Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Bach Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord

Johannn Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Complete Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord
Sonata No. 1 in G major BWV 1027 [12:05]
Sonata No. 2 in D major BWV 1028 [15:33]
Sonata No. 3 in G minor BWV 1029 [15:10]

Daniel Yeadon viola da gamba
Neal Peres Da Costa harpsichord
Recorded 16-19 June 2004 and 9-12 March 2006 in the Eugene Goossens Hall of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ultimo Centre, New South Wales, Australia STEREO DDD
ABC CLASSICS 476 3394 [43:15]

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Bach’s sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord are better known through arrangements - cello and piano, cello and harpsichord, viola and harpsichord – than in their original configuration. Daniel Yeadon and Neal Peres Da Costa, demonstrate the musical value of returning to the original instrumentation in these impressively lively, engaging and historically sensitive accounts. The timbral and dynamic variety within the gamba sound was clearly at the forefront of Bach’s mind as he wrote these sonatas, the singing quality at the top, the satisfying lugubriousness lower down, differences that neither the cello nor the viola is quite capable of capturing.

The works are essentially trio sonatas, with contrapuntal melodic lines in the gamba and harpsichord right hand over a continuo (but rarely figured) bass in the left. This can cause problems of balance, given the harpsichord’s lack of punch and the disparity between the opulent upper register and diminutive lower register of the gamba. The clarity of both instruments at all registers on this recording is admirable, but the harpsichord right hand is almost always the most dominant of the three parts. This allows the gamba to weave in and out rather than dominate as a solo instrument, although Bach’s use of the gamba’s upper strings to cut through the counterpoint is elegantly represented. The Eugene Goossens Hall in Sydney has a satisfyingly resonant acoustic, and both instruments benefit from the acoustical warmth it offers. The Allegro moderato finale of the first sonata is the only movement on the disc in which the contrapuntal detail is threatened by the resonance, and even here the risk pays off, the ambience giving the harpsichord lines valuable continuity.

The performances are lively and engaging, and the occasionally daring tempi never fail to convince. The opening movement of the second suite is a case in point. The square brackets around the adagio on the track listing suggest scepticism that the indication was Bach’s own. With this in mind, the incredibly slow tempo is a brave interpretive decision, but again, the timbral richness of both instruments, the warmth of the hall and some appropriately discrete ornamentation and rubato ensure that the results make perfect musical sense.

Of the three suites, the third is the most interesting. Bach increases the textural variety to include passages in parallel 6ths between the harpsichord right hand and gamba, large leaps between the gamba strings and even at one point quadruple stopping. Both players make the most of these textural details, without undue exaggeration, bringing the programme to an impressive and satisfying conclusion.

Musically accomplished performances then, and excellently served by both the choice of venue and the sound recording. In terms of the post-production, intervals between the tracks are on the long side, slightly compromising the integrity of each of the suites, especially given the disciplined cadences with which the players end each movement. The liner notes by Neal Peres Da Costa are insightful and comprehensive, even going so far as to describe the harpsichord to those unfamiliar with the instrument. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is evidently anticipating a very broad audience, and well they might. It is a recording that will be of equally high value to those familiar with the works, those new to them, and those new to them in their original form.  

Gavin Dixon 2010

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