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Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord BWV 1014-1019

Bach's Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord, Part 6

Continue from Part 5

Donald Satz wrote (March 11, 2001):
The last Sonata, BWV 1019 in G major, exists in at least three versions; there is a basic design of the movements that has traditionally been played as the G major, but most sets include alternative movements as well. First, I will review the "basic" five movements and provide my overall conclusions about the performances of the six sonatas. Then, I'll cover the alternative movements of the G major and the other works on many of the recordings.

The first movement Allegro is vivacious and exciting music which has existed in each of the various versions. It's rare that one performance would make all the others seem superfluous, but that's the position I'm in. Kuijken and Leonhardt simply blow away the competition for a number of reasons. First, Leonhardt is fabulous and the only one whose harpsichord is truely a distinct partner to the violin. Second, Kiujken's phrasing and accenting are superb, greatly adding to the exitement of the listening experience. Third, their partnership represents a perfect unison of stature. Fourth, their flow is irresitably smooth at its foundation. Every other version has its virtues, but comparison to the Kuijken reading is not complimentary. I should note that Wallfisch and Goebel race through the Allegro; the greater speed does add excitement to Geobel's performance, but it does nothing for Wallfisch as she and Nicholson are rather helter-skelter.

The second movement is a very short Largo in E minor under two minutes. The music is thoroughly melancholy, and all I ask is that I feel that melancholy and inner pain when listening to a performance. Blumenstock doesn't do it for me because she very surprisingly projects weakly, leaving poor John Butt "holding the bag". Terakado does something he has had a penchant for in these sonatas - a highly civilized and well manicured reading that diminishes the conveyance of depth of feeling. van Dael, Manze, and Huggett could project more strongly. Mackintosh is not very expressive, Holloway and Moroney are rather choppy, and Biondi's violin tone is too romantic for my tastes.

Other less than excellent readings come from Wallfisch and Schroder. Wallfisch continues her speedy ways from the first movement with a diminished depth of emotions. Schroder does fine, but the harpsichord tends to drown him out.

Four versions strongly convey to me the inner hurt and resignation of the Largo: Goebel, Kuijken, Ronez, and Podger. Each projects clearly and expressively, and each receives outstanding partnership from the harpsichord. Their performances enter the soul.

The third movement is the famous cembalo solo (it's famous to me). If you've never heard this solo, you might be missing out on the most happy and joyous classical music ever written. It's certainly one of Bach's most magical creations and quite a contrast with the ever so sad Largo.

I'm not sure how I got into the situation, but I've been listening to Alessandrini's cembalo solo for a few weeks now in my car - dozens of times. It's been a great mood enhancer. There's a delightful innocence and lightness; at the same time, Alessandrini applies just the right degree of weight to insure no whimsical properties. I look forward to comparing it to the other versions.

Schroder's partner Ingolfsdottir is a little slow and never takes flight; the performance sounds slightly stodgy. The same applies to Terakado's partner Henstra. Pinnock and Cole provide much more exuberance than Ingolfsdottir or Henstra with very fine readings. My only reservation is that I would have liked performances with additional edge to them. John Butt has the right spirit but is somewhat bass shy; the result is reduced exuberance. Egarr must be learning low projection from Manze, because a strong volume boost is sorely needed. Another problem is that Egarr uses a strumming effect with his left hand that I find distracting. Leonhardt is a little slow and deliberate; joy is in the air but excitement is low.

Before I get to the great performances, I need to tell you about a performance I can't listen to. This concerns the set from Goebel/Hill; they use an early version of BWV 1019 - 1019a. The cembalo simply isn't in this early version, but the repetition of the first movement masquerading as the fifth movement is included. Goebel/Hill even includes four additional works - BWV 1021, 1022, 1023, and 1024. But still no cembalo solo. All this might well be justified in a historical fashion. But I don't care about that!! All I know is that my favorite movement from the entire set is absent. How am I going to get my gratification? As far as I'm concerned, those two men made a musically stupid decision - you don't throw out gold and insert copper just to provide some neat little historical accuracy. This is a major blot on the Goebel/Hill set, and it tells me something else. Nobody who loves the cembalo solo as I do would disregard it when recording the set. I'm particularly disappointed in Goebel and Archiv. Well, I'm through with my little tirade and it's on to some wonderful performances.

Those wonderful performances come from Kubitschek, Moroney, Koopman, Alessandrini, van Asperen, and Nicholson. I know I've said little positive about Nicholson up to this point, but he absolutely shines in the cembalo solo. Kubitschek and Koopman shine also, but it's the other three who best supply the bubbly bounce, joy, and excitement built on perpetual motion. Alessandrini, van Asperen, and Moroney score big points on this one.

Before moving forward to the fourth movement, a few more words about the Goebel G major Sonata are in order. I had mentioned that Goebel uses an earlier version of the Sonata than in the other sets. The impact happens with the third, fourth, and fifth movements; the first two movements were already in the earlier versions. In essence, Goebel's third and fourth movements are "alternative" movements and added as an appendix to many other sets. So, I'll cover Goebel's third and fourth movements when I hit the alternative movements from the other sets. Goebel's fifth movement, a repeat of the first movement, won't be mentioned again. If you're confused at this point, you have company with me.

The fourth movement is an Adagio in B minor which takes us back to the melancholy and sadness of the second movement. Terakado and his partner are not particularly sad, once again providing performances which are polite and surface-bound. Huggett and Koopman sound rushed at times, and Huggett is rather reticent. Worthy versions are given by Manze, Wallfisch, Schroder, Mackintosh, and Blumenstock. The excellent performances are from van Dael, Ronez, Biondi, Kuijken, and Holloway. The slowest and most rewarding issue is Podger's thoroughly melancholy and heart-felt reading.

The G major Sonata is the only one with a fifth movement, and it's an Allegro in the style of a gigue. The music is exciting, happy, and highly lyrical. All of the versions are enjoyable with Huggett and Manze leading the pack with dynamic performances; Manze's projection here is much better than in many other movements.

Conclusions for the Six Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord:

I don't recall any sterling reviews in the periodicals for the set from Elizabeth Blumenstock and John Butt, but I consider this the best of the fourteen versions. The stage belongs to Blumenstock who combines a lovely and incisive violin tone with readings which are always idiomatic and strike to the core. My only reservation concerns the cembalo solo where Mr. Butt is less exhuberant than most of the other artists.

Second in my affection is the van Dael/van Asperen set. van Dael is excellent and expertly partnered by van Asperen whose cembalo solo caps off an exceptional set of performances. I also highly recommend the sets from Ronez, Kuijken, Podger, and Huggett. Concerning Ronez, her violin tone will not be pleasant to many listeners and is more geared toward thard-core period instrument fan.

The next group consists of Biondi, Schroder, Mackintosh, and Holloway; each represents a worthy acquisition. I had some problems with Biondi's relatively romantic violin tone, so those not sharing my personal issue here might well find the set excellent for in all other respects it is great music-making. Schroder and Mackintosh are very safe recommendations. Holloway's violin tone could be an acquired taste, although he is not in Ronez's league in this respect.

I can only give qualified recommendations on the sets from Wallfisch, Goebel, and Terakado. Wallfisch is often too fast and Nicholson's contributions not exemplary. However, Wallfisch does project very well, and Nicholson is excellent in the cembalo solo. My problem with Goebel's set is the omission of the cembalo solo. Terakado presents well-packaged and manicured performances more suitable for background listening than total concentration.

Just based on personal opinion, I'd have to recommend taking a pass on the Manze set. The lack of sufficient projection from Manze and the use of the gamba in the first two Sonatas ruins this set for me. However, I know how to read, and I've read nothing but excellent reviews. Evidently, what I hear as nothing more than under-projection is considered by most listeners as wonderful nuances, mystery, and expressiveness. Also, most appear to love the gamba's contributions. As for me, I'll be handing the Manze off to my daughter. She borrowed a few sets from me many months ago and declared Manze the most enjoyable.

There is a lot of additional music left to cover on most of the sets; I'll get to that in Part 7. The sets without any additional music come from Biondi, Kuijken, Schroder, and Ronez. I don't hold that against them, but I can't deny that it makes the timings rather skimpy. In some cases I may be revising upward my opinion of some other sets if I find their added performances to be exceptional.

Continue on Part 7

Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord BWV 1014-1019: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Carmignola & Marcon | Comberti & Tilney | Ngai & Watchorn (Satz) | Ngai & Watchorn (McElhearn) | Ronez & Kubitschek | Standage & Ad-El

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