Comparison: Gustav Leonhardt
and Sigiswald Kuijken (dhm, 1973)
Often Johann Sebastian
Bach is considered a rather conservative
composer. In some ways that may be true:
he preferred polyphony to the more easy-going
style which became fashionable in his
day and therefore was accused of writing
in a 'learned' style. But at the same
time Bach was able to break new ground,
as the six sonatas recorded here show.
Bach was one of the
very first composers in history who
wrote pieces in which the harpsichord
wasn't reduced to accompanying one or
more melody instruments. He accorded
the instrument a concertato role which
gave both instruments equal importance.
In these six sonatas Bach linked up
with the tradition of the trio-sonata.
Here the right hand of the harpsichord
plays the part which in the trio-sonata
was played by one of the melody instruments
- the violin plays the other. The left
hand is playing the bass part, without
These sonatas were
composed in Köthen, when Bach was
at the service of Prince Leopold von
Anhalt-Cöthen, and where he composed
some of his most famous instrumental
works. But later in his career he reworked
some of them. In particular the sixth
sonata has undergone several changes
over the years. It is thought that the
last revision took place around 1740.
This can be seen as an indication how
highly Bach valued these sonatas. In
fact, even his son Carl Philipp Emanuel
held them in high esteem. In 1774, he
wrote to Bach's first biographer, Johann
Nikolaus Forkel: "The six harpsichord
trios (...) are among the best works
of my late beloved father. They still
sound very good, and give me much pleasure,
although they are more than 50 years
old. They contain some adagios which
one can't make more melodious these
The fact that, whereas
no original manuscripts have survived,
no less than eight mostly complete copies
are extant, shows the wide admiration
enjoyed by these sonatas.
The oldest source is
a manuscript for the harpsichord and
violin parts. The harpsichord part was
copied by Bach's nephew Johann Heinrich
Bach in 1725. The folio jacket bears
the title 'Sei Suonate a Cembalo certato
è Violino Solo, col Basso per
Viola da Gamba accompagnato se piace'.
It will be nice when
the booklets of CD recordings mention
the instruments in the right order.
But here we find the usual order: '6
Sonate per Violino e Cembalo'.
It is perhaps going
too far to say that the harpsichord
is the dominating partner; the violin
certainly doesn't play a subservient
role. But more often than not the harpsichord
starts the proceedings. In many recordings
this is not reflected by the balance
between the instruments. It isn't here,
either. Whether this is the result of
an artistic choice of the interpreters
or a matter of recording technique is
hard to tell. But here the violin tends
to dominate and sometimes even overpowers
It has something to
do with the instruments. Christine Busch's
violin has a strong, penetrating sound,
whereas the harpsichord's sound is somewhat
muted, in particular in the descant.
But I am sorry to say
that in the end it really doesn't matter
that much. This is a very disappointing
interpretation. The performance is very
straightforward, without real differentiation
in phrasing, articulation and dynamics.
The same notes usually are played the
same way, as if they are all equally
important. It does sound very unnatural
if - like here - there is no difference
in length or strength between the notes
in a sequence of semiquavers (Sonata
I, adagio) or in a melisma of demisemiquavers,
as in the adagio of Sonata III.
There is also often
a lack of rhythmic pulse, for example
in the andante of the first sonata.
Here Leonhardt and Kuijken realise a
wonderful softly swaying rhythm.
And when the liner
notes refer to the 'sighing figures'
(Seufzer) in the first movement of the
first Sonata, one would expect to hear
them. But that isn't the case.
In general I felt the
tempi were slowish, but that is only
the case in some movements. On the whole
they are alright. But they seem rather
slow, because nothing happens which
catches the attention. The difference
between this new recording and the one
by Leonhardt and Kuijken is that between
a lecture and a story. The latter do
everything to make the audience listen
and they appeal to their imagination.
The fact that a recording
like this can't really compete with
one from 30 years ago does give some
food for thought ...
Johan van Veen