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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

CD 1

Sonata for harpsichord and violin in b minor (BWV 1014) [12:36]
Sonata for harpsichord and violin in A (BWV 1015) [13:41]
Sonata for harpsichord and violin in E (BWV 1016) [15:01]
Trio Sonata for violin and bc in C (after Trio Sonata for organ in C, BWV 228) [12:48]
CD 2

Sonata for harpsichord and violin in c minor (BWV 1017) [16:56]
Sonata for harpsichord and violin in f minor (BWV 1018) [18:07]
Sonata for harpsichord and violin in G (BWV 1019) [15:49]
Sonata for violin and bc in G (BWV 1021) [08:28]
Ottavio Dantone (harpsichord, organ*), Viktoria Mullova (violin), Vittorio Ghielmi (viola da gamba)*, Luca Pianca (lute)*
rec. 16–19 March 2007, Alte Grieser Pfarrkirche, Bolzano, Italy. DDD
ONYX CLASSICS ONYX 4020 [54:05 + 59:22]

The six sonatas for harpsichord and violin are amongst the most popular pieces of chamber music by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is reflected by the number of recordings of these works. Recently no less than three new recordings were released, one of which by the famous Russian-born violinist Viktoria Mullova and the Italian harpsichordist Ottavio Dantone. It is not by coincidence that I mention them in this order: this is the hierarchy on the cover.

As these sonatas are very well-known there is no need to say that much about them. What is important here is to refer to the title of the sonatas: Sei Suonate a Cembalo certato è Violino Solo, col Basso per Viola da Gamba accompagnato se piace. Although the violin doesn't play a subservient role, it is clear from this title that the harpsichord has the lead in the partnership. The suggestion to use a viola da gamba to support the bass part - played by the left hand on the harpsichord - is very seldom followed. Here the viola da gamba is only used in two additional sonatas, as the track-list shows.

The clear indication of the title-page notwithstanding, it is the violin which attracts most of the attention here. The fact that the violin tends to dominate more often than not isn't just a matter of artistic decision. It is also a result of the recording technique. I am disappointed by the recorded sound, which is much too distant. I miss the intimacy that repertoire like this requires. The fact that the recording has taken place in a church is partly responsible for this. In particular at the end of a movement one hears a far too long reverberation.

There is another factor here. I wonder whether Mullova is playing a real baroque violin. According to the booklet she uses a Guadagnini from 1750. But its sound is quite different from other baroque violins I have heard on disc, among them those on two other recent recordings of the same repertoire. I suspect it has been re-engineered at some time to meet the demands of 19th century repertoire. Ms Mullova uses gut strings, but these don't turn a modernised violin into a baroque violin. In particular when Ottavio Dantone uses only one 8' register the harpsichord is no match for the violin.

Viktoria Mullova is a product of the Russian violin school, which concentrates on technical brilliance and the interpretation of romantic repertoire. After she defected to the West she discovered historical performance practice. She has worked with prominent representatives of this approach, among them John Eliot Gardiner and Il Giardino Armonico, often with wonderful results. But I have to say that her interpretation of these sonatas is disappointing.

In most movements there is too little differentiation between the notes and too much legato. As a result the adagio of the Sonata in f minor (BWV 1018), for instance, where the violin part is dominated by double-stopping, lacks contrast and is simply boring. I wonder why in some movements there are dynamic accents – like in the allegro of the same Sonata in f minor or the opening movement of the Trio Sonata BWV 525 – whereas they are very rare elsewhere. This is just one example of the lack of consistency in this interpretation.

Another issue with these performances is the fluctuation in the tempi of several movements. I don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong with that, and it can be used to increase the tension of a piece, on the basis of a thorough knowledge of baroque rhetorics and 'affetti'. The performances and recordings of the ensemble Musica ad Rhenum, for instance, show that tempo fluctuations can be used to great effect. But it shouldn't be exaggerated and should not be applied at random. Yet that seems to be the case here. The 'dolce' from the Sonata in A (BWV 1015) is the worst: the rhythm is hardly recognisable, and one would think the piece lacks measures. Towards the end it almost comes to a standstill. The 'adagio' of BWV 1014 begins in a tempo which is too fast for an adagio but then the tempo slows down. The reasoning behind it escapes me, and instead of increasing the tension it is plain annoying and way over the top. There is certainly no reason to increase the speed – which is generally too slow anyway – in the middle movement (for harpsichord solo) of the Sonata in G (BWV 1019).

In some movements the partnership between Dantone and Mullova does not work very well. 'Playing apart together' seems to be a suitable description of how some movements sound. In the opening movement of the Sonata for violin and bc in G (BWV 1021) Mullova, all of a sudden, uses more vibrato than elsewhere and certainly more than is justified by the needs of ornamentation.

There is very little in this recording which makes it recommendable. The Trio Sonata in C - originally written for organ solo - is played rather well, and so is the last movement of the Sonata in c minor (BWV 1017). Apart from the vibrato in the opening movement the Sonata BWV 1021 is one of the most satisfying items in this set.

But this is just not enough. This interpretation adds nothing useful to the catalogue.

Johan van Veen


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