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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata for harpsichord and violin in B minor (BWV 1014) [12:04]
Sonata for harpsichord and violin in A (BWV 1015) [12:48]
Sonata for harpsichord and violin in E (BWV 1016) [14:33]
Sonata for harpsichord and violin in C minor (BWV 1017) [16:15]
Sonata for harpsichord and violin in F minor (BWV 1018) [15:53]
Sonata for harpsichord and violin in G (BWV 1019) [15:52]
Isabelle Faust (baroque violin)
Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord)
rec. 2017, Telex Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902256.57 [39:30 + 48:05]

In recent decades, probably since the interest in period instrument performances began, J. S. Bach’s set of six sonatas for violin and harpsichord have attracted a substantial number of recordings. My first recording of the set was the 1980 account on Philips by violinist Arthur Grumiaux and harpsichordist Christiane Jaccottet. Now violinist Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout on harpsichord have released a period-instrument recording on Harmonia Mundi.

During his lifetime Bach was known to have written a considerable amount of chamber music. Much of it is thought lost, and little survived in a complete form. One of the exceptions is the collection of six sonatas for violin and harpsichord, or to be more precise trio sonatas for violin, obbligato harpsichord and optional viola da gamba. It exists as complete manuscript copies widely circulated during Bach’s lifetime. The sonatas are thought to have been written around 1720-1723 during Bach’s tenure as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold at Cöthen. Bach biographer Julian Shuckburgh conservatively places the composition date for the set as prior to 1725, which is the date of the earliest known manuscript.

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. In 1774 Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel stated that the six sonatas were amongst his late father’s finest works—they sounded outstanding and provided him with considerable pleasure. I certainly agree. The Sonatas rank high on my list of favourite Bach compositions. Apart from their broad appeal, rich character and melodic invention, the set is remarkable for its time in that it dispenses with the customary basso continuo and allows the harpsichord to join the violin as equal partner.

Isabelle Faust plays a violin by Jacobus Stainer (1658) and Kristian Bezuidenhout uses a John Phillips (2008) harpsichord, a modern copy after Gräbner (1722). They demonstrate a profound understanding and a great affection for this set of sonatas. Faust’s use of dynamics is never forced, and her line is admirable. Nevertheless, everything feels rather lacklustre certainly when compared to the performances by Giuliano Carmignola and Andrea Marcon on Sony. There is certainly a sense of reticence, as if Faust and Bezuidenhout are holding back. That is a shame because their instruments produce a lovely sound. The music was recorded at Telex Studio, Berlin. There is a cool clarity but the sound curiously feels slightly unbalanced through my speakers. Kristian Bezuidenhout has written the excellent booklet essay.

In my view, worthy of attention are two other remarkable period-instrument recordings and a single recording on modern instruments of Bach’s set of sonatas, with which Faust and Bezuidenhout cannot compete. My first choice is the account on Sony Classical, in which the distinguished baroque violinist Giuliano Carmignola partnered with Andrea Marcon on harpsichord. It would be hard to find a better played performance. It is also delightfully recorded in 2000 at Sala del Conclave, Isola di San Giorgio, Venice. Next there is the recording by Viktoria Mullova on a baroque violin and Ottavio Dantone on harpsichord. Their glorious-toned instruments make for a winning and memorable performance. It was recorded by in 2007 by Onyx Classics in Alte Grieser Pfarrkirche, Bolzano. On metal strings, what stands out is the evergreen account by violinist Arthur Grumiaux and harpsichordist Christiane Jaccottet, recorded in 1980 at La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland. I have this treasured double set, issued by Philips Classics.
Michael Cookson



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