Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord: No. 1 in G major BWV 1027 [12:43]; No. 2 in D major BWV 1028 [15:21]; No. 3 in G minor BWV 1029 [15:47]
Peter Seidenberg (cello); Elaine Comparone (harpsichord)
rec. no details given
LYRICHORD LEMS 8076 [43:51]

Very properly the sleeve of this disc describes these three Sonatas as being for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord but also makes it clear that they are played on cello and harpsichord. I can see no inherent objection to this there are after all recordings on cello and piano - but some of the many previous recordings of these works by cellists do show very quickly that this choice of instrument can lead to very real difficulties unless both players and recording engineers are very clear as to the nature of the music. Essentially these are all Trio Sonatas, that is, they have two upper parts of equal importance supported by a bass line. Indeed Sonata No. 1 exists also in an earlier version as a Sonata for two flutes and continuo, which is also very satisfying to listen to or play but in which the three independent lines are usually much easier to hear. In the present form, the harpsichord has one of the two upper lines and the bass, and the difficulty is in securing a balance which allows all three lines to be appreciated as being of equal importance. The risk in using a cello is that soloists more used to filling large concert halls in romantic concertos or the like tend to use excessive vibrato and too sustained a tone, with the effect that the harpsichordist (or pianist) who does after all have a majority stake in the music sounds like a mere accompanist.

Fortunately that is not the case here. Both players have clearly thought long and hard about how best to present these works and the balance between instruments is near ideal. The booklet notes that the harpsichord is by Frank Hubbard of Boston and dates from 1972. As recorded here it has something of a jangly sound but I suspect that this may be more the result of close recording rather than of the instrument itself. I know that this may bother some people, but personally I found the sound of both instruments characterful for the most part and well suited to the particular nature of these works. Phrasing is usually well matched, and the curious effect in the third movement of the First Sonata that the cellist seems to be pairing the semiquavers in twos whereas the harpsichord is grouping them in fours may well again be a result of recording and of the nature of the latter instrument. Speeds are well chosen and I greatly enjoyed the sheer vitality of the performances of all three works.

Neither player is well known, at least on this side of the Atlantic, but these performances are well worth hearing for anyone wanting to add these delightful works to their collections. It has to be said that Lyrichord have not helped greatly by providing distinctly short measure as well as a front cover that is garish and far from flattering to the players. Nonetheless for anyone prepared to ignore these points the music and its performance both offer considerable rewards. I have five other versions of the works already you will see that I do very much enjoy them; all have significant virtues. Nonetheless the sheer musicality and joy of the present performances is such that I suspect that I may go to it first next time I want to hear these Sonatas.

John Sheppard

The sheer musicality and joy of the present performances is such that I suspect that I may go to it first next time I want to hear these Sonatas.