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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord no. 1 in B minor, BWV 1014 [16:00]
Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord no. 2 in A major, BWV 1015 [13:55]
Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord no. 3 in E major, BWV 1016 [18:07]
Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord no. 4 in C minor, BWV 1017 [18:05]
Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord no. 5 in F minor, BWV 1018 [19:00]
Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord no. 6 in G major, BWV 1019 [15:43]
Yehudi Menuhin (violin); George Malcolm (harpsichord); Ambrose Gauntlett (viola da gamba)
rec. 18-23 September 1961, EMI Studio 1, Abbey Road, London
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR753/4 [48:02 + 52:47]

This is what we’ve been waiting for - at least for Menuhin devotees like myself. Quite why this Bach cycle was overlooked repeatedly by EMI in their many compilations of the artist’s recordings, or indeed issued as a separate item, completely eludes me. Instead they seemed quite content to reissue the same performances time and time again. Thank you Forgotten Records for showing the initiative.
 
There’s a bit of a history with these sonatas and Menuhin. In March 1938, he and his sister Hephzibah recorded the E major Sonata, BWV 1016. It is a sublime performance, especially the third movement Adagio, committed to disc when the violinist was still in his prime. This was before he succumbed to the technical problems that were to beset his later career. Issued on the Biddulph label (LAB 124/5), together with Beethoven and Brahms Sonatas, also with Hephzibah, I would wholeheartedly endorse this release, if it’s still available. Six years later he took the work afresh into the studio with Wanda Landowska, this time accompanying him on the harpsichord. Again, it is interpretively fine, with the performers seemingly of one accord. By the time Menuhin recorded the complete set of six sonatas in the early fifties with his brother-in-law Louis Kentner, the vagaries of his technical equipment were already becoming apparent, in a noticeable deterioration. The cycle is marred by a dry, thin tone production with that consequent loss of the rich, lustrous vibrancy that so defined his playing of earlier years. Nevertheless this 1951 airing has had more than one outing on CD.
 
The Sonatas themselves were not published in Bach’s lifetime and the precise dates of their composition are not definite. What is certain is that they underwent two revisions, the second about 1740. The likelihood is that they were composed in Cöthen and revised in Leipzig.
 
The present recordings are very special in that they have, in addition to the harpsichord, a viola da gamba accompaniment. Two mid-eighteenth century sources, part of one in Bach’s own hand, advocates the addition of this instrument to the mix ‘se piace’ (if you wish), leaving it to the players' discretion. There are advantages with this indication. The viola da gamba offers some strength to the bass-line, thus providing for any inadequacies in the harpsichord. An example of this is in the Sonata no. 2 in A major, BWV 1015 where there is an 18 bar pedal point, requiring the viola to provide a continuity unachievable on the harpsichord. On the reverse of the coin, in the third movements of Sonatas 2 and 5, the da gamba makes no positive contribution and has thus been omitted.
 
In this 1961 cycle there is a notable absence of the violinist’s technical shortcomings, all too evident in the 1951 traversal. Menuhin plays with spontaneity, inspiration and expressiveness. He draws a beautiful sound from his instrument which, I presume is the ‘Soil’ Strad of 1714. His inimitable sound, which is instantly recognizable and has a life to it, adds to performances of these sonatas which truly touch the listener. Menuhin is partnered by George Malcolm on the harpsichord. The pair frequently performed in ensemble and made several recordings together. The harpsichord has a full, bright sound and never sounds harsh or clangy. Ambrose Gauntlett uses a viola da gamba made in 1678, and was reputedly housed in the Cöthen region around the time of Bach. It has a full, rich tone.
 
The transfers have been taken from pristine LP copies and are in stereo - the distribution of the three instruments being clearly discernible with the violin and harpsichord on either side — left and right respectively — and the viola da gamba in the centre. Quality of sound is first rate. There are no notes, but references to relevant websites are offered. I hope that one day Forgotten Records will reissue the three Brahms Violin Sonatas that Menuhin recorded with Louis Kentner in 1956-58, again inexplicably absent from EMI’s CD catalogue and crying out for release.
 
This is one of the most important historic violin releases of recent times.
 
Stephen Greenbank