> BACH Sonatas for viola da Gamba [Km]: Classical Reviews- June 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord
Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Sonata in G major, BWV 1027 [13.24]
Prelude and Fugue in G major, BWV 860 [4.19]
Sonata in D major, BWV 1028 [14.28]
Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 850 [3.55]
Sonata in G minor, BWV 1029 [15.03]
Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BWV 861 [4.03]
Alison Crum, viola da gamba; Laurence Cummings, harpsichord
Rec: November 1999.
SIGNUM SIGCD024 [55.12]

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While I am an unconditional Bach-lover, I have always felt that the sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord were minor works. Having heard several different recordings, both with the gamba and cello, they never really convinced me of their value. I had come to the conclusion that they were indeed uninteresting, and left it at that. Until I heard this recording.

From the very first notes, I knew there was something different, and I can honestly say that this extraordinary recording has totally changed my point of view of these works.

Essentially simple pieces, with the viol playing one voice and the harpsichord playing two voices (in the first two sonatas, composed like trio sonatas), these three pieces do not stand because of any special form or structure. Written over a period of time, and not destined to be a set like the solo cello suites or violin sonatas and partitas, these are unimposing works. The first two sonatas each contain four movements, in the slow-fast-slow-fast form, and the third sonata contains only three movements (fast-slow-fast). The third sonata, less of a trio sonata than a Vivaldian concerto, has a different tone, more virtuoso than the first two, especially in the harpsichord part.

But what sets this performance apart from others? First of all, the two musicians are both excellent on their own, and even better together. They perform these works with such energy and emotion that one is surprised, especially when comparing them to other recordings, such as those by Jordi Savall and Ton Koopman or Anner Bylsma and Bob van Asperen. But, also, the sound of this recording stands out so that it almost shines a totally new light on the work. Most recordings of these sonatas feature the harpsichord in a very subservient role - the gamba dominates, and the harpsichord goes about its business in the background. Here, the harpsichord and gamba are both on the same plane - after all, in the first two sonatas, which are really trio sonatas, the harpsichord is playing two-thirds of the music. This is a very gutsy choice, on the part of the performers and/or the producer; yet it is entirely judicious.

This is not without a down-side - listening on speakers, the harpsichord seems to drown out the gamba in some passages. However, this is not the case with headphones, where the gamba is spatially located more to the left and the harpsichord more to the right. (I would recommend adjusting the balance slightly with speakers.)

The instruments also sound fresh and alive: the gamba is a beautifully rich instrument, which, as Alison Crum's comments point out, has a very focused sound. As for the harpsichord, it is strung entirely with brass, which gives it a huge, yet precise sound that is not heard often.

A brief note about this disc's "filler". Since the gamba sonatas are not very long, most recent recordings feature additional music. This recording includes three preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, in the three keys of the sonatas. While Laurence Cummings plays these extraordinarily well (I sincerely hope he records the entire set!), I find these a bit of a distraction on the disc. One can always program around them, so it is not a major problem.

This is perhaps the best recording available of Bach's Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord. Beautiful performances by both musicians, instruments that sound fresh and alive, and an excellent recording make this an essential disc for any Bach lover.

Kirk McElhearn

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