JS Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014-19

COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Ambroisie
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014-19
PERFORMER: Stefano Montanari (violin), Christophe Rousset (harpsichord)
CATALOGUE NO: AM 109
Bach’s six Sonatas for violin and harpsichord would have seemed stylistically forward-looking in the period they were probably written, sometime between 1717 and 1725. Instead of the customary continuo accompaniment with figured bass, Bach composed a fully written out harpsichord part in partnership with the violin to create the texture of a trio sonata. These rewardingly varied and highly original pieces were much admired in their time for their pioneering modernity, the lucidly worked out keyboard writing and for the expressive content of their slow movements. When Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote to his father’s biographer in 1774 he described the Sonatas as ‘among the best works of my late beloved father…and afford me great pleasure, though they are more than 50 years old…’

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Christophe Rousset and Stefano Montanari enter the competition with some formidable adversaries. My most recent benchmark recording was that of the already deleted Giuliano Carmignola and Andrea Marcon (Sony), closely followed by Anne Röhrig and Bernward Lohr of Musica Alta Ripa (MDG). A third, mainly satisfying survey is provided by Jacqueline Ross and David Ponsford (ASV). The new issue deserves to be considered alongside these though my ears never adjusted to Montanari’s rather hard and unyielding sound. An example is provided by the melancholy siciliano opening of the C minor Sonata: though elegantly phrased and not without feeling, it lacks the poetry of Carmignola who lures us effortlessly to the heart of the music. This particular reservation about Montanari’s playing affects other movements, especially slow ones, though more spirited pieces, like the opening Allegro of the G major Sonata, come off well. Röhrig and Lohr, in the German corner, offer un-showy but nonetheless stylish performances. Röhrig’s sound, though not large, is warm and her inflexions are sensitive. This set furthermore includes all the other Bach pieces which sit reasonably comfortably under this particular umbrella.

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Rousset’s contribution is fluent and sympathetic and easily the match for his rivals. Recorded sound is excellent but, while it may be that some readers will be less bothered by Montanari’s tone quality than I am, my preference now among currently available versions is Röhrig and Lohr. Nicholas Anderson