BACH: Dual Review of Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, Complete – Cedille and Harmonia Mundi

by | Aug 18, 2018 | Classical CD Reviews

BACH: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord (Complete) – Isabelle Faust, violin/ Kristian Bezuidenhout, harpsichord – Harmonia mundi HMM 902256.57 (2 CDs), 87:39 *****:

BACH: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord (Complete) – Rachel Barton Pine, violin/ Jory Vinikour, harpsichord – Cedille CDR 90000 177 (2 CDs), 99:45 *****:

A dual review of two excellent renderings of Bach’s Violin/Harpsichord Sonatas!

It isn’t often that one gets a chance to do a head-to-head review of seminal works by JS Bach as played by two of the leading practitioners of the Bachian art. But, lo and behold, here we have nearly simultaneous releases of very important works by the master—and complete at that—which show that these pieces, for all the supposed scholarship of historical informed performances, can be as varied and different as can be imagined.

Rachel Barton Pine, Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord by Bach

Bach Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord
Rachel Barton Pine

These sonatas have never been as popular as the six solo partitas and sonatas, though there is no good reason why they should not be. Consistency in sources is a problem, no doubt, as these works, dating from Bach’s time in Cothen, have many different origins, and are more of a pastiche than the solo works. Nonetheless, the final products are simply superb in every way, and with performances as we have here, it is hard to believe that anyone hearing them won’t immediately reassess any previously held prejudices against them.

Bach himself couldn’t let these pieces alone. A note by Johann Christoph Friedrich even indicates that Bach “wrote these trios before his death”, meaning that he was still tinkering with them then, even though we know from existing evidence that as of 1725—a quarter century earlier—the first product issued from his pen. And they had a lasting impact, as CPE Bach said in 1774 that they “still sound very good now … even though they are over 50 years old. Despite the varied and many ways that the music came together—and you will hear many of these movements in other, sometimes wildly different ensembles—the six sonatas form an integrated set—they were not put together later by a publisher or someone with ulterior motives for profit. And the fact that the composer visited them at least four times shows the great interest he had in them.

Isabelle Faust, Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord

Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord
Isabelle Faust

Though a unified collection, the individual sonatas show great variety and strength of character. Each one demands a fresh and completely focused approach that doesn’t easily transfer from one sonata to the next. Hearing these two fabulous women interpret this music shows how deep are the Bachian feelings and how incredibly diverse the emotive content. Rachel Barton Pine’s approach, on her 1770 Nicola Gagliano violin, with partner Jory Vinikour on a 2012 copy of a Pascal Taskin harpsichord from 1769—and a gorgeous instrument—is by far the more “personal” performance here. She is direct and fervent, almost like she is performing for you alone, and that the music is designed by Bach to be communicated in this same, intensely personal manner. Both ladies are, of course, converts to the period cause, and neither of them are exclusively period practitioners, but listening to either of these recordings you would never know it. Isabelle Faust, on her 1658 Jacobus Stainer violin, accompanied by Kristian Bezuidenhout’s 2008 harpsichord after a 1722 Grabner, sees the music in a much different way. If Barton Pine is an intense Jane Austin conversation, Faust is a trip to the discotheque. Bright, wildly lit colors and dazzling virtuosity show the Bachian muse to be anything but echt personal—this is a sermon for the masses, stirring, exciting, and even mildly enervating, though never dull.

It’s nearly impossible to pick between the two, and I sure don’t want to. I suspect that when I pull these down it will be according to the mood I am in at the time. If pocketbook is a concern, the Barton Pine is two CDs for the price of one, while Faust remains stubbornly set at the high end $25 plus range. But get one of them at least—they are that good. Sound on each is wonderful, Pine closer and more directed, with Faust reverberant and airy.

—Steven Ritter

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