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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata for viola da gamba in G major, BWV 1027 [13:21]
Sonata for viola da gamba in D major, BWV 1028 [13:37]
Sonata for viola da gamba in G minor, BWV 1029 [13:15]
Johannes Koch (viola da gamba)
Gustav Leonhardt (harpsichord)
rec. 1961. ADD
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 82876 70045 2 [40:31]

First issued in the 1960s and not, I think, previously issued on CD, this was originally part of a pioneering series of early music recordings. Koch and – especially – Gustav Leonhardt are, of course, important performers of the early-music repertoire. For all that, listening afresh to these performances some forty-five years after they were recorded, is a somewhat disappointing experience.

The CD is issued complete with what are, I presume, the notes from its original issue on LP. These tell us that the three sonatas for viola da gamba were written between 1717 and 1723, while Bach was Kappelmeister at the court of Cöthen, and make much of this fact. However, more recent scholarship is largely agreed that they were written a good deal later, at the end of the 1730s or even in the early 1740s.

It would be fair to say that our tastes in the performance of Bach have changed a good deal in the years since these recordings were made. To take but a single example, we now expect rather more flexibility of rhythm; we are less simply convinced that this music has to be recorded with the viola da gamba accompanied by the harpsichord alone. Later recordings have included one with Markku Luolajan-Mikkola’s viola da gamba partnered by Miklos Spanyi’s tangent piano (on BIS) and Peter Wispelwey’s violoncello piccolo accompanied by Richard Eggar switching between harpsichord, organ and fortepiano and Daniel Yeadon playing baroque cello (Channel Classics). Ideas about the nature of continuo, in short, are not quite as they were.

BWV 1027 is in Sonata da chiesa form, an adaptation of BWV 1039 (a sonata for two flutes and continuo) with the harpsichord now given one of the two flute parts. The opening adagio is a dignified and expressive movement, and it has to be said that Koch and Leonhardt sound rather inhibited, as indeed they do in the following allegro ma non tanto, which should surely sound a good deal more exuberant than it does here. In some performances – such as that by Alison Crum and Laurence Cummings (on Signum), the music has a persuasive swagger which sounds very right. Things are rather flatter here, the playing having a rather relentless quality to it. The andante works better, its hypnotic quality conveyed successfully. The final allegro moderato isn’t quite as vivacious as it can be – as for example in the recording by Juan Manuel Quintana and Celine Frisch (on Harmonia Mundi); Leonhardt and Koch, by comparison, sound a little stiff and effortful.

It isn’t, I think, necessary to go through the other two sonatas making the same kind of comments. I am an admirer of Leonhardt, in particular (I love some of his later recordings of Bach), and I must stress that he and Koch are musicians of too high an order for these to be bad or uninteresting performances. But, it has to be said, they have been surpassed by some of those who have followed them – performers who have, of course, benefited from the work of performers such as these two pioneers.

The recording quality is quite good, but can’t, naturally, compete with that of some later recordings. The balance is generally good – something that is not always easy to achieve in these sonatas. But, even at mid-price, a playing time of (just) forty minutes isn’t really acceptable these days.

Glyn Pursglove

 



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