangent-piano is descended. Hence the booklet makes a persuasive
case that use of the tangent-piano is at least as authentic (given that we
do not always know which pieces Bach played on which instruments) as the
harpsichord. Spányi himself considers the tangent-piano, midway between
harpsichord and modern piano, blends ideally with the viola da gamba. He
is right too, the resultant sound is very pleasing and above all appropriate
to the refinements of the music.
Though consecutively numbered, the works here were not written as a set.
Indeed, at least two of the four sonatas were derived by Bach from previous
works, BWV 1027 being a transcription of BWV 1039 for two flutes
and continuo, BWV 1030a reworking a B minor violin piece into G minor. This
recycling does not detract from the music, which simply can be enjoyed for
it's own sake. The sound is excellent and there is some wonderfully sensitive
and accomplished interplay between the two musicians. The sound of the
tangent-piano may at first take some getting used to, in that it is easy
to be fooled into thinking it is a harpsichord after all, suddenly to be
perplexed by something that sounds much more like a soft piano, then later,
by a sound midway between the two. It all adds up to an unusual but outstanding
Gary S. Dalkin
Viola da Gamba sontatas