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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord
Sonata for harpsichord and viola da gamba in G (BWV 1027)* [15:17]
Trio for organ in d minor (BWV 583)* [06:02]
Trio for organ in g minor (BWV 584)* [03:10]
Sonate for harpsichord and viola da gamba in D (BWV 1028)* [18:09]
Sonata for harpsichord in a minor (BWV 967) [03:59]
Sonata for harpsichord in D (BWV 963) [10:27]
Sonata for harpsichord and viola da gamba in g minor (BWV 1029)* [18:39]
Aapo Häkkinen (harpsichord), Mikko Perkola (viola da gamba)*
rec. October 2006, St Peter's Church, Siuntio, Finland DDD
NAXOS 8.570210 [75:42] 
Experience Classicsonline

Bach's sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba - to mention the instruments in the right order - were not the last pieces ever composed for the viola da gamba. They were however written at a time when the instrument was beginning to be relegated to the sidelines. It was gradually overshadowed by the cello, although it would take some time before any music was written for the cello as a solo instrument.

Bach used the viola da gamba in a number of pieces, including vocal works, such as the Passions. It is mostly used for moments of deep expression, as in the famous 'Actus tragicus' (BWV 106). We do not know when the three sonatas were written, but what seems clear is that they are arrangements of sonatas for a different scoring. 

As there are only three sonatas the artists and the record company have to think about what to use as fillers. Not many companies dare to produce a disc which lasts less than 38 minutes although the recording by Michael Behringer and Hille Perl in the Hänssler Bach Edition is an exception. One of the solutions is to play very slowly. I am sure that was not the reasoning behind the choice of tempi in these performances, but it certainly helps. And the tempi are generally very slow indeed. The three sonatas together take here more than 52 minutes. Admittedly, Behringer and Perl are pretty fast, but even performances in a more moderate tempo take less time, like Piet and Wieland Kuijken (Arcana) at a little under 48 minutes. Most astonishing in this respect is the andante of the Sonata in D, which takes more than six minutes and is without doubt the slowest performance I have ever heard. As a result this movement just drags and can easily lull one to sleep. Most fast movements are slowish too, and in general the result is that the natural flow of the music is lacking and that too often all notes get the same weight. The rhythmic pulse is also underexposed in these performances.

In addition the balance between the two instruments is not satisfying. Right at the start, in the adagio which opens the Sonata in G, the entrance of the viola da gamba is rather massive, almost overpowering the harpsichord. But in Bach's time in all sonatas for the combination of keyboard and melody instrument the former has the lead. The best example in Bach's oeuvre is the set of six sonatas for harpsichord and violin (BWV 1014 - 1019). The sound of the viola da gamba is rather obtrusive anyway. In comparison the harpsichord sounds a bit thin, even though it is a fine instrument. 

As slow as the tempi are there was still room for additional music. It results in a programme with a playing time of almost 76 minutes, which is excellent. Four pieces have been added. The two Trios (BWV 583 and 584, the latter generally being considered spurious) are just single movements from what could have been trio-sonatas for organ, as they are stylistically close to the well-known six trio-sonatas (BWV 525 - 530). Their structure makes it plausible to play them with an instrumental ensemble, and therefore a performance of these trio movements on harpsichord and viola da gamba is fully legitimate and musically convincing. The performances are generally better than those of the sonatas for this combination. 

The other two pieces are for keyboard only and were written in the first decade of the 18th century. There is some similarity between the Suite in D and the Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo (BWV 992). The suite ends with a fugue in which the call of the cuckoo is imitated. The tempi in these two pieces are a bit slow too, but it doesn't disturb me as much, which is also due to Aapo Häkkinen's playing which is well differentiated, with some nice ornamentation.

The keyboard parts in the sonatas for keyboard and viola da gamba are also played well, but as I indicated the strong sound of the viola da gamba often overshadows Aapo Häkkinen's contribution. It is just one of the features of this disc which have disappointed me. But in particular the slow tempi make these performances hard to swallow. The additional pieces are just not enough to win a recommendation for this disc.

Johan van Veen

see also Review by John Sheppard



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