Js Bach: Sonatas Nos 1-3 for Viola da gamba and harpsichord

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Glossa
WORKS: Sonatas Nos 1-3 for Viola da gamba and harpsichord, BWV 1027-1029; Preludio (improvised); ‘Komm, Süsses Kreuz’ from St Matthew Passion; ‘Es ist Vollbracht’ from St John Passion
PERFORMER: Paolo Pandolfo (viola da gamba), Markus Hünninger (harpsichord & organ), Michael Chance (countertenor), Harry van der Kamp (bass), François Joubert-Caillet (violone)
CATALOGUE NO: GCD 920411

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A decade and a half after he recorded a fresh and uncluttered account with Rinaldo Alessandrini, Paolo Pandolfo has returned to the Bach Gamba Sonatas, oozing ‘musical experiences gained’ and enjoying, he maintains, a ‘really elevated level of musical complicity’ (with harpsichordist Markus Hunninger).

Perhaps a little less ‘elevation’ would not have gone amiss. Undeniably the playing offers telling insights and revels in a conspicuously warm and immediate recorded sound.

But many will find a degree of indulgence that can sound rather
self-conscious, and sometimes borders on the narcissistic. 

Few listeners would begrudge an unscripted repeat of the D major Sonata’s Adagio, and on paper the inclusion of gamba-accompanied arias from the St Matthew and St John Passions proposes an interesting conversation.

The conversation doesn’t quite work, though, because without the Passion context they feel ‘untimely ripped’ – and the performances tread a fine line between sounding grief-laden and laboured. 

The real bone of contention however, some arch phrasing aside, lies with the degree of embellishment that is lavished on the sonatas. Ton Koopman (who incidentally partners Jordi Savall in a desirable set) seems a model of restraint by comparison.

Sometimes the forward trajectory of the music is compromised, sometimes the busyness is simply overwrought, but there are times too (in the Andantes of both the G major and minor sonatas) where the dialogue flowers into the Baroque equivalent of a glorious ‘living-in-the-moment’ jazz exchange.

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Fast movements generally fizz with vivacity, (though some of Pandolfo’s trills are reminiscent of a fractious wasp). Thought-provoking, irresistible and infuriating by turn, this is a set that should be road-tested before purchase. Paul Riley