J.S. BACH SONATAS FOR VIOLA DA GAMBA AND HARPSICHORD
Move Records MD 3396
Robert James Stove’s booklet notes for this all-Bach CD begin by noting that ‘it is remarkable how his sonatas for viola da gamba and keyboard remain in the shadows, at best, of most music lovers’ consciousness.’ He’s quite right, in a way: you won’t find many of us able to quote the initial themes of any movement in these three works, while our awareness of the cello suites, violin partitas and flute sonatas is theoretically profound. I’m trying to recall when – or if – I’ve heard one of these gamba works in live performance but nothing springs to mind; cellists would be able to program them without much difficulty, but what’s the point when they’re already gifted with a mighty unaccompanied repertoire?
It’s not that we don’t have access to the instrument’s sound from local players, although I come from that generation where period instruments remained an unknown field until our post-university years. Not that we didn’t know about Dolmetsch and solitary standard-bearers like Landowska but their efforts were swamped by a musical administration in this country that just didn’t want to know. If you search out these sonatas on modern CD catalogues, you’re swamped for choice – which might argue against Stove’s statement concerning their position in public consciousness. But then, just because a work is recorded doesn’t mean that it impinges on the serious music world’s communal awareness.
Gamba expert Laura Vaughan and harpsichordist Elizabeth Anderson have produced a finely balanced recording of the sonatas, padding out their CD with a few arrangements: the two C Major Fugues BWV 952 and 953 where Vaughan takes the middle voice, and the Trio Sonata in D minor from the set of six for organ, with the left hand part handed to the string player. These fillers can disorient the casual listener by highlighting the middle line in each piece; probably more problematic in the little fugues where we’ve been taught to respect linear equality of timbre. Not that this turns to irritation as the works are pretty transparent; the only ‘crowded’ polyphony in the BWV 952, where Bach ventures into minor keys at the fugue’s centre, presents no complex web to be deciphered. In the other miniature, the gamba has more to do and, after the soprano line’s subject statement, has only about 4 bars of silence, being involved with lots of semiquaver work which necessarily attracts the ear away from whatever Anderson’s left hand is doing. Indeed, the players might have been better advised to choose something more polyphonically taxing than these two slight keyboard scraps.
In the trio sonata, the mix works to better effect, I assume because the two upper parts are not challenged by a comparably interesting bass line, so the listener’s focus falls on the interweaving and imitation between gamba and harpsichord treble. The first movement is taken at a rather staid Andante pace, but not significantly different to many another organ solo reading. Vaughan indulges in a bit of adjustment, taking her line down an octave for a stretch. The following Adagio e dolce is more problematic because the gamba sweeps all before it; despite the player’s best intentions, the string line is just too dominant and Anderson necessarily opts for a restrained registration. The finale works better, possibly because the string line is mobile and Vaughan’s octave displacements give the top line exposure at tricky moments. Yet the whole work has a deft purity to it – no ornamentation bells and whistles and a firm metre throughout with just a few slight rallentandi to avoid the suggestion of automatism.
The first of the gamba sonatas, that in G Major, follows an equable path without any surprises. Vaughan sets down her line with deliberation and Anderson maintains a benign commentary across the four movements. I would have liked more bite from the string in parts of the first Allegro, for instance at throwaway segments like bars 90-92 or that odd unexpected syncopated sequence in bars 57-8. But both musicians take their time with the odd movements, giving the strong melodic arabesques their full value and at all points letting the score breathe without hitching a ride on that relentless continuo homophony chugging band-wagon.
More immediately entertaining is the D Major Sonata No. 2. Vaughan has more extended opportunities to engage with Anderson’s quirky right hand figures and the faster movements, the Allegri, present with a vitality that takes you by surprise; indeed, these four tracks sound as though the recording microphones have been positioned closer to both performers . . . although that could just be more a comment on the music itself than the work of the company’s veteran recorder/editor, Vaughan McAlley. The first of these fast movements comes over as an excellent collaboration, the sharing of material finely judged, while the harpsichord’s acquisition of chords impresses more for its unexpectedness; not the one or two in the first half, but the chain from bars 72 to 75 which, in this context, sound as though Puyana has hit the studio. Later, the sheer busyness of the final movement is, in context, biting and crisp, the players deftly relieving the pressure when the movement hits F sharp minor at bar 84 and Bach thins out his layers for 12 bars or so before asking his players to bring us home with bounding enthusiasm.
The three-movement G minor Sonata opens with a marvellously economical Allegro, one of those instances in Bach’s works where the sheer manipulation of melodic cells distracts attention from the performance itself. For one of the more engrossing tracks on the CD, these musicians traverse the pages without labouring the point, offering the gentlest of hesitations at startling moments like the out-of-nowhere 7th chord at bar 39 and shaping those two points where both instruments play the opening figure in unison, suggesting the finale to the D minor Keyboard Concerto for a brief moment. Even better follows in the central Adagio where Vaughan and Anderson reach an interpretative high-point, the inbuilt pavane-like stateliness treated with an exemplary attention to detail but also with a communal fluency that displays a deep awareness of each other’s status at every point of the movement. As a result, the pages, despite a double-repeat, fly past. The second Allegro also passes agreably enough, the executants’ dovetailing as proficient as ever and Vaughan laudably exact; I liked the bite she gave to the triple- and double-stops during the 19th bar from the end, but would have liked a similar emphasis at the F Major explosion beginning bar 44: one of the few full-bodied chords (is it the only one?) for the gamba in all three sonatas.
However, in their basic character, these performances remain consistent. They exemplify a lightly-applied scholarship where the bar-line is not permitted to hold tyrannical sway; rather, each phrase is handled with apt consideration and the give-and-take of these amiable sonatas is honoured. Neither Vaughan nor Anderson tries to over-dramatise the scores, but you can find plenty of tension in their products – it just won’t slap you in the face with attention-grabbing force majeure; these two are no Baroque Kath and Kim. But they’re not effete tinkerers either and, if they stand among a large group of musicians who have recorded these gamba works, they are distinguished by a clean-edged honesty to their work.