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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata BWV 1027 in G major:
(Adagio [3:46]; Allegro ma non tanto [3:28]; Andante [2:23]; Allegro moderato [2:56]
Sonata BWV 1028 in D major:
(Adagio [1:53]; Allegro [3:45]; Andante [4:05]; Allegro [3:54])
Sonata BWV 1029 in G minor:
(Vivace [5:22]; Adagio [5:11]; Allegro [3:30])
Sonata BWV 1019 in G major (transcription of the Sonata for violin and harpsichord): (Allegro [3:43]; Largo [1:38]; Cantabile [5:33]; Adagio [1:55]; Allegro [3:50])
Juan Manuel Quintana (viola da gamba), Celine Frisch (harpsichord)
rec. February 2000, Salle du Reitstadel, Neumarkt DDD
HARMONIA MUNDI HMA 1951712 [57:27]


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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata in G minor, BWV 1029 [14:29]
(Vivace [5:15]; Adagio [5:37]; Allegro [3:37])
Sonata in G major, BWV 1027: [13:02]
(Adagio [3:47]; Allegro ma non tanto [3:31]; Andante [2:42]; Allegro moderate [3:02])
Sonata in D major, BWV 1028 [13:35]
(Adagio [1:52]; Allegro [3:40]; Andante [4:08]; Allegro [3:55])
Sonata in G minor, BWV 1030b [17:56]
(Andante [8:28]; Siciliano [3:48]; Presto [5:40])
Jonathan Manson (viola da gamba), Trevor Pinnock (harpsichord)
rec. 11-15 September 2005, CREAR, Argyll, Scotland. DDD
AVIE AV2093 [59:21]

 

These Bach sonatas for viola da gamba are works of consummate mastery and beauty. They are also rather unusual, in that they are something of an amalgamation of styles and genres. You will find, for example, both complex counterpoint and more frivolous "gallant" features usually associated with dances – such as the binary form as used in the second movement of the second sonata.

At the time of composition, the viola da gamba - previously seen as a rather aristocratic and sometimes virtuosic instrument, had gone out of fashion a bit. It was viewed as slightly anachronistic, so Bach’s choice of instrument in itself was unusual. Another idiosyncratic feature is Bach’s use of the harpsichord in an obbligato role. There is a glorious and quite revolutionary bit in the last movement of the D major sonata when the harpsichord has an extended cadenza-like solo and the viola da gamba accompanies.

We don’t know when or why these sonatas were written, and whether they belong together as a set or not. They are estimated to date from Bach’s Leipzig years although much of his chamber music is usually dated to his time as Kapellmeister at Cothen. Greater detail than usual in terms of performance instructions (ornamentation, etc.) might point to the sonatas being prepared for a specific performance, possibly by Carl Friedrich Abel.

The G major sonata is probably a reworking of a trio for two violins and continuo (also arranged for two flutes and continuo). Here, the trio texture is retained in that the right and left hands of the keyboard each play separate lines. The G minor sonata is different in that it is not modelled on a four-movement sonata but has three movements, like an Italian concerto. It is more concerto-like in style, too.

So, overall, these are exciting and dramatic works – both in being something of a mixture of ancient and modern, and in Bach’s striking out on his own as using the harpsichord for both solo line and the "bass continuo" line.

Both discs include a fourth work – the Harmonia Mundi concludes with BWV 1019, an arrangement from a violin and harpsichord sonata. The performers felt licensed to arrange it given Bach’s own numerous re-arrangements and re-uses of his own works, and the fact that the cantabile movement is taken from a soprano aria in cantata 120 Gott, man lobet dich der Stille, anyway! The Avie disc concludes with BWV 1030b. Bach’s B minor flute sonata was a reworking of a G minor sonata of which only the harpsichord line is extant. The G minor work could have been for a number of instruments – flute, violin or oboe, but works well on the viola da gamba, as here.

The Avie disc has a pleasing balance and the recording is of a good quality – albeit the sound is slightly abrasive. Much of it is very heartfelt – the Adagio of the G minor sonata, for example, and the performers achieve an excellent contrast between the moods of the movements. Their outstanding duet skills are exemplified in the Allegro of the G minor sonata, in which they work brilliantly together, echoing each other’s styles. Jonathan Manson has a way of making the da gamba really sing – listen to the Andante of the final work BWV 1030b, which includes some extremely expressive da gamba playing. Trevor Pinnock is, as one would expect, a superb accompanist.

The performers on the Harmonia disc, Juan Manuel Quintana and Celine Frisch, take things more gently. Their playing is, as a general rule, softer and less fiery. In the G major sonata, Celine Frisch imparts more ornamentation in the harpsichord line than Pinnock, almost to the point of over-doing it. On the whole, however, I far prefer the sound of the harpsichord in the Harmonia disc. Pinnock’s harpsichord is more articulated and comes across as quite thumping and heavy, and not as flowing, gentle, soft, sensitive or delicate as Frisch’s. As if keeping in line with the slightly "clangy" harpsichord, the da gamba is rougher and harsher on the Avie disc as well.

I like the way that Quintana and Frisch make the music dance, more graceful than the blunter Avie rendition. Listen to the rocking lilt in the Andante of the G major sonata, as opposed to Pinnock and Manson’s version, where all the notes are played slightly clinically and of equal length. I also find the Avie tempo a little too slow – yet on the other hand the fourth movement Allegro moderato is much perkier in Avie – not as graceful as Harmonia again, but pleasantly bold and confident, and the instruments (particularly the harpsichord) sing out more.

In the D major sonata, the performers on Harmonia come across more musically, although I prefer the clarity of the recorded sound on Avie, and Manson and Pinnock’s upbeat second movement is livelier than Quintana and Frisch’s. The third movement is more stately and formal with Manson and Pinnock while Quintana and Frisch gently dance and sing. The coarser, rougher sound of the da gamba in Avie is very audible in the last movement of this sonata.

In BWV 1029, the G minor sonata, we again find Quintana and Frisch much gentler and less forceful than Manson and Pinnock – the sound they create is much prettier and flows more – listen to the third movement, for example, where the Harmonia disc has a much lighter and more dance-like touch. In the second movement, however, the slower-sounding Avie performance is more laden with sorrow, more heartfelt than Harmonia, which comes across as more frivolous, and not as serious or intense. Here I definitely prefer the heavy brooding quality of Manson and Pinnock.

It would be quite hard to choose between these two recordings, very different though they are. The recorded sound is more acute and clear, yet also slightly harsher on Avie, and the instruments are a great deal coarser and rougher in sound – so the gentler, prettier tones of the instruments on Harmonia are far preferable to my ear. Yet the Avie disc has a raw intensity, a throbbing passion and an energy that the dancing, lilting, and - in a way - more musical Harmonia, lacks. There is more fire and spirit, blood and guts in Manson and Pinnock’s playing, whilst Quintana and Frisch are more delicately sensitive and relaxed. Both discs are excellently played, however, and a choice would have to come down to the individual listener’s wants and needs.

Em Marshall

 



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