Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonate für Viola da gamba und Cembalo Nr. 1 G-Dur BWV 1027 [13:15]
Suite Nr.5 c-Moll für Violoncello solo BWV 1011 [25:12]
Chromatische Fantasie und Fuge für Cembalo d-Moll BWV 903 [13:19]
Sonate für Viola da gamba und Cembalo Nr. 3 g-Moll BWV 1029 [14:52]
János Starker (cello)
Zuzana Růžičková (harpsichord)
rec. 22 May 1971, Schwetzinger Schloss, Rokokotheater
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93-726 [66:51]

Here is another valuable historical document from Hänssler Classic, as they continue to mine the rich archive of the Schwetzinger SWR Festspiele. The festival was founded in 1952 and still makes its presence felt today. Its aim is to ‘commission new things, rediscover the old, (and) give up-and-coming youngsters a chance’. Fortunately, for future generations, there is a well-established tradition of documenting its concerts and broadcasting them to countries all over the world. It is laudable that this German label are tapping into this important resource for their Edition Schwetzinger SWR Festspiele now running into several volumes.

Janos Starker (1924-2013) was born in Budapest in 1924 into a Jewish family, and took up the cello early in life, becoming something of a child prodigy. As a child he heard Casals and later Feuermann. Both were a great source of inspiration. He studied at the Franz Liszt Academy. In 1938 he made his professional debut, deputizing for an indisposed soloist at six hours notice in the Dvořák Concerto. During the war, due to Hungarian anti-Semitism, he was forced to spend three months in a labour camp. Fortuitously he, his wife whom he married in 1944, and his parents were spared the fate of his two brothers who perished. In 1948 he emigrated to the States and worked for a time as an orchestral musician. Perhaps the most high profile job in this role was as principal cellist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he worked under Fritz Reiner. In 1958 he embarked on a solo career and later took up a teaching post at Indiana University, where he was renowned amongst his students for being a fierce taskmaster and uncompromising perfectionist. He remained in this post for the remainder of his life. He made his mark as one of the foremost cellists of the twentieth century.

A distinguishing feature of Starker’s cello playing is his lean, focused tone. Intonation is characteristically immaculate and noted for its dead-centre accuracy. His phrasing is always natural appearing neither contrived nor mannered. Rubato, when applied, is tastefully executed and never over-indulgent.

Zuzana Růžičková (b.1927), is one of the greatest harpsichordists of her generation. She was born in Plzen in the Czech Republic. Early expectations of studying with Wanda Landowska in Paris were thwarted by the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. As a Jew, she was interned in 1942, together with other members of her family, in Theresienstadt. Whilst there she received tuition from Gideon Klein. In 1943 she was transferred to Auschwitz, and a year later to the death camps at Bergen-Belsen. After liberation, she returned to Plzen, where she later married the composer Viktor Kalabis (1923-2006). She began teaching at the Prague Academy in 1951, only becoming a professor there in 1990 after the fall of Communism. Her pupils included Christopher Hogwood and Mahan Esfahani. Over a ten year period she recorded the entire works of J.S. Bach for the harpsichord. She retired from public performance in 2004.

Both Starker and Růžičková were renowned for their Bach playing, and this concert testifies to the coming together of like minds. The result is a programme of convincing interpretations, in which they appeared, not only as a duo, but also in solo items. On the back of their shared concert-giving, the two artists later recorded Bach’s three Viola da Gamba Sonatas for Supraphon. Starker also set down a cycle for Mercury with his friend and accompanist György Sebok.

Unfortunately here the duo sonatas do not fare as well as the solo pieces. Due to misplaced positioning of microphones, the harpsichord is too far back in the sound picture and a comfortable balance between the two instruments is not achieved. The result is a harpsichord sound that is recessed, thin and lacking in power.

The cellist chose the Suite Nr.5 in C minor BWV 1011 for his solo contribution. No stranger to this work, there are four complete cycles listed in his discography. Starker’s full-bodied tone, rhythmic pulse and technical mastery make this a compelling reading, tapping into the spiritual richness and profundity of Bach’s writing.

Zuzana Růžičková truly establishes her credentials in the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. The technically dazzling flourishes that begin the work make you sit up and listen. In the fugue, the polyphonic lines are expertly delineated and the rhythm throughout is tight and buoyant. Unlike the sonata items, the harpsichord is brought out of the shadows and makes its presence felt.

Despite the less-than-ideal instrumental balance in the duos, this release showcases some very fine Bach playing by two masters.

Stephen Greenbank

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