Johann Sebastian BACH. The sonatas for violin and harpsichord—Rachael Barton Pine (violin), Jory Vinikour (harpsichord)—Cedille Records CDR 900000 177—99:45, **** :

While we can’t afford Bach the title as inventor of the sonata for violin and continuo, he did provide us examples of the first concertos for keyboard and orchestra. And in a form that would be continued since his time, he left us six sonatas for keyboard and violin. What makes these different from the scores of sonatas that first appeared in Italy after 1600 is that the keyboard part acts not as a “continuous bass” but as bass and a second voice. The result are pieces written predominately in trio texture, with the right hand and violin often intertwined in harmony or else chasing one another, as Bach is known to do, in counterpoint.

Jory Vinikour (harpsichord) and Rachel Barton Pine (violin) take the historical approach in their recoding of the six sonatas (BWV 1014-1019) using period instruments and saving left-handed vibrato for another day. Bach’s structure for the sonatas is unusually consistent, save for the last sonata in G, which survives with alternative pieces, wrought in five instead of four movements. Vinikour and Barton Pine offer us first the version with a central solo harpsichord movement, but also includes an alternative cantabile for violin and harpsichord, BWV 1019a, if we’re so inclined to program our player.

Barton Pine shares in her liner notes wanting to learn all these sonatas after having to learn one for a performance. The high quality of her playing reveals both her love for the music and long association with the pieces.

RBP is a versatile musician and not strictly a baroque specialist. Bruce Haynes, in his book The End of Early Music: A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century, makes a distinction between different performing traditions, one in particular that approached the baroque repertoire with grounding in the romantic repertoire. Specifically when it came to phrasing, long phrases, played with a legato approach, was the norm. What the historically-informed movement did, in part, was have musicians re-evaluate their approach to the text by starting over. One result was a different approach to phrasing. Phrases became smaller and interpretation, in kind, changed as well. This distinction became apparent in my comparison of this recording’s version of the Vivace from BWV 1018 with other recordings in the historical tradition. Where Barton takes the short phrases as one larger arc, fusing the notes together, Stephano Montanari (in his recording with Christophe Rousset—Ambroisie) and Reinhard Goebel (in his recording with Henk Bouman—Archiv Production) articulate the line both with space between the notes and between the smaller phrase groups. The distinction too is illustrated in another comparison. In the Cantabile, BWV 1019a, the phrasing is less about the insertion of space, but how articulation is pronounced in one long arc versus smaller groups of notes. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Barton Pine’s approach is to perform the line as one long string, as we might equate to a long, deep breath. Musica Alta Ripa (Anne Röhrig—Dabringhaus und Grimm Gold) and Goebel group their phrasing similarly. Their approaches are still an organic solution, but the musical breaths here and faster tempos are don’t conjure images of one’s face going blue. Finally, the opening of BWV 1016 would require giant gulps of air if Barton Pine’s rendition were sung. Monica Huggett’s phrases, playing with Ton Koopman (Philips Classics), is organized around smaller, tighter groupings. The long-form phrasing is alive and well in the 1976 recording of the same sonata by Jaime Laredo with Glenn Gould (Columbia-Sony).

Portait Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

These distinctions are made to frame the interpretive decisions made in this recording. There is room, as I often argue, for different approaches to the same repertoire. And while I want to highlight the disjunction in historical performance traditions (with a choice of instruments making up only part of this tradition), there is no question that both RBP and Jory Vinikour have approached this repertoire with open arms and generous hearts. RBP’s warm sound, lack of continuous vibrato, and clean technique are all admirable. JV is a suitable and sympathetic partner.

In the final Allegro of the first sonata, BWV 1014, RBP and JV are in lock-step, sparkling together. The balance between the right hand and the violin are near-perfect. The duo is likewise locked rhythmically in the Adagio of BWV 1018, an interesting texture with double stopping in the violin and the moving figurations in the harpsichord part. The result, however, was less satisfying for me. I wanted more of the fire from their collaboration in BWV 1014; for me this is one of Bach’s most intense chamber movements. The recording of this movement by Montanari and Rousset remains a favorite.

My only issue with the recording is the harpsichord’s sound, which is only made more apparent when comparing this recording to others. The instrument lacks the clarity in the mix. Further from the microphones, perhaps, its sound becomes duller in the lower range. JV uses a number of different registrations throughout which I appreciated, offering some variety in tone. The distinction is less problematic when you resign to live within their sound world for some time. To that same end, I liked the instrument itself, which offers a rich sound and weight, missing in some of the comparison recordings made above.

My reason for collecting so many recordings of these pieces is founded in not yet finding any one, perfect interpretation. It speaks to Bach’s original ideas and the variation in viable interpretations left possible. This new release is a celebration of affection for Bach’s music. I have found some real sparkling gems among the movements, all diamonds, sapphires, rubies. But this recording further contributes to my belief that we’re not done in our quest to further explore these pieces and find new things to admire about them. We should welcome these two new voices to the party.

—Sebastian Herrera