J.S. BACH: Complete Sonatas for Viola Da Gamba; Cantata 175: “Es dunket mich”; Cantata 183: “Ich furchte nicht” – Audrey Cienniwa, violoncello piccolo/ Paul Cienniwa, harpsichord – Whaling City Sound 46, 57:03 ***:
Bach’s viol or viola da gamba sonatas were written during his middle years in Leipzig. The three included in this and most sets have not been conclusively established to belong together though it makes a lot of sense to couple them that way. The viol today is enjoying somewhat of a resurgence; especially among amateur players the instrument is gaining a second wind, and with the explosion of interest in late medieval and early renaissance music—and much of it playable without a professional’s equipment–it is enjoying a second life.
But in the world of pro music, especially Bach’s world, the gamba family eventually lost out to the violin family, whose resonance and more powerful sound made playing in large ensembles more attractive than the simple consort setting. The three pieces plus a couple of fingers of miscellany constitute Bach’s main contribution to the genre, and fine they are indeed, though one will notice that the music is somewhat thorny, not as readily tuneful and palatable for those used to Bach the great melodist. There is also the question of continuo where several different couplings have been tried on record, and of course the perennial question of what instrument to actually play them on in the modern world.
The last may seem silly, but before the current indulgence of period performers the music had to suffice being played on what was at hand. Casals, amazingly enough, left us a monophonic recording still available on Sony. Cellists have found the music particularly attractive, and my benchmark is still the Leonard Rose/Glenn Gould recording, a particularly vibrant and well-considered reading as one might expect from these two. Janos Starker also left two of the suites on his Mercury SACD recording of the Cello Suites. Others have tackled them as well, most notably Kim Kim Kashkashian on ECM (viola) and Pieter Wispelwey on Chandos – also playing a violoncello piccolo only using a second cello and organ as continuo. This last is very adventurous, and I am not sure how authentic, but it is surely a wondrous interpretation that deserves high marks for creativity.
More to the point is how much better Wispelwey plays this music than Mr. Cienniwa does here. The Chandos reading has a flair and mastery that I find lacking on this recording. There are a number of places where the intonation, if not blatantly out-of-tune, certainly sounds like it is about to head in that direction, and the artist comes across as one struggling to gain the upper hand with his instrument. There is nothing egregious here, only an overall sense of being uncomfortable. I am not sure that the violoncello piccolo is well-suited to this music either, and this criticism also applies to the Wispelwey as well. On this recording the harpsichord is by far the dominant instrument.
Aside from the evident beauties of the performances on the Rose recording, there is little need to not hear this music on its intended source. The recording by Jordi Savall stands out as a premiere reading that simply gushes excellence as does Michael Behringer on Hanssler. I do wish I could be more enthusiastic about this release, but there you have it.
— Steven Ritter