BACH: Complete Violin Sonatas.

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Complete Sonatas for Violin and Obbligato Harpsichord, BWV 1014-1019, 1019a

Sonatas for Violin and Continuo, BWV 1021, 1023

Rachel Podger violin
Trevor Pinnock harpsichord
Jonathan Manson viola da gamba

2 discs [71:30 + 67:53] full-price

by Benjamin Chee

“Hey – I think kitty’s dreaming. Isn’t that cute ?”
“Mm. I wonder what cats have to dream about.”

– Neil Gaiman, A Dream of a Thousand Cats

If one would say that cats could dream, and that they dreamt of dancing violins and whirling harpsichords in a whirlwind of baroquerie, they might very well be dreaming of the Bach Violin-Harpsichord Sonatas as performed here by the pairing of Rachel Podger and Trevor Pinnock.

Like all his other instrumental chamber works – the English Suites, Partitas for harpsichord, Cello Suites, Sonatas and Partitas for violin – these Violin-Harpsichord sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach are collected into a unit of six.

A Long and Checkered History The last of the sonatas, Number Six in G Major BWV 1019, technically does not “belong” in this cycle. While the other sonatas contain four movements in the slow-fast-slow-fast style, this piece contains five movements, with the addition of a fast movement at the start. Further research has uncovered evidence that the work was, in fact, conceived and developed in three stages.

In the first stage, Bach included a movement for solo harpsichord after the opening two movements. An adagio follows, then a movement marked violino solo e basso l’accompagnato (‘Solo violin with basso continuto’), and concluding with a repetition of the introductory allegro.

The remarkable fact of this arrangement is the inclusion of the continuo movement which was marked obbligato, which instructed the performer has to follow the musical notation precisely, as opposed to normal continuo playing where the performer has a figured bass upon which he or she is expected to improvise upon.

The second stage removes the two extraneous movements, i.e. solo harpsichord and violin-basso movements, with Bach putting in a new slow movement in place of the harpsichord piece, entitled cantabile, ma un poco adagio. The final five-movement form of the sonata takes shape here.

In the final revision, Bach made yet another change for the third movement, substituting it with an Allegro for solo harpsichord. Also, instead of just repeating the first movement, he also substituted the last section with another new movement.

Carl Philippe Emmanuel Bach wrote of these Sei Sounate a Cembalo certato e Violino Solo (‘Six Sonatas for some[sic] Harpsichord and Solo Violin’) as “these are the best works by my beloved father. They sound excellent and still give me much pleasure, even through over 50 years have passed.”

One is immediately struck by the energy of the music-making from the very first track on disc one. The pedigree of both soloists is immediately apparent in the fast movement: Podger exudes matchless bravura in shooting the whitewater rapids of Bach’s staves, pedalled on by Pinnock, who is no less extrovert and exuberant.

Rachel Podger, who has already released a successful set of Bach Sonatas and Partitas on the same label (CCS 12198, 14498 ), could not give a mediocre reading to save her life: she projects strongly with a lush, bourgeois veneer, with just a minimal amount of vibrato on long notes to break up the monotony. Trevor Pinnock, on the other hand, is equally on top of things, bringing to this partnership his extensive experience and skill as baroque interpreter and keyboardist.

And we’re not just talking about individual skill here. Both of them are excellent collaborators, much in agreement on tempi, balance, sonorities and phrasing. There is much grace and wisdom in their playing, sculpted with scrupulous phrasing and intelligent dynamics, big in conception and execution. The sound of Podger’s baroque violin here is wonderfully captured, without the nail-scraping edge sometimes encountered on period recordings.

Trevor PinnockWe are not told explicitly whether the harpsichord is the identical instrument (a 1978 David Way copy of a Hemsch) Pinnock (left) has used on other recordings, but its sound is strikingly present. The violin is placed forward of the harpsichord, giving the former more emphasis.

Neither really dominates the other, as is wont to sometimes happen when both exponents have uneven skill or temperment – which is not the case here. Theirs is a spirited approach to each of the movements as if they were dance-like movements, that uncovers the cantor of Leipzig as a smiling, fun-loving man who lived his music to the fullest.

One could almost pick any track from either disc as a sampler of what Podger and Pinnock could offer, such is the consistency of the level of playing. But some outstanding instances do come to mind: the pensive Largo and the whirling fourth-movement Allegro of Sonata No.4 BWV 1017, and the florid keyboard arpeggios of the Adagio of Sonata No.5, for example.

Viola da gambist – if that’s what they’re called – Jonathan Manson joins them for a ménage a troi in three of the continuo sonatas which, depending on how you look at it, are either very generous fillers or simply an exploratory extension of the complete violin-harpsichord sonatas.

The viola da gamba is placed backward, which obstructs Manson’s contribution somewhat – especially with the attention-grabbing sheen of the violin and the harpsichord, and particularly the former. Apparently the lower projection of the viola da gamba has not been compensated for in engineering, which gives it an accurate, if unbalanced, rendition of authentic timbres.

Rachel PodgerNonetheless, a careful hearing will reveal that Manson is no less in tune with his more distinguished partners: the Allemanda and Gigue of the E minor sonata finds him giving much support. But he really comes into his own on the revised Sixth Sonata, here performed in all its various forms with deleted movements (see sidebar).

Podger (right) projects her part less aggressively, perhaps in deference to her colleague. The viola da gamba does have a duet with the violin in the fifth movement of the BWV 1019a, in which Manson partners Podger with as much aplomb as Pinnock. Pinnock himself has the spotlight in two solo harpsichord movements, albeit both different. The earlier version which was eventually deleted by Bach from the final version can, however, be found in the Notebüchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach of 1725.

Let’s just say this: Podger & Pinnock are the goods. Their music pedigree shows abundantly, and this is the blue-ribbon album which proves it. The first disc is seventy-two minutes, the second sixty-seven, and the first time I heard this album, the time just flew by. Mere words aren’t enough to describe this music; as a Spanish-speaking cousin of mine once said in her native vernacular, Oir para ceer: you have to hear this to believe it.

BENJAMIN CHEE does have a Spanish-speaking cousin, who is named after the Indian goddess of destruction.

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817: 26.12.2000 Benjamin Chee

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