Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 30 March 2022

BACH Sonatas for Violin and Piano Rahel Rilling

BACH Sonatas for Violin and Piano, BWV 1014–1019
Rahel Rilling (vn)
Johannes Roloff (pn)
Hänssler 20082 (2 CDs: 87:54)

This album is titled Pure Bach. That’s a good description of what you get—clean, well-balanced, and modern-sounding accounts that let the music speak for itself. In repertoire now dominated by the HIP movement, that could seem like a provocative or dissident approach, but the mood here is generally relaxed, with the performances are amiable throughout.

Rahel Rilling is the daughter of Helmuth Rilling, another advocated of modern-instrument Bach. She has pursued an impressively diverse career. She leads a crossover string quartet combo called Die Nixen, who seem to do a bit of everything: there is a clip of them playing bluegrass on YouTube. She is also a DJ for jazz, funk, and soul, resident at the Myslivska club in Berlin-Kreuzberg. She has been active as a violinist for 15 years or so, although this is her debut album.

The sound profile of the recording is warm, clear, and up-close. That suits Rilling’s approach, which is all about broad, bright tone and straightforward, emphatic phrasing. As well as HIP practice, she also avoids Romantic stylings. There is some vibrato to her tone, but it is narrow and unobtrusive. Ornaments too are modest, lightly decorating cadences. Tempos are generally on the slow side, although clear accents from Rilling’s precise bowing maintain a sense of propulsion. Curiously, though, the Presto finale of the Second Sonata is no faster than the Allegro finales in the others.

Pianist Johannes Roloff gives a similarly modern-sounding rendition of the keyboard part. His piano is warm and resonant in the sound picture, and the engineering carefully matches the two instruments in volume. But this is clearly Rilling’s show, with Roloff keeping pace at every turn, even matching her cadential trills in exact rhythmic unison.

Given the dominance of HIP in these works, this recording should be considered an outlier. The use of piano, rather than harpsichord, makes for a completely different sound, and the sheer resonance of the piano emphasizes the difference. The slower tempos, modest ornamentation, and vibrato in the violin are also part of that identity, although, as noted, none of this ever feels confrontational or polemic. The danger is that it can tend towards monotony. Evenness and clarity are presented here as musical virtues, and so they are, but after a few movements, it feels that more emphatic contrasts in tempo and timbre, and more adventurous ornamentation would benefit the listener, especially if they are planning to listen to all six sonatas in one sitting. But the purity of Pure Bach remains attractive, and the warm, round sound, both from the players and the engineering, gives the music a sense of immediacy and directness too often absent from gut string and harpsichord accounts.

This review appears in Fanfare issue 45:6.

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