Bach: Viola da gamba Sonatas, BWV 1030a & 1027, 1028,1029

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COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Viola da gamba Sonatas, BWV 1030a & 1027, 1028,1029
PERFORMER: Markku Luolajan-Mikkola (viola da gamba), Miklós Spányi (tangent piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CD-1061
Bach’s three sonatas for viola da gamba with obbligato harpsichord were once thought to be entirely products of his years at the Cöthen court (1717-23), where not only was his employer Prince Leopold an enthusiastic amateur gambist, but his orchestra boasted, in Christian Ferdinand Abel, one of the greatest gamba virtuosi of the period. Yet the surviving performance material strongly suggests that Bach wrote them at Leipzig during the mid- to late 1730s, or even slightly later, probably for use at the monthly student collegium musicum concerts of which he was, for many years, director. In this lyrically conceived music, Bach places the gamba line between the treble and bass voices of the harpsichord, providing a third voice in the alto-tenor range for this most plaintively expressive member of the viol family.

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Recordings of the gamba sonatas have featured in record catalogues for half a century, ever since the late August Wenzinger made his first version of them (1950-52) at what was then termed ‘old low pitch’. At the moment there is a wealth of versions to which these two must now be added. Alison Crum and Laurence Cummings offer pleasingly direct readings, untainted either by exaggerated gesture or excessive affectation; and their programme is imaginatively assembled with Preludes and Fugues from Book I of the ‘48’ interspersed among the Sonatas. Markku Luolajan-Mikkola and Miklós Spányi offer a contrasting entertainment by substituting an early fortepiano for the harpsichord, and by a G minor transcription of Bach’s B minor Flute Sonata (BWV 1030). It’s a lugubrious affair, to my ears, laboured and lacking in charm. Luolajan-Mikkola may have a more refined technique than Crum, but it is her recital that possesses the greater allure. My first recommendation, though, is a version by Laurence Dreyfus and Ketil Haugsand (Simax). Nicholas Anderson