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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Sonata No. 3 for viola da gamba and harpsichord in G minor (BWV 1029) [15:29]
Sonata No. 1 for viola da gamba and harpsichord in G major (BWV 1027) [13:41]
Sonata No. 2 for viola da gamba and harpsichord in D major (BWV 1028) [15:20]
Sonata No. 6 in G major for violin and harpsichord, BWV 1019 (transcription for viola da gamba in D major [19:09]
Marianne Muller (viola da gamba), Françoise Lengellé (harpsichord)
rec. 22-26 April 2013, The German Church, Paris

These fine sonatas are a must-have for any self-respecting J.S. Bach collection, but for some reason I’ve always found myself stocking up on cello & piano recordings such as those with Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich on Deutsche Grammophon and Leonard Rose and Glenn Gould on Sony Classical. Viola player Kim Kashkashian’s ECM recording with Keith Jarrett from 1991 is nice enough but doesn’t count in this context. The viola da gamba is an entirely different prospect, but its synergy with the harpsichord is very much in evidence in this superb recording from Marianne Muller and Françoise Lengellé.
By no means lacking in expression, the fretted gamba lends itself to clean, vibrato-free lines which sound like a sostenuto extension of the plucked harpsichord strings in this recording, though as you will hear, Marianne Muller is also happy to heighten the expressive range of her instrument, decorating significant notes with ornamental vibrato sparingly in slow movements such as the gorgeous Adagio of BWV 1029.
There are numerous recordings of these sonatas around, and a more overtly dramatic time can be had on the Alpha label with Arnaud De Pasquale on harpsichord and Lucile Boulanger, viola da gamba (see review). Theirs is a busier, more heavily textured sound with greater intensity to the ornamentation and an arguably more mannered approach to slow movements. Their vividness of imagery suits the opening violin sonata transcription BWV 1023, which opens like a stormy scene from a French opera, the low pedal tones in the harpsichord grimly foreboding. Muller/Lengellé are lighter in colour, more airy, their filler the G major BWV 1019 violin sonata a gentler offering than the E minor rival. Which you prefer will be a matter of taste. I love the rich resonance and striking playing of De Pasquale/Boulanger, but prefer Muller/Lengellé’s elegant simplicity in slow movements such as the sublime Andante of BWV 1027.
Mikko Perkola and Aapo Häkkinen are artists I admired in Rameau (see review), so I’ve taken their Naxos recording (see review) as a further reference. Theirs is a more resonant recording though still with plenty of detail. Arguments as to whether the gamba or the harpsichord should be named first in these works seem also to exist in terms of recording balance, and I would say the harpsichord is more on top in this case. Perkola/Häkkinen tend to go for broader tempi, which adds a kind of stately flavour to the first movement of BWV 1029, but at 7:02 when compared to Muller/Lengellé’s 5:54 I would say the Vivace spirit of the music has been somewhat knocked on the head. This is all very lovely, but doesn’t take off in quite the energy-giving way that this ZZT recording delivers.
In the end this is what sells this recording to me. With a refreshing sound, unpretentious but highly expert and supremely idiomatic playing, this disc has created a little itch in me which demands to be scratched. It doesn’t seek too far beyond the notes in seeking profundity or layers of spiritualism deeper than the Lutheran, nor do its performers find any need to beat you with into submission with overly clever technique or interpretative prowess. If you want a shot of chamber-music Bach then this is a cool Gin & Tonic on a warm summer day: something to revive your spirits and cure all kinds of tropical stickiness.
Dominy Clements