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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata No. 1 for viola da gamba and harpsichord in G major (BWV 1027) [11:54]
Sonata No. 2 for viola da gamba and harpsichord in D major (BWV 1028) [12:48]
Sonata No. 3 for viola da gamba and harpsichord in G minor (BWV 1029) [13:05]
Hille Perl (viola da gamba)
Michael Behringer (harpsichord)
rec. 1998, Kath. Pfarrkirche Oberried

This is an odd little CD, not for its musical qualities, but with an entire lack of any booklet notes included and the short playing time it feels as if it has dropped out of a box set of some kind and doesn’t really belong out on its own. The discrepancy between the recording date and release in April 2020 is also strange, but this is explained by its being a re-release of a disc with the same programme from Hänssler’s Edition Bachakademie Vol. 124, so in fact it has indeed fallen out of a box set but is still at full price, so will I fear struggle amidst the more substantial offerings from numerous competitors. Further investigation reveals that the booklet is available as a download, so Hänssler’s focus is clearly more on that part of the market, and this will be the same for other re-releases from this source.

Never mind. The origin of these pieces is still the subject of ongoing debate, but Bach’s Sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord BWV 1027-1029 were probably composed around 1740 during Bach’s tenure as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, at which time he was also director of the chamber music society Collegium Musicum. This is music of great lyrical distinctiveness and charm, not having the same intensity of Bach’s Suites for solo cello, but with plenty of that friendly musical interchange between instruments that is a feature of Bach’s secular chamber music.

Hille Perl is a distinguished specialist viola da gamba player, and has recorded for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi in programmes of Bach (review) and others. Harpsichordist Michael Behringer has an equally strong pedigree in music of the 17th and 18th centuries, having performed with Jordi Savall, Musica Antiqua Koln, Hesperion XX and others. These are beautifully recorded performances, with a healthy balance between the instruments, meaning that the harpsichord is equal with the viola da gamba and the texture and resonances of both are delightfully captured in a sympathetic acoustic. Both are stylistically uncontroversial in what is now typical and widely accepted period sound, with tasteful ornamentation, reasonably brisk but distinctly uncluttered tempi and with plenty of expressive nuance.

The issue with this release is, as mentioned before, as much with the competition as it is in any of its own undoubted intrinsic qualities. Arnaud De Pasquale and Lucile Boulanger on the Alpha label (review) have substantial additional works in their programme, though their approach to the BWV 1027-1029 sonatas is more on the leisurely side when compared to Perl and Behringer, who have a greater feel of energy and momentum to go along with a more rounded sound quality. Juan Manuel Quintana and Celine Frisch on Harmonia Mundi (review) are more intimately recorded, and while Quintana’s use of slight vibrato adds to Bach’s lyrical lines this recording is pleasantly academic rather than inspiring. Appearing in the same review, Jonathan Manson and Trevor Pinnock are recorded in a much drier acoustic, and while their playing has more verve and energy is also not a version I prefer over Perl and Behringer. Johannes Koch and Gustav Leonhardt’s recording with only the three sonatas (review) from 1961 was pioneering in its day but isn’t really a contender now, and I still have some affection for Marianne Muller and Françoise Lengellé on the Zig-Zag Territories label (review).

In short, you can shop around for a long time when it comes to recordings of these sonatas, and there are loads available with more substantial programmes. If you are only interested in these sonatas then Hille Perl and Michael Behringer are in fact quite hard to beat given their expressive playing, variety in tempo and mood and refreshing recording quality. It’s just a shame that Hänssler haven’t given us just a little bit more oomph in the attractiveness stakes when it comes to the physical CD.

Dominy Clements

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