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J. S. BACH (1685-1750)
Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord BWV 1014-1019
Christine Busch, violin with Kay Johannsen harpsichord
Rec. Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, March 2002
CARUS VERLAG 93.164 [45.27 + 53.28]


Priory Records

First let's sort out a few facts about Bach's Violin Sonatas. Here is a set of six, the best known, and the most performed. But a quick check of the great man's oeuvre also includes a Suite in A minor, an E minor Sonata, also one in G major (BWV1021) dating from c.1720 and one in C minor (BWV 1024). These last two were recorded by Andrew Manze on a BBC Music Magazine disc in 1999 (well worth searching out). Readers may possibly know of others. The fact remains however that these six sonatas are the most often recorded, easily available in print and therefore most regularly performed. They are all early works dating from his period of Bach’s work at Cothen from 1718 until his move to Leipzig in 1723. This was a particularly happy period for him. He had just married Anna Magdalena after the death of his first wife. Many of his purely instrumental works seem to date from this time.

The first five sonatas are all in four movements: slow, fast. slow, fast. The Second has a unique 'Dolce' marking for Movement 1 and ends in a Presto. The last of the set is in five movements: fast; slow, fast, slow, fast. The middle one is, rather curiously, for solo harpsichord and one can't quite help wonder why Bach inserted it, except to remind us that these works are 'duos'. However if that were the case then why not insert one for solo violin!

It is true to say that these sonatas do not stretch the instrument as much as the solo sonatas and partitas, nevertheless they are demanding works. It should be remembered that Bach was the first to write obbligato sonatas like these, but we have no idea why he wrote them.

Of especial musical note I would mention the extraordinary resemblance of the opening Largo, of the Fourth Sonata both melodically and harmonically to the famous aria in the St Matthew Passion 'Erbarme dich, mein Gott' a most moving movement. The first movement of the Sixth Sonata in the joyousness of its syncopations and melodic inspiration seems the twin of the opening of the Cantata 'Preis, Jerusalem den Herrn' (c.1723)

To give you some idea of Christine Busch and Kay Johannsen's approach to these sonatas I will look at the Second Sonata in A major. It begins with a delicate 'dolce'. I love the way the violinist caresses this movement. In most of the other slow movements she often brings a tear to the eye with her sensitivity; these are real arias for violinist. However the ensuing Allegro and final Presto I am far less keen on. The Allegro is surely too slow and lacks excitement and drive. The closing Presto is played practically at the same speed as this Allegro and fails to sustain interest. The articulation is uninteresting. I find myself wishing that someone had shaken Busch and Johannsen out of their lethargy.

The Sixth Sonata has three Allegro movements and again, the opening one especially, is too heavy and slow. All of them are just too steady. For this listener at least this approach makes for uninteresting listening. The First Sonata comes off best especially the fearsome second movement.

According to the excellent booklet notes Busch plays an instrument from the Southern Tyrol and uses a baroque bow. The harpsichord is a two manual instrument built in 1999 by Keith Hill of Michigan, USA. It has a bright sonority which works well for Bach.

The recording is mostly excellent if rather close, sometimes slightly masking the harpsichord. The booklet includes biographies of the two performers and general notes by Elsie Pfitzer. These are very useful. She reminds us that "in this cycle the harpsichord is expressly an equal partner to the violin, as documented in the title of the most important copies of the autograph 'Sei Suonate a Cembalo (con)certo e Violino solo'". Therefore an equal balance and partnership is what is most important.

Although I would not want completely to put buyers off this set I would recommend Carmignola and Marcon (on Sony) or if you want piano and not harpsichord you could try Tenebaum and Kapp (on ESS.A.Y).

As you can see, I have my reservations about Busch and Johannsen but on the whole I shall be listening again to their recordings and hopefully enjoying much about them,

Gary Higginson


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