* BACH: Sonata No. 1 in b, BWV 1014; Sonata No. 3 in E, BWV 1016; Sonata in g, BWV 1020; Sonata in b, BWV 1030; Sonata in E-flat: Siciliana, BWV 1031 – Lara St. John, violin/ Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp – Ancalagon multichannel SACD 139, 64:39 *****:
In the promo information for this disc, Lara St. John admits that though she has had a lifelong relationship with this composer, “The Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord eluded me. Of course I had known them for a long time, but somehow I never thought they quite clicked. With harpsichord, I found them rather unsubtle, and modern piano always seemed so heavy-handed and just not quite right.” Since she is also admittedly influenced by compatriot Glenn Gould, it would be interesting to get her thoughts on his recordings of the sonatas with the ever-reliable Jaime Laredo, long a favorite of mine, whose CBS readings are currently available on Sony.  St. John is not incorrect in perceiving the difficulties of these works—they are Bach, and yet they are different, not easily revealing the gems underneath the printed page, and I have heard many violin and harpsichord recordings that make these out to be almost second rate, and usually dull as nails. The modern-day period instrument movement has only exacerbated these faults to my mind.
Gould was on to something though; his usual sense of clarity and articulation awoke the sleeping slumber of these pieces and brought them alive. Laredo, maybe not the most obvious choice to partner Gould, used his own innate musicality to contrast with what Gould was doing, and the results are maybe the best complete set of these sonatas to date. We encounter a similar situation here; St. John doesn’t seem too interested in creating a “unified” approach with Berlin Philharmonic Principal Harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet, but instead seeks a way of playing off the harp’s unique timbre and sonic capabilities with her instrument’s own particular characteristics, and her own well-established Bachian sense of form and line. What we get are readings of great finesse and power that also, in perhaps one of the very few recorded examples, show Bach not only as a contrapuntist and melodist, but as a composer equally adept at exhibiting instrumental color as well. This alone adds enormous emotional connotations to these pieces—at least the violin sonatas—that are often hard to detect in other readings.
Besides the two violin/harpsichord sonatas we are also given two of the flute sonatas as well. The first in G-minor (BWV 1020) is often disputed as to authorship. In fact, three manuscripts exist, one clearly indicating Sebastian as the author, another clearly indicating his son CPE Bach, and a third teasingly labeled “Mr. Bach”. It is certainly possible that father and son collaborated on this work; it is also possible that JS himself is the author, as there are many instances of his either reverting to a previous style or imitating a newer style for the sake of expediency. Either way the work is fabulous; I see no reason to strip it from the canon until irrefutable proof is offered. The B-minor sonata is of course well known, and the juxtaposition of instruments on both parts does nothing to detract from this wonderful work (though those who want the flute can do no better that acquire Sefika Kutluer’s recording on Gallo). Actually the sound that St. John and Langlamet produce makes this one of the easiest-on-the-ears Bach recordings I have ever heard—its stress-reducing properties are obvious from the first notes. My only caveat, especially after hearing the final Siciliana from Flute Sonata BWV 1031, is that we weren’t given the whole thing as there is plenty of room.
As usual, Ancalagon gives us an absolutely first-rate production, superb booklet notes in full color, and some of the best Super Audio surround sound on the market today. I keep insisting that small group chamber music provides some of the best opportunities to show off surround sound, and this disc proves the point. When the music is as brilliant and sparkling as we have here—Bach would certainly be thrilled—there simply remains no excuse under the sun to avoid acquiring this disc immediately. This composer oozes from the souls of these two performers.
—Steven Ritter