Bach: Violin Sonatas, BWV 1014, 1015, 1016, 1017, 1018, 1019

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COMPOSERS: Bach
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.

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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.

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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