Bach: Sei Suonate

J S Bach: Sei suonate à cembalo certato è violino solo
Chiara Zanisi, Giulia Nuti
Outhere/Arcana A426. 2CDs, 41’16+54’03

Bach’s Six sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord (BWV 1014–1018) were first composed during Bach last few years in Köthen (c1720-23) although he continued to revise them after his move to Leipzig in 1723, from where all the surviving sources are found.  This recording, released in 2017, features  violinist Chiara Zanisi and Giulia Nuti, harpsichord.

CPE Bach explained that his father preferred to lead orchestras from the violin rather than the harpsichord. And his time in Köthen gave him the ideal opportunity to develop his instrumental repertoire. Although his role was as Kapellmeister, the musical Prince did not feature music in the Calvanist services, but asked for daily concerts from Bach. Much of the music from this time reappeared, often in different form, in later pieces for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum and their regular performances in the Café Zimmermann.

Although in broadly trio-sonata form, the written-out harpsichord part often does far more than just take one of the two treble line. In the opening Adagio of Sonata 3, for example, the insistent pulse of thick harpsichord chords underpin, and give dramatic impetus to an otherwise elegant violin solo. In contrast, the second movement Allegro is in true Trio style, the two treble voice revolving around each in canon.

The liner notes include a question and answer session with the two performers, who reveal their own approach to playing Bach, and these particular pieces. You can also hear some of this in the video link below. The CD’s publicity explains that “Bach’s music possesses an aura of magic and an almost divine form. Thus, in this valuable and elegant reading, it is clearly their intention to underline in the simplest way the grandeur of the writing.” Fine as that might sound, the only test of any musical performance is not what the performers say about it, but how they perform it. And I did wonder at times how their noble intentions were actually realised in their performance. That said, the playing is sensitive, with tempos generally well judged, if occasionally a little frenetic in the fast movements.

One concern I had was with the balance between the violin and the harpsichord. Considering their specific requirement for balance between the two instruments, the violin is give particular, and unwanted, prominence. The publicity bumf suggests that “the choice of sound aesthetic, beautifully realised under the supervision of Fabio Framba, opts for the ‘real’ with a ‘pure’, ‘speaking’ sound, warm and full of harmonics”. With that in mind, I wonder why the decision was made to not to balance the sound of the instruments.

It was recorded at Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, a former convent and now a hotel near Vicenza. The acoustic is generous, and probably larger than that of the music room in Köthen. More information, and a link to the programme notes, can be found here.