Johann Sebastian Bach
The Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin, BWV 1014 – 1019
Media Review / Comparison
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This is just a short report on recordings of the Sonatas for Cembalo Concertato and Violin, BWV 1014 – 1019 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). I listened to three recordings. And I wish I had a clear favorite among these! There are certainly positive aspects for all of them, but I also have some reservations (mostly minor, though):
Andrew Manze, Richard Egarr
J.S. Bach, Sonatas for Cembalo Concertato & Violin BWV 1014 – 1019, BWV 1019a (alternative version of BWV 1019); Sonatas BWV 1021, 1023, & 1024 for Violin & Continuo; Toccata & Fugue in D minor BWV 565, version for solo violin
harmonia mundi usa, HMU 907250.51 (2 CDs, ℗/© 2000)
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Artists & Instruments
Andrew Manze plays on a violin by Joseph Gagliano, Naples 1782; Richard Egarr plays a harpsichord by Joel Katzman, Amsterdam, 1991. For the sonatas BWV 1014, 1015, 1023, and 1024, the two artists are joined by Jaap ter Linden at the viola da gamba.
The artists are experienced performers of baroque music. Their abilities in baroque ornamentation, accompaniment, etc. are impeccable. In fact, I think that among the three violinists, Andrew Manze offers the most and the largest variety in terms of ornamentation. I also would not want to criticize Richard Egarr’s harpsichord playing. This is definitely more than “mere continuo playing” in these sonatas!
One could also view this recording as “the musicologist’s recording”, in that it not only includes the “standard set” of six sonatas (BWV 1014 – 1019), but also additional tracks that allow the listener to “reconstruct” the two earlier versions of the sonata in G major (BWV 1019), plus the sonata BWV 1021 (violin and harpsichord), and the two sonatas BWV 1023 (E minor) and 1024 (C minor) for violin and basso continuo (where Jaap ter Linden joins in at the viola da gamba).
Finally, more as an interesting curiosity, the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565), for violin solo. That latter piece is almost certainly not by Bach. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting and popular piece of music. Manze’s interpretation is a fascinating and convincing argument for the thesis that this was originally a piece for violin solo. Finally, as a little peculiarity, maybe (but apparently supported by an early manuscript), in the first two sonatas, BWV 1014 (B minor) and BWV 1015 (A major) the bass line is doubled by viola da gamba.
Two aspects of this recording I’m not quite happy with (nothing major, though): for one, I find the sound recording a bit sterile, too neutral. The sound to me feels somewhat distant, not very differentiated, lacking depth and transparency. Then, as much as I appreciate playing without vibrato (for music up to the classic period), I do find Manze’s playing often a bit dry, maybe academic in the articulation and the tone. Though, his ornamenting is probably the richest and most naturally-sounding among the three contenders.
Rachel Podger, Trevor Pinnock
Channel Classics CCS 14798 (2 CDs, ℗/© 2000)
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Artists & Instruments
These artists are certainly equally qualified for performing this music. Rachel Podger has played with and directed numerous period instrument ensembles and is a professor of baroque violin. Trevor Pinnock is well known as harpsichord player and as director of the English Concert. I don’t feel qualified to criticize Pinnock’s harpsichord / continuo playing. For the violin part I only would claim that Rachel Podger maybe has a bit more reservations towards adding extra ornaments, but her playing is by no means sterile.
This recording appeared around the same time as Manze’s. It also competes with that recording in terms of completeness, featuring not only the six sonatas BWV 1014 – 1019 (here, all are just played with violin and harpsichord), but also the complete first version of BWV 1019 (BWV 1019a, G major), plus the substitute fourth movement for the second version. The recording also includes the sonatas for violin and basso continuo BWV 1021 (G major) and BWV 1023 (E minor), both (as well as BWV 1019a) with Jonathan Manson playing the viola da gamba.
Also here there are two points I’m not quite happy with. First, the sound, which could barely be more different from the one above. The violin is very close and dominates the sound, often almost covering the harpsichord’s descant part. Or is that harpsichord a bit colorless in the descant section?
On the other hand, the harpsichord to me often sounds pretty distorted. I love harpsichords with a strong bass register — I would even say my knees soften when I hear a harpsichord with a full sounding bass register! However, here, the deepest bass notes have clearly been amplified in the sound management (at least in some of the tracks). To me, this is pretty much “forbidden”. I know how a harpsichord sounds, and I can imagine how a harpsichord would sound if the microphone was placed close to the bass strings, but here there’s often more, which I clearly dislike.
The other part of this recording which I don’t quite agree with (just my personal opinion) is Rachel Podger’s tendency to play “belly notes” (“swollen notes”). This may be my education (I was told this is a bad habit). One doesn’t need to go as far as asking for “percussive articulation” (something Pablo Casals was aiming for, though that was long before historically informed playing became popular), but I do prefer Andrew Manze’s articulation.
Viktoria Mullova, Ottavio Dantone
Onyx 4020 (2 CDs, ℗/© 2007)
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Artists & Instruments
Viktoria Mullova plays a violin by G.B. Guadagnini, 1750; Ottavio Dantone plays a harpsichord by Olivier Fadini, Italy 2007, after J.H. Silbermann, Strasbourg, 1750-1800. For BWV 1021 and BWV 529 he switches to a small organ. In the same two pieces, the two extra artists, Vittorio Ghielmi at the viola da gamba, and Luca Pianca, playing the lute, are joining in.
These artists take a less “scientific” approach to the Bach violin sonatas. Among the sonatas for violin and continuo, the alternative versions of BWV 1019 (G major) are missing, as well as BWV 1023 (E minor) and 1024 (C minor). Only BWV 1021 (G major) is included, along with the Trio sonata No.5 (BWV 529).
About the actual performance — first and foremost: I simply love the sound of Viktioria Mullova’s Guadagnini. Of course, it’s both her playing and the instrument. The other violins in these recordings don’t come close to that warm & full tone, which already struck me in Mullova’s recording of Beethoven violin sonatas with Kristian Bezuidenhout. One should not expect the romantic sound of the Russian violin school in which Viktoria Mullova grew up. In recent years, Viktoria has very successfully adopted historically informed playing for music of the classic and baroque periods. She often plays with relatively little vibrato and with a much lighter tone than one would expect from the “Russian School” (see below for more comments on the vibrato).
Then, there’s Ottavio Dantone, one of my favorite harpsichord players, and as much an expert in baroque music as his contenders. Baroque ornaments and articulation, etc. are simply “in his blood”, appear all natural, and he, too, plays a very nice instrument.
Now, for the “hair in the soup”. We are talking about criticism at a very high level, and some of this may be my personal opinion / taste. For one, my preference would have been for the harpsichord to be a bit more of a partner to the violin. In my opinion, the recording places the violin in foreground and leaves the harpsichord more as accompaniment. That’s nice for the violin, of course, but makes it harder to follow and appreciate Ottavio Dantone’s accompaniment.
The other point is that (despite what I stated above) I sometimes would prefer a little less vibrato (less often, less strong, more calm / relaxed). Compared to her contenders, I have the feeling that both Rachel Podger as well as Andrew Manze have essentially grown up / lived in the “historically informed music scene”. Viktoria Mullova, on the other hand, comes out of the Russian violin school and only around 2000 (judging from her discography) switched to historically informed playing, cooperating with ensembles and musicians playing on period instruments.
For me, the result is that somehow, her contenders start off with playing without vibrato, and then from time to time the add a little vibrato for emphasizing a note, or a phrase. Conversely, with Viktoria Mullova, it appears as if (I’m exaggerating here) she plays with “vibrato suppressed”, and then, where she wants to place some emphasis, she “lets it loose”. But it’s probably fair to say that it is hard, if not almost impossible, to start off a piece forgetting about vibrato (and bringing it back in only when needed), if one has “played the Russian school” for so many years and a major part of one’s career.
I stated above that I don’t have a clear favorite — but from the overall experience I rate Mullova / Dantone the highest among the three, followed by Manze / Egarr and Podger / Pinnock on a par.