Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin Sonatas

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 No.5 for violin and basso continuo in C*
(transcribed from 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 basso continuo in G* (BWV 1021) [8:28]
Viktoria Mullova (violin); Ottavio Dantone (harpsichord, organ*); 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]

Viktoria Mullova is a violinist steeped in the strict traditions of the Russian school of violin playing on modern stringed violin and bow. It still amazes me that she has taken so magnificently to the demands of the baroque violin. I recall her explaining that as a Moscow Conservatoire student she was not aware that there was such a thing as a period bow. Gradually her passion has developed for Baroque and Classical music performed on period instruments. She has immersed herself in early music working with several outstanding period instrument specialists at the cutting-edge of the Baroque scene: Andrea Marcon, Giuliano Carmignola, Ottavio Dantone and Giovanni Antonini. This very subject was discussed during a recent interview that I had with Andrew Manze a renowned period instrument performer and director himself. Manze remains impressed by Mullova’s smooth transition to playing on authentic instruments, “Yes it’s quite a story. To have the ability in her mind let alone in her fingers. To be able to do that in her head is quite extraordinary.”

Mullova’s passion for authentic instruments has proved highly productive in the recording studio. I greatly admire her splendid 2001 recording from St. Jude’s Church, London of Mozart’s Violin Concertos 1, 3 and 4 on Philips 470 292-2. She directed the period instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from her ‘Jules Falk’ Stradivarius (1723) fitted with gut strings and using a period bow. For the Onyx label in 2004 at Cremona, Italy, Mullova recorded a wonderful disc of five Vivaldi Violin Concertos. Again she used her cherished ‘Jules Falk’ performing with the period instrument ensemble Il Giardino Armonico under Giovanni Antonini (see review).

More recently for the Archiv label her 2007 recording of Vivaldi Concertos for two violins on period instruments marks a remarkable collaboration with baroque violinist Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra under Andrea Marcon. On this recording Mullova plays her 1750 Guadagnini and Carmignola a loaned 1732 ‘Baillot’ Stradivarius. The recording was made at Toblach in the Italian Dolomites on Archiv Produktion 4777466 (see review).

Probably the finest release of all from Mullova is a life-enhancing recording of Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006 on Onyx Classics 4040. Here Mullova favours her 1750 Guadagnini with gut strings and a copy baroque bow. This Onyx disc was my MusicWeb International 2009 ‘Record of the Year’. I said in my review that I was basking in an afterglow of satisfaction and a year later I still am. I wouldn’t be surprised if this recording became one of the great 'classics' (see review).

Bach was known to have written a considerable amount of chamber music. Much of it is thought lost with little of it surviving in a complete form. Exceptional is the collection of 6 Sonatas for harpsichord and violin, BWV 1014-1019 that exists as a set of complete manuscript copies widely circulated during Bach’s lifetime. The Sonatas are generally thought to have been written during Bach’s tenure as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold at Cöthen in 1717-1723. In his Bach biography Julian Shuckburgh places the composition date for the set as prior to 1725 (Harmony & Discord - The Real Life of Johann Sebastian Bach, Old Street Publishing Ltd, London, 2009).

It is known that in 1719 Bach travelled to Berlin to purchase a harpsichord for Prince Leopold from instrument maker Michael Mietke. It is easy to imagine how the acquisition of this new keyboard at the Cöthen court would have inspired Bach to write a flurry of music for the instrument. Biographer Christoph Wolff tells how in 1774 Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote that the 6 Sonatas, “… are among the best works of my dear departed father. They still sound excellent and give me much joy …” [Johann Sebastian Bach - The Learned Musician, Oxford University Press, 2001]. I agree entirely and the set of 6 Sonatas for harpsichord and violin certainly rank high on my list of favourite Bach compositions. Apart from their broad appeal, rich character and melodic invention Bach’s set of 6 Sonatas for harpsichord and violin is remarkable for their time in dispensing with the customary basso continuo and allowing the harpsichord to join the violin as equal partners.

In these period instrument performances from 2007 by Viktoria Mullova and Ottavio Dantone one senses a deep understanding, together with a great affection for this set of Sonatas. Mullova plays her 1750 Guadagnini violin, gut strung with a period bow. Her partner Dantone uses a harpsichord by Olivier Fadini, a modern copy of a J.H. Silbermann (Strasbourg) instrument from the second half of the 18th century. I was immediately struck how Mullova never forces her dynamics. Her interpretation seems to let the music speak for itself and the approach works admirably. I had a fleeting sense of a slight reticence, as if she was holding back. In the glorious opening movement of the Sonata, BWV 1014, an Adagio that could almost have come from the Romantic era, the players seduce the listener with a tenderness that would break the stoniest of hearts. I found the Allegros played with an infectious vivacity that still managed to radiate a spirit of stateliness. Mullova and Dantone’s musical chemistry blends with impeccable ensemble. Their glorious toned instruments make for a winning and memorable performance.

The Onyx disc includes two additional tracks: the Trio Sonata No.5 for violin and basso continuo in C which is a transcription of the Trio Sonata for organ in C, (BWV 228) and the Sonata for violin and basso continuo in G (BWV 1021). Here Viktoria Mullova is joined by a basso continuo comprising Ottavio Dantone on a positive organ, viola da gamba player Vittorio Ghielmi and lutenist Luca Pianca. Recorded at the Alte Grieser Pfarrkirche in Bolzano the sound quality is pleasingly clear and well balanced.

Worthy of attention is another remarkable period instrument version of Bach’s 6 Sonatas for harpsichord and violin, BWV 1014-1019 from Giuliano Carmignola and Andrea Marcon on Sony. Distinguished baroque violist Carmignola is partnered by Marcon who plays a modern harpsichord in the style of Michael Mietke and built by William Horn of Brescia. It would be hard to find a performance that is more magnificently played and it’s wonderfully recorded too. The uplifting fast movements abound in vitality and the lovingly played slow movements are warm and affectionate. Carmignola and Marcon recorded the set in 2000 at Sala del Conclave, Isola di San Giorgio, Venice, Italy on Sony Classical S2K 89469.

For those who like a modern strung violin the stand-out version is the evergreen recording played by Arthur Grumiaux with harpsichordist Christiane Jaccottet. Grumiaux and Jaccottet recorded the set in 1980 at La Chaux de Fonds in Switzerland. I have this treasured double set on Philips Classics 454 011-2.

Michael Cookson

see also review by Johan van Veen