Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Bach Viola da Gamba Sonatas Robert Smith Sarah Cunningham

BACH Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV 1027–9. SCHAFFRATH Sonata for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord in A, CSWV:F:29. ROBERT SMITH Dido’s Torment
Robert Smith (vdg)
Francesco Corti (hpd)
RESONUS 10278 (62:51)


BACH Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV 1027–9. Trio Sonata in a, BWV 1031 (arr. Cunningham). Flute Sonata in a, BWV 1013: Allemande (arr. Cunningham)
Sarah Cunningham (vdg)
Richard Egarr (hpd)
AVIE 2491 (56:16)


Bach’s viola da gamba sonatas are staples of the repertoire, but, as these two releases show, there is plenty of scope for interpretation. Of the three, only the G-Major, BWV 1027, survives in Bach’s own hand, and the later sources differ considerably in terms of articulation and phrasing. There is also a satisfying stylistic diversity between the three works. They were previously thought to date from Bach’s Cöthen period, 1717–23, but recent research by Christoph Wolff and others points instead to the 1730s/40s and Leipzig. Tellingly, the style of the works themselves is little clue: Bach remained the staunch Baroque contrapuntalist, even as the Classical age was unfolding around him. That is clear both from his choice of solo instrument and from his close alignment to the trio sonata model, especially in the G-Major Sonata, but significantly so in the other two sonatas as well.

Gambist Robert Smith and harpsichordist Francesco Corti are at the stricter end of the period performance spectrum in their accounts of the sonatas. Smith’s gamba (Pierre Bohr, after Colichon) has a light tone, and his delicate bowing emphasizes the higher partials. Tempos are brisk and steady, and Corti’s harpsichord (Christoph Kern, after Mietke) provides an even, cleanly defined texture beneath. The harpsichord, too, is light of tone, and the balance between the instruments is always well maintained, with the duets between the right hand and the gamba playful and clear. This recording presents the three sonatas in the reverse of the BWV order: 1029, 1028, 1027. That focusses attention away from the G-Major, 1027, a smart move given its greater familiarity.

The three sonatas don’t fill a disc, and there are no obvious fillers, even from Bach’s vast catalog. Smith makes two additions. The first is a sonata by Christopher Schaffrath (c. 1710–1763), a younger contemporary, based in Dresden. Schaffrath, too, is looking back in his writing for gamba, but not as far as Bach, and this is a much more galant work, with longer melodies and less focus on counterpoint. An elegant addition, especially in this sparkling rendition. The other filler is a work of Smith’s own devising, Dido’s Torment, an updated gloss on Dido’s Lament. The fact that this also fits into the program (just!) highlights the variety of styles and moods in the Bach sonatas. Smith’s sound is much broader here, suggesting that the lighter tone he adopts for the Bach is a conscious choice.

Sarah Cunningham and Richard Egarr take a different approach. Although harpsichordist Egarr has more name recognition, he takes a back seat to gambist Cunningham, who very much leads these accounts. She applies rubato—or at least emphatic phrasing—the way you might expect in an unaccompanied suite, and Egarr follows her lead. The tempos are slower than from Smith and Corti, and considerably slower than the norm. That can be a risky strategy: when a long note is held on the gamba, there is no scope for vibrato, and plainness of tone can become an issue. But Cunningham applies imaginative bowing techniques, often subtly modulating the sound towards the end of a held note. And Egarr always has much counterpoint to contribute beneath. A more resonant instrumentarium also helps, the gamba by Jane Julier, after Bertrand, the harpsichord by David Rubio, after Taskin. Another problem for gambists is the narrowing of tone in the upper register. That comes to the fore in the second movement, Allegro ma non tanto, of the G-Major Sonata. Both gambists sound more attenuated here, but Cunningham comes across best, still maintaining color and vibrancy in her tone.

The fillers on the Cunningham release are more traditional, a Bach trio sonata arranged for gamba and harpsichord, and the Allamende from the Flute Partita, BWV 1013, transposed down an octave and a half for performance by solo gamba. In the trio sonata, the high register again becomes an issue, and the fact that it is so rarely a problem in Bach’s own gamba sonatas suggests he was aware of this. The Allemande is elegant, but Cunningham’s stately pace draws it out to almost 10 minutes, which seems an indulgence.

Two attractive recordings, of much-performed repertoire. Sarah Cunningham and Richard Egarr offer the more approachable version, more directly expressive and warmer of tone. Robert Smith and Francesco Corti seem more disciplined by comparison. They are probably closer to the HIP consensus in a version that is more about rhythm and accent than tone and sustain. Take your pick.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:6.


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