LABELS: Musica Omnia
WORKS: Violin Sonatas, BWV 1014, 1015, 1016, 1017, 1018, 1019
PERFORMER: Emlyn Ngai (violin); Peter Watchorn (harpsichord)
CATALOGUE NO: MO 0112 (distr. www.musicaomnia.com)
Nothing pleads more ardently for period instruments than these sonatas. In them Bach broke new ground, making the keyboard right-hand a fully written-out equal partner to the violin – ‘trios’ for two players. The implications are far-reaching. Foremost is matching tone quality: a full-blooded ‘Romantic’ violin hopelessly overwhelms the upper register of a lightly voiced continuo harpsichord. Ngai’s Baroque violin and light, short bow, create a transparent sound, though one capable of great expressive intensity. Watchorn’s harpsichord replicates a rich, weighty instrument probably in Bach’s own collection, the very sonority of which may have inspired him to these innovative textures.
Given the right instruments, they’re played stylishly, too. For instance, Ngai creates a gloriously fluid solo line independent of the accompaniment in the slow movements of BWV 1017 then, in the trio-textured allegros, articulates quite differently an equal voice audibly retreating as harpsichord takes centre-stage.
The third factor is recording balance, of volume, distance and tone. Apart from moments when I sense Ngai inching inexorably closer to the microphone, the two instruments are admirably equal, seemingly without recourse to stuffing microphones into the harpsichord – though Manze/Egarr/ter Linden, my benchmark, demonstrate that right-hand keyboard lines can penetrate, even with gamba reinforcing bass.
Manze and Egarr take risks – off like a rocket in allegros (BWV 1015), impassioned in slow movements. Ngai and Watchorn are consistently more measured, more respectful, though no less committed – and they’re technically flawless. The additional disc of inspiringly accessible commentary is spoken with disarming spontaneity and explains technical terms without a hint of condescension. It covers the compositional background, the instruments and their special challenges, with musical illustrations – an exemplary bonus. George Pratt