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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas for Violin and keyboard 1-6, BWV 1014-19
Cantabile, ma un poco adagio in G major [7:17]
Guide de Neve (baroque violin)
Frank Agstergibbe (harpsichord)
rec. 2016, deSingel, Antwerp
ET’CETERA KTC1596 [43:58 + 63:29]

Oh dear. I had some hopes for this recording, but it starts unpromisingly with a rather limp and limping Adagio from BWV 1014, and proceeds much in the same way. The sound quality is decent enough, and Guide de Neve and Frank Agstergibbe are no doubt excellent musicians, but you will only like this if you like your Bach chewed through the teethed mangle of a rubato machine set to ‘intense’ and ‘high frequency’.

The booklet notes by the musicians give some reasons for this approach, and I can sort of see where they wanted to go with the concept. They write about Bach’s music as being “a great example of rhetorical music that ‘speaks’ in the literal sense” – this as opposed to vocal or melodic music. “The music is seen as a language, in the literal sense of the word. The musical phrases consist of short, small cells; like the words used to make up a sentence.” Played on a gut-string Baroque violin there is almost no vibrato used, again, since “no-one in the world uses vibrato when they speak.” All of these aspects of interpretation taken in isolation are ones with which it is hard to disagree, and in the faster movements there is little to complain about. What I would argue is that the flow of a decent conversation has its own natural rhythm, and that the ebb and flow of speech can and should carry further than the ‘hesitando’ of the playing here. If one were to speak with this kind of inflection I have the feeling people would back away slowly. The first movement of the Second Sonata rather heaves in this regard, with some dodgy accuracy from the violin seemingly enhancing a determination to avoid melodic expression at all costs. The broken violin soundboard on the cover is symbolic in more ways than one with these performances.

I’m all for a little flexibility in the playing of Bach and Baroque music in general, but the slow movements in this recording just make me feel ill, and there are moments of quasi-confusion in some of the fast ones which fell like a near-miss on a busy motorway. The Onyx label has Viktoria Mullova Ottavio Dantone, which Michael Cookson greatly admired (review), and Johan van Veen rather panned (review). Whatever your view, Mullova and Dantone are a much more appealing listen, allowing the music to breathe without torturing its every nook and corner. Take that sublime Largo that opens BWV 1017, in which the harpsichord ruminates through its harmonies, the violin floating above in an amorous aria, its notes transformed by the progressions beneath. With Frank Agsteribbe there is just enough pushing and pulling of the accompanying notes to distract your ear away from the melody, which in this case is perhaps just as well. Guido de Neve alas doesn’t float amorously, and I fear that Juliet would, if serenaded thus, throw her shell collection at the musicians from her balcony, followed by the display cabinet.

I am sorry to be mean about this recording but, other than informing me of one more way in which I don’t want to hear them, I fear that no new vistas of interpretative excellence have been opened up for these sonatas. Try Catherine Manson and Ton Koopman on Challenge Classics (review) for performances that bristle with rhetorical character and avoid all of the laboured messing around on this rather sorry Etcetera release.

Dominy Clements



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