Johann Sebastian Bach
The Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin, BWV 1014 – 1019

Media Review / Comparison


2012-03-02 11:22 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2013-07-16 — Layout enhancements
2014-11-01 — Re-posting with new layout (WordPress)
2016-06-24 — Brushed up for better readability
2023-08-01 — Added Faust / Bezuidenhout, re-evaluated recordings, expanded comments, timing&rating table


Table of Contents


Introduction

This is a report on recordings of the Sonatas for Cembalo concertato and Violin, BWV 1014 – 1019 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). The initial posting (2012, i.e., 11.5 years ago, one of my first media reviews), was rather cursory, short and vague.

Now (2023), in the context of some other, ongoing review projects, I returned to Bach’s violin sonatas. And I just realized that five years ago, I bought an album which I was sure would be the reference recording for these sonatas (Isabelle Faust, Kristian Bezuidenhout). However, I never got around to listening to these CDs! I felt that this would be an opportunity to revisit my old blog post. I wanted to add in the “new” recording, while at the same time re-listening to all performances, and re-evaluating my judgement / opinion.

Indeed, this led to a more detailed and more thorough result, and—as expected—a new favorite. I added a table with detailed ratings and timing, as well as a list of the movements. I decided not to rewrite my original comments, but rather, to add my current findings as separate paragraphs / sections.

Note that I haven’t even re-read my original comments: I wanted to have a fresh, unbiased look. With this, there may of course be duplication, for which I apologize.


Bach’s Sonatas for Cembalo concertato and Violin

The Violin sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach are not quite as “closed” a group of compositions as, e.g., the Sei Solo, BWV 1001 – 1006, or the Cello Suites, BWV 1007 – 1012. Namely, besides the “core” set of six Sonatas for Cembalo [con]certato and Violin, BWV 1014 – 1019, Bach also composed several sonatas for violin and basso continuo, and he also created versions of the sonata BWV 1019 with altered and/or new movements. I’m not covering these “other” sonatas on my review. For details on the background of the sonatas BWV 1014 – 1019 see Wikipedia.

The “Cembalo [con]certato” (the original title was Sei Sonate per Cembalo certato e Violino Solo) refers to the fact that in some of the movements, the harpsichord part alternates between basso continuo (ciphered bass) segments and concertato sections. The latter typically consist of either a simple bass line / figure and a “solo” line in the descant, or two independent “solo” voices, as in a trio sonata. For the concertato parts (the bulk of the harpsichord parts), there is definitely no need for bass reinforcement (e.g., using a cello or a viola da gamba).

Here is a list of the movements:

The Sonatas and Their Movements

No.1 in B minor, BWV 1014

  1. Adagio (6/4)
  2. Allegro (2/2)
  3. Andante (4/4)
  4. Allegro (3/4)

No.2 in A major, BWV 1015

  1. (6/8)
  2. Allegro (3/4)
  3. Andante un poco (4/4)
  4. Presto (2 = 2/2)

No.3 in E major, BWV 1016

  1. Adagio (4/4)
  2. Allegro (2 = 2/2)
  3. Adagio ma non tanto (3/4)
  4. Allegro (3/4)

No.4 in C minor, BWV 1017

  1. Siciliano: Largo (6/8)
  2. Allegro (4/4)
  3. Adagio (3/4)
  4. Allegro (2/4)

No.5 in F minor, BWV 1018

  1. (3/2)
  2. Allegro (4/4)
  3. Adagio (4/4)
  4. Vivace (3/8)

No.6 in G major, BWV 1019

  1. Allegro (4/4)
  2. Largo (3/4)
  3. Allegro (4/4, Cembalo solo)
  4. Adagio (4/4)
  5. Allegro (6/8)

Timing, Ratings

The following table lists timings (seconds) and ratings (1 .. 5) for each of the recordings, per movement:

Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord, BWV 1014 – 1019: timing & ratings table (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved)
Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord, BWV 1014 – 1019: timing & ratings table (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved)

As stated, the movement times are in seconds (minutes in the summary line). For the last movement in each sonata, the timing in the list is without trailing blank time. Blue indicates a slower performance (longer duration), red a faster / shorter performance. The color coding in the rating columns should be obvious.

The sequence of the columns in the table above, as well as the sequence of the interpretations below follows the chronology of the recordings.


Andrew Manze / Richard Egarr, 1999

Bach: Violin Sonatas BWV 1014-1019, Manze/Egarr, CD cover

J.S. Bach, Sonatas for Cembalo concertato & Violin, BWV 1014 – 1019, BWV 1019a; Sonatas for Violin & Continuo BWV 1021, 1023, & 1024; Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, version for solo violin

Andrew Manze, Richard Egarr, Jaap ter Linden

harmonia mundi USA, HMU 907250.51 (2 CDs, ℗/© 2000)

Bach: Violin Sonatas BWV 1014-1019, Manze/Egarr, CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link
spacer5

Artists & Instruments

Andrew Manze (*1965) plays on a violin by Joseph Gagliano, Naples 1782; Richard Egarr (*1963) 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 (*1947) 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!

The recording took place on 1999-03-25 – 1999-04-03 at St.George’s Brandon Hill, Bristol, England, U.K.

The Performance

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.

Re-Evaluation, Comments 2023

The comments below supersede those above from the original posting.

Sonata No.1 in B minor, BWV 1014

I found that performance sub-optimal in several ways. The accompaniment tends to be rather straight, offering limited (if any) Klangrede (see Harnoncourt, 1983). There is a tendency towards slow tempo (except for the second movement): the Adagio is in 6/8 time and should be faster, the Andante (4/4) is played in quavers, the last movement feels slightly heavy.

The biggest flaw in this recording, though, is the addition of a viola da gamba as continuo instrument. I don’t think any of the six sonatas requires reinforcing the bass line (see above). The bass viol leads to a “foggy / muddy” soundscape, leading to a lack in transparency, and often obscuring the harpsichordist’s right-hand part.

Rating: 3.5 / 3 / 3 / 3.5 = 3.2

Sonata No.2 in A major, BWV 1015

The opening movement tends to lose tension. And again, the viola da gamba leads to a “thick”, imbalanced soundscape. This particularly hurts the second movement (Allegro), where the accompaniment to the violin arpeggios (bars 74ff) is too weak. As in BWV 1014, the Andante un poco (4/4) is slow, losing tension, played in quavers rather than crotchets. The last movement is playful, the best so far. Adding the bass viol only in the ciphered bass (continuo) segments only (if at all) might have made it even better?

Rating: 3 / 3.5 / 3 / 4 = 3.4

Sonata No.3 in E major, BWV 1016

The opening Adagio is slightly static and too slow (not really 4/4), which defeats larger phrasing arches. The second movement tends to lose momentum, and the Adagio ma non tanto is monotonous and static in the harpsichord part. Conversely, the final movement is fast, at the limit where the articulation occasionally turns (slightly) superficial.

Rating: 3 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 3.5 = 3.4

Sonata No.4 in C minor, BWV 1017

I. Siciliano: At least in comparison with the reference recording, the harpsichord arpeggios in the Siciliano sound very legato—as if the harpsichordist was holding the keys beyond legato, which results in a rather dense sonority.

II. Allegro: Fluid, even slightly restless, and not nearly as much Klangrede as Faust/Bezuidenhout.

III. Adagio: Compared to the latter, Manze/Egarr are substantially slower, feel a tad heavy, occasionally almost gross. Grand gestures rather than a lyrical approach. Overall, though, there is a calm and persistent flow. And I like the outcome of the transition from quaver triplets to semiquavers in bar #57.

IV. Allegro: Acoustically unfavorable, lacking transparency. Moreover, Andrew Manze often puts excess focus on the “skeleton notes”, yielding a somewhat heavy pulsation.

Rating: 4 / 4 / 4 / 3.5 = 3.9

Sonata No.5 in F minor, BWV 1018

I (3/2): too slow, not really 3/2—dragging. What about longer phrases & arches?

II. Allegro: Fluid, but still feels a little on the slow / careful side: not really an Allegro, but maybe a fast Andante? Again, the transparency is not ideal.

III. Adagio: too slow for 4/4, considering the notation in 2 groups of 4 quavers each. This makes the violin sound rather monotonous, flat. However, in this interpretation, the focus obviously is on the demisemiquaver figures on the harpsichord—and from that perspective, the tempo makes sense. I see this as viable alternative to Faust / Bezuidenhout, who tackle this from the violin part. Both mey be going a little over the top in their own way.

IV. Vivace: Also here, one notes the artists’ preference for moderate tempo. Not sure this is still vivace. Occasionally, it tends to feel slightly heavy and static.

Rating: 3.5 / 3.5 / 4.5 / 4 = 3.9

Sonata No.6 in G major, BWV 1019

I. Allegro: good (especially the violin part), though occasionally it loses momentum. And in the recording, the harpsichord sounds somewhat intransparent.

II. Largo: Andrew Manze deliberately leaves the tone simple, if not raw—too raw, occasionally?

III. Allegro (harpsichord solo): compared to Bezuidenhout’s interpretation, the interpretation feels a tad heavy, rigid, “unfree”. The appoggiatura in bar 8 feels odd: by the book, this ought to be performed as two crotchets. It feels as if Richard Egarr wanted to show that it is an ornament, not written out—but also avoid turning it into an acciaccatura?

IV. Adagio: Expressive, yet (almost) without vibrato. And again, the violin occasionally sounds rather raw.

V. Allegro: very good in articulation and musical partnership. Just occasionally, the movement (momentarily) loses momentum. None of the two general rests in bar #71 (with fermata) and bar #88 is used for a cadenza. Too bad for the missed opportunity!

Rating: 4 / 4 / 3.5 / 4.5 / 4 = 4.0


Rachel Podger / Trevor Pinnock, 2000

Bach: Violin Sonatas BWV 1014-1019, Podger/Pinnock, CD cover

J.S. Bach, Sonatas for Cembalo concertato & Violin, BWV 1014 – 1019, BWV 1019a (alternative version of BWV 1019); Sonata in G for Violin & Continuo, BWV 1021

Rachel Podger, Trevor Pinnock, Jonathan Manson

Channel Classics CCS 14798 (2 CDs, ℗/© 2000)

Bach: Violin Sonatas BWV 1014-1019, Podger/Pinnock, CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link
spacer5

Artists & Instruments

Rachel Podger (*1968) plays a violin by Pesarinius, Genova 1739; Trevor Pinnock (*1946) plays a harpsichord by David J. Way, 1982, after Hemsch.

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.

The recording took place on 2000-06:08 at St.Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, U.K.

The Performance

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.

Re-Evaluation, Comments 2023

The comments below supersede those above from the original posting:

Sonata No.1 in B minor, BWV 1014

I. Adagio: slow for a movement in 6/8 time; belly notes, Nachdrücken, or every note a crescendo… The harpsichord is far more differentiated.

II. Allegro: the violinist turns every long note into an obnoxious belly note. Also, the violin is far too dominant, the harpsichord in the background sounds rather dull.

III. Andante: correctly in crotchets, but still slow. The violin part unfortunately is affected by belly dynamics on every long note. Moreover, there are some uncontrolled, sudden crescendi / accents.

IV. Allegro: fast, even pushed, and often slightly careless / superficial in details.

Rating: 3 / 2.5 / 2.5 / 3 = 2.8

Sonata No.2 in A major, BWV 1015

I (6/8): The violin is too much in the foreground, dominating, which further exposes the belly notes, the Nachdrücken.

II. Allegro: at least at the beginning, the performance feels a tad straight, if not a bit clumsy, stomping—but that may be mostly the over-amplified harpsichord bass. In contrast to the preceding parts of the movement, the arpeggios on the violin feel rather mellow, if not “washed out”.

III. Andante un poco: slow, feels in quavers. And again, there are the belly notes, the exaggerated crescendo notes. On the brighter side, here, the acoustic balance is better than with Manze / Egarr.

IV. Presto: Good—Podger’s best movement in this sonata!

Rating: 2.5 / 2.5 / 2.5 / 3 = 2.6

Sonata No.3 in E major, BWV 1016

I. Adagio: sadly full of Podger’s articulation idiosyncrasies (see above)…

II. Allegro: too bad even this fast movement is hampered by uncontrolled (yet predictable), obnoxious crescendi in the long, tied notes in the violin part.

III. Adagio ma non tanto: slow (ma non tanto?), rather monotonous in the harpsichord part.

IV. Allegro: there are again the violin’s swelling accents. Worse than that, though: the harpsichord bass sound very oddly over-amplified: I don’t need to feel my diaphragm shaking!

Rating: 2.5 / 2.5 / 3 / 3 = 2.8

Sonata No.4 in C minor, BWV 1017

I. Siciliano: tends to lose tension in long phrases.

II. Allegro: The Violin (once more) is too dominant, the harpsichord sounds dull, not differentiated. It also lacks clarity in polyphonic parts.

III. Adagio: Rachel Podger’s best movement. In its (tempo) characteristics, I see it as situated between Manze / Egarr and Faust / Bezuidenhout. It occasionally does feel a little slow, losing / lacking momentum / movement. The transition from quaver triplets to semiquavers in bar #57 is instantaneous, but feels fairly natural.

IV. Allegro: Again hampered by the dull acoustics and the excessively dominant violin part. Rhythmically fairly monotonous, if not occasionally mechanical.

Rating: 3.5 / 3 / 4 / 3 = 3.4

Sonata No.5 in F minor, BWV 1018

I (3/2): too slow for 3/2 time. Static, dragging along. Flow? Where’s the tension, especially in the long notes? I sense notes or motifs at most, not melodies or long arches.

II. Allegro: Slightly restless, lacking agogics. Occasionally also mechanic (harpsichord). And the violin again is too much in the foreground.

III. Adagio: I like the tempo—if just there weren’t these belly notes! The violin part feels unstructured, often mechanic, monotonous in the persistent quaver figures. Especially with the tendency towards swelling every note.

IV. Vivace: Overall, once more a dull acoustic soundscape, further hampered by the violin’s ubiquitous swelling, especially on accented notes.

Rating: 3 / 3.5 / 3 / 3.5 = 3.2

Sonata No.6 in G major, BWV 1019

I. Allegro: The violin too dominant, the harpsichord sounds muffled.

II. Largo: slow, static, belly dynamics, and again this over-amplified bass on the harpsichord. The ciphering in the continuo segment (bars 1 & 2) feels rather (too) straight, simple. To be fair, though, the bass ciphering may not be original.

III. Allegro: again hampered in the sonority. Here now, the appoggiatura in bar #8 is too straight: I don’t think this should sound like two regular crotchets?

IV. Adagio: extreme belly accents. Also, there are odd slow-downs, where the interpretation completely loses momentum and tension.

V. Allegro: It’s a pity that the entire recording is hampered—not just by Podger’s swelling accents, but just as much by the odd harpsichord sonority. The latter is a major failure on the part of the sound engineer. On the bright(er) side: the two artists fill the two general rests with suitable, fitting short cadenzas.

Rating: 3.5 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 3 = 3.1


Viktoria Mullova / Ottavio Dantone, 2007

Bach: Violin Sonatas BWV 1014-1019, Mullova/Dantone, CD cover

J.S. Bach, Sonatas for Cembalo concertato & Violin, BWV 1014 – 1019, Sonata in G for Violin & Continuo, BWV 1021, Trio Sonata Nr.5 for Violin & Continuo in C, BWV 529

Viktoria Mullova, Ottavio Dantone, Vittorio Ghielmi, Luca Pianca

Onyx 4020 (2 CDs, ℗/© 2007)

Bach: Violin Sonatas BWV 1014-1019, Mullova/Dantone, CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link
spacer5

Artists & Instruments

Viktoria Mullova (*1959) plays a violin by G.B. Guadagnini, 1750; Ottavio Dantone (*1960) 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 (*1968) at the viola da gamba, and Luca Pianca (*1958), 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).

The recording took place on 2007-03-16:19 at Alte Grieser Pfarrkirche, Bolzano, Italy.

The Performance

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.

Vibrato

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 they 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.

Re-Evaluation, Comments 2023

The comments below supersede those above from the original posting:

Sonata No.1 in B minor, BWV 1014

I. Adagio: I like the tempo, the accompaniment: very good, the sonority excellent, beautiful on both instruments. My main quibble is with Viktoria Mullova’s ubiquitous vibrato. Luckily, it is moderate in amplitude and (usually) also frequency.

II. Allegro: Especially in comparison with Podger / Pinnock, I feel very much relieved to note the much better balance and sonority.

III. Andante: This is a proper Andante: very nice, beautiful, serene, peaceful!

IV. Allegro: Also here, the artists demonstrate their excellent feel for a good tempo!

Rating: 4 / 4 / 4 / 4.5 = 4.1

Sonata No.2 in A major, BWV 1015

I. (6/8): relatively fluid, but really beautiful! Avoids dragging etc.

II. Allegro: very good—but still following a somewhat traditional path. In other words: not quite as clear and concise (and certainly not as radically HIP in sound and articulation) as Faust/Bezuidenhout

III. Andante un poco: Excellent pace for an Andante in 4/4 time. Just occasionally there is a swelling accent…

IV. Presto: very good, careful and detailed—though maybe a bit slow, not really Presto.

Rating: 4 / 4 / 4 / 4 = 4.0

Sonata No.3 in E major, BWV 1016

I. Adagio: Beautiful playing on both parts, serene, calm, reflective, with distinct agogics! And: an excellent pace for an Adagio in 4/4 time!

II. Allegro: In contrast to (particularly) Rachel Podger, the crescendi on long notes are far less regular and predictable. That said: there are occasional “flat” moments on very long notes in the middle part of the movement.

III. Adagio ma non tanto: Careful and detailed in all parts: beautiful—just the unnecessary vibrato

IV. Allegro: Not surprisingly, the violin part is technically and musically flawless, carefully and cleanly articulated: Viktoria Mullova is a top-class violinist! Just the accompaniment occasionally feels a bit pushed and/or restless…

Rating: 4.5 / 4.5 / 4 / 4.5 = 4.4

Sonata No.4 in C minor, BWV 1017

I. Siciliano: The tempo may be a bit slow, occasionally on the verge of losing tension / momentum. However, the artists support their phrasing with beautiful agogics. The “hair in the soup”: the ritardando in the final bars feels too long and excessive.

II. Allegro: There is a slight dominance by the violin—but Viktoria Mullova compensates that by using light articulation.

III. Adagio: Beautiful, dark violin sonority on the g and d’ strings, simple, but expressive. Here, Viktoria Mullova’s vibrato is very much “in tune” with the music.

IV. Allegro: The balance between the instruments is far better that with Manze/Egarr and Podger/Pinnock. Transparent, excellent articulation—and no rush!

Rating: 4 / 4 / 4.5 / 4.5 = 4.2

Sonata No.5 in F minor, BWV 1018

I. (3/2): Rather slow—but, at least, there is some consistent (not persistent) flow, and Viktoria Mullova still is able to shape long phrases and melodies. Ottavio Dantone discreetely applies the appropriate, extra and fitting ornamentation. Solemn, expressive, diligent and expressive. Just the vibrato is sometimes a little too prominent…

II. Allegro: Excellent phrasing / structuring, and dialog between the instruments. Light articulation, no rush.

III. Adagio: Sadly, this is the one and only movement in all the sonatas where the strong and utterly nervous vibrato defeats the calm of the music. It even distracts from reading melodies and structure of the movement.

IV. Vivace: Of all the interpretations, this is the one with the most mellow, the least strict articulation. Harmonious, earnest, but also playful, and devoid of unnecessary swellings: the best interpretation in this movement!

Rating: 4 / 4 / 3 / 5 = 4.0

Sonata No.6 in G major, BWV 1019

I. Allegro: Brilliant: to me, the archetypical interpretation of this movement: excellent, natural tempo, joy, relaxed, yet fully attentive. Clarity and lightness in articulation, differentiated dynamics, excellent balance. Together with Faust/Bezuidenhout this is the best interpretation of this Allegro!

II. Largo: This is the only interpretation where the ciphered bass in the first two bars is left “naked”. For one, the ciphering may not be original, so no major objection here. Then, this has the advantage of creating a continuous bass line, which instantly enters a dialog with the violin part.

III. Allegro: Very good in articulation and sonority. The permanent use of full registering (8′ + 8′ + 4′, presumably) makes the movement feel a bit noisy. And Ottavio Dantone can’t quite compete with Kristian Bezuidenhout in terms of agogics and Klangrede.

IV. Adagio: The interpretation with the clearly most fluid pace—still expressive (with vibrato, though…)

V. Allegro: Excellent violin sonority and articulation, careful and detailed, also in dynamics. Sadly no cadenzas in the two general rests: missed opportunities!

Rating: 5 / 4 / 4.5 / 4 / 4 = 4.3


Isabelle Faust / Kristian Bezuidenhout, 2016

Bach: Violin Sonatas BWV 1014-1019, Faust/Bezuidenhout, CD cover

J.S. Bach, Sonatas for Cembalo concertato & Violin, BWV 1014 – 1019

Isabelle Faust, Kristian Bezuidenhout

Harmonia mundi France HMM 902256.57 (2 CDs, ℗/© 2017)

Bach: Violin Sonatas BWV 1014-1019, Faust/Bezuidenhout, CD, EAN-13 barcode
amazon media link
spacer5

Artists & Instruments

Isabelle Faust (*1972) plays a 1658 violin by Jacobus Stainer (1618 – 1683). Kristian Bezuidenhout (*1979, see Wikipedia for more information) performs on a 2008 harpsichord by John Phillips, after a 1722 instrument by Johann Heinrich Gräbner the Elder (1705 – 1777), Dresden, kindly offered by Trevor Pinnock (who didn’t yet have this replica in 2000, for his recording with Rachel Podger).

The recording took place on 2016-08-18:24 at the Teldex Studio, Berlin.

The Performance (new, 2023)

Sonata No.1 in B minor, BWV 1014

I. Adagio: without any doubt, this is the most differentiated accompaniment, in terms of articulation (careful, detailed), agogics / tempo—simply excellent! And Isabelle Faust manages to maintain tension, intensity and expression—completely without vibrato: masterful. Most amazing: bars 33 & 34 turns into a dramatic cadenza—without altering Bach’s notation!

II. Allegro: Light and differentiated articulation, rich agogics and dynamics, extra, but non-intrusive (fitting) extra ornaments, long notes evolving with subtle dynamics (and a very slight, equally evolving vibrato). Dancing…

III. Andante: beautiful, of course, and a proper Andante, once more with the most differentiated accompaniment (agogics, articulation, ornamentation).

IV. Allegro: The fastest of the interpretations, light, full of drive, active, forward-leaning, fun, playful, yet relaxed and differentiated in the articulation—masterful!

Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 5.0

Sonata No.2 in A major, BWV 1015

I (6/8): Beautiful: three balanced voices, excellent agogics (particularly also in Kristian Bezuidenhout’s accompaniment!), phrasing and articulation. Even acoustically (sound/sonority, spatial resolution)—in all aspects, this performance is a class above all others!

II. Allegro: Fluid, joyful, differentiated in dynamics, articulation, agogics. The light, elegant spiccato effectively avoids even the slightest traces of “sawing” or monotony. Plasticity throughout, and listening to this light, but rich violin arpeggio is purest pleasure.

III. Andante un poco: unusually fluid—but an excellent, even brilliant reading of “Andante un poco“, properly in crotchets!

IV. Presto: Equal partners in a lively interplay / dialog! Fluid, but never pushed, Beautiful, long phrases / arches—devoid of even traces of shortness of breath. And, of course, repeats appear with extra ornaments—very fitting, never intrusive, rather natural, even inconspicuous. One can literally sense the joy and pleasure that the artists must have experienced playing this!

Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 5.0

Sonata No.3 in E major, BWV 1016

I. Adagio: The most beautiful rendition of a (musically) highly demanding movement: long phrases and flowing melody lines—at a fluid pace, totally appropriate for an Adagio in 4/4 time.

II. Allegro: the differentiation in articulation, agogics and dynamics completely avoids even moments of monotony in the quaver lines.

III. Adagio ma non tanto: gentle, careful, shaped down to smallest motifs. And: I was very pleased to note how well one could sense the occasional subtle harmonic strain of playing E major on a harpsichord with appropriate, non-equal temperament tuning!

IV. Allegro: Tension, enthralling, virtuosic, full of sparkling life, and with detailed, subtle dynamics.

Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 5.0

Sonata No.4 in C minor, BWV 1017

I. Siciliano: Broad arches, calm flow, differentiated, careful accompaniment, subtly ornamented (already in the first pass, more in the repeats). Long, seemingly flat notes on the violin—yet full of life. It’s jaw-dropping to note how Isabelle Faust plays out the extended dissonance, the harmonic tension in appoggiaturas on long notes! A particularly nice detail: the little fioritura that leads back to the repeat!

II. Allegro: Klangrede throughout—right from the first note, and not just in the descant, but also in the harpsichordist’s left hand! Close and harmonious interaction between the artists—particularly obvious in the matching of imitations. Here, Kristian Bezuidenhout broadens the sonority by momentarily adding the 16′ stop to the bass line. The instrument is a true marvel in sonority!

III. Adagio: Just beautiful, serene, peaceful—yet simple, unsophisticated in the expression. Klangrede and singing in every motif, harmonious flow—in the (clearly) most fluid of the performances! In bar 57, the artists don’t try “smoothing out” the transition from quaver triplets to semiquavers: the last four bars appear as a link from the Adagio to the final Allegro, where semiquavers dominate.

IV. Allegro: Here, the virtuosity is in maintaining detailed articulation and dynamics in a rhythmically intricate interplay between violin and harpsichord. It all sounds so easy here—and natural. Even the tricky rhythmic shifts (semiquaver “triplet” sequences) appear almost inconspicuous!

Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 5.0

Sonata No.5 in F minor, BWV 1018

I. (3/2): This rich narration in the harpsichord part, with gently arpeggiated articulation. The violin joins in in long notes with warm, dark sonority, in which Isabelle Faust applies a subtle vibrato, just to let the tone gradually evolve. The pace is distinctly faster than all other interpretations: in direct confrontation, this may feel “unresty”—but once the listener is “in” the interpretation, one doesn’t even notice! And this sudden f gesture in bar 87: brilliant! Movement and interpretation are true masterworks!

II. Allegro: Light, relaxed, “stress-free”. An excellent balance, forming a true trio sonata. Full of lively imitations. Also here, Kristian Bezuidenhout occasionally resorts to the instrument’s 16′ stop.

III. Adagio: Amazingly fluid: for the harpsichord part, this may seem (too) fast, but it allows Isabelle Faust to structure her part into phrases and arches. Fascinating in the violin part, but maybe a tad fast for the listener to read the demisemiquaver figures in the harpsichord. The antagonist to Manze/Egarr‘s interpretation!

IV. Vivace: More than once, I heard statements claiming that Isabelle Faust’s interpretations tend to be a bit “heady”, intellectual. This may be one instance where I could agree with such claims: driven, pushing forward (even accelerating), somewhat relentless, too vivace perhaps?

Rating: 5 / 5 / 4.5 / 4 = 4.6

Sonata No.6 in G major, BWV 1019

I. Allegro: The fastest, freshest of the interpretations! However, it is relaxed, full of joy, playfulness. Kristian Bezuidenhout enriches his part with extra, small ornaments—so natural that one wouldn’t even think they aren’t by the composer! And the sonority of both instruments is truly excellent—thanks to a superb recording.

II. Largo: A noble, stately, duet-recitative-intermezzo—thoughtful, momentous, with distinct intra-bar swaying / agogics, deriving its tension from the punctuated rhythm, building up expectation towards the central movement:

III. Allegro: Simply excellent! Very fluid, outstanding in agogics / phrasing (Klangrede in every note), articulation, and the integration of (original and extra) ornaments, enthralling, swaying… Kristian Bezuidenhout at his best!

IV. Adagio: What a contrast! Mourning, pain, longing, suffering, emotional strain in every bar—and yet so beautiful, so expressive, even almost completely devoid of vibrato! The movement is built around the passus duriusculus (a.k.a. chromatic fourth), a sequence of descending half-tone intervals that only openly shows up in the penultimate bar (#20), before the movements ends with a gentle question mark. Monumental!

V. Allegro: The last movement once more shows the marvelous, colorful sonority of Isabelle Faust’s Stainer violin. So differentiated in the articulation, sparkling—and the harpsichord and violin cadenzas (bar #71 and #88, respectively): fitting and brilliant! A suitable last dance after a long journey through the six sonatas!

Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 5.0


Summary and Conclusions

In the original version of this comparison (without Faust / Bezuidenhout), I did not have a clear favorite, but merely a slight preference for Mullova / Dantone (followed by Manze / Egarr and Podger / Pinnock on a par). With the addition of Faust / Bezuidenhout, this has changed dramatically. Also, my judgement of the three original sets of artists, my conclusions are now more differentiated.

Sonority

In terms of richness in sonority and recording quality, Faust / Bezuidenhout are the clear winners. At the other end, the Podger / Pinnock recording offers a dull, muddy, intransparent harpsichord sound. The addition of a viola da gamba in two sonatas in the Manze / Egarr (& ter Linden) recording proved counter-productive. The Mullova / Dantone recording is excellent, but can’t quite match Fast / Bezuidenhout: beautiful violin sound, but the only one with ubiquitous vibrato.

Tempo

Manze / Egarr show a tendency towards moderate, at times slow tempo. At the other end, Faust / Bezuidenhout present the swiftest performances almost throughout—and with one exception, this is a huge benefit for the music, thanks to the superb artistry of the two musicians. Mullova is in-between, but typically faster than Manze and Podger.

Articulation, Clarity, Agogics, Klangrede, Ornamentation

Time has moved on since 1999 (Manze / Egarr) or 2000 (Podger / Pinnock): Faust / Bezuidenhout win this hands-down!

Ratings?

With respect to the ratings in the above table one might ask: can it be that one recording is just perfect almost everywhere? Of course, nothing is 100.0% perfect—that would be boring! Plus, perfection is not the objective here. Rather, it’s musicality, and the listener’s musical experience, which also is influenced by acoustics & the sound engineers. However, as long as there is no obvious flaw or a feature that I clearly dislike, I think it is OK to leave Faust / Bezuidenhout at the best rating for most movements—to me, it is indeed a reference recording (virtually) throughout.

Overall…

Without hesitation, I can give the strongest possible recommendation for the recording with Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout. In case you can’t let go of vibrato (and a more traditional violin sound), then Viktoria Mullova and Ottavio Dantone certainly offer an excellent, viable alternative.


Literature

Harnoncourt, N. (1983). Musik als Klangrede : Wege zu einem neuen Musikverständnis : Essays und Vorträge. Residenz Verlag, Salzburg. ISBN 978-3-7017-0315-9.



AboutImpressum, LegalSite Policy | TestimonialsAcknowledgementsBlog Timeline
Typography, ConventionsWordPress Setup | Resources, ToolsTech/Methods/Pics/Photography

2 thoughts on “Bach: Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin BWV 1014 – 1019”

  1. “The recording took place on 2016-08-18:24 at the Teldex Studio, Berlin” -> 18-24.VIII.2016
    “2 CDs, ℗ 2007” -> 2017
    😉

    Reply

Leave a Comment