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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Some Lovely Bach from a New Source

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV 1027-1029
Marianne Muller, viola da gamba
Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord in G, BWV 1019 (transcription for viola da gamba)

Marianne Muller, viola da gamba
Francoise Lengelle, harpsichord

TT: 71:09

Zig-Zag Territories ZZT 340

By the early eighteenth century, the viola da gamba, although still popular in France was fading into the background in favor of the more sonorous cello. Bach however loved the instrument and very likely played it himself. Indeed, Bach used the gamba, which so closely matches the timbre of the human voice, in some of his most poignant expressions of sorrow in both the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, and in the Actus Tragicus.

These works are somewhat unusual in that the harpsichord is given its own independent part, fully contrapuntal and containing its own melodies, rather than its customary role of providing the harmonic bed for the melody instruments. This is undoubtedly due to the lighter sound of the gamba, which would enable it to balance nicely with the less hefty sound output of the harpsichord. 

It is likely that Bach composed more than the three extant sonatas (the first of which is his own transcription the sonata for two flutes, BWV 1039). Alas, we only have these three. But what delights they are! These works are undoubtedly some of Bach's most tuneful and elegant forays into instrumental music. 

Mmes. Muller and Lengelle offer radiant performances in this recent recording on the Zig-Zag Territories label, a company with which I am just becoming acquainted. Marianne Muller produces a warm and vibrant tone and her performances come alive with humor and spirit. On occasion I found her tendency to slightly halt the tempo in certain phrases with an extra stretch here or a little gap there to be disconcerting but on the whole these are trivial complaints and can be dismissed as interpretive licence and sensitive musicality. They are just not to this writer's particular taste. 

Francoise Lengelle is fleet of finger and plays with great clarity and attention to detail. Individual melodies are brought out with elan and there is a deft balance between soloistic playing and accompanying. Ms. Lengell√© clearly knows the difference between the two and adapts to both roles beautifully.

In this day of the download, this is the first recording I have ever reviewed that I heard via a subscription service and not from physical media. I can say that I found the listening experience to be quite satisfactory, and although Rhapsody (tm) does not provide program notes or performer biographies, these were easily found by a quick Google search and a visit to the label's website 

Regardless of your chosen format, this recording is a lovely seventy plus minutes of music making, and should appeal to a broad array of tastes. Highly recommended.

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