Bach: Sonatas (SACD review)

Lara St. John, violin; Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp. Ancalagon ANC 139.

In the accompanying booklet note to Bach Sonatas, Dr. James Seymour Helgeson writes at length about what is "authentic" or not about today's performing practices. One thing he points out is that composers like Bach would transcribe their own works for various other instruments, often to accommodate the players on any given occasion. So it is not unusual that Canadian violinist Lara St. John would want to perform several of J.S. Bach's sonatas for violin and harpsichord in transcriptions for violin and harp. She has said that for these pieces she finds the harpsichord rather unsubtle in accompaniment and the modern piano heavy-handed. The harp, on the other hand, she feels better suits the spirit of the music. After listening to these unique, though not entirely inauthentic, transcriptions for violin and harp, I'd have to agree with her.

Accompanying Ms. St. John is Marie-Pierre Langlamet, the principal harpist for the Berlin Philharmonic since Claudio Abbado appointed her to the post in 1993; together, they perform five sonatas Bach wrote (or scholars have ascribed to him) for violin and harpsichord or flute and harpsichord. So, in the last three sonatas Ms. St. John has replaced both flute and harpsichord with violin and harp. Fair enough. On the program Ms. St. John presents the sonatas in chronological order, starting with the Sonata No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1014, and continuing through the Sonata No 3 in E major, BWV 1016, the Sonata in G minor, BWV 1020, the Sonata in B minor, BWV 1030, and concluding with the Siciliana movement from the Sonata in E-flat major, BWV 1031.

All of the works sound more delicate with harp accompaniment, lighter, airier, more diaphanous, more ethereal. Indeed, after hearing just the first sonata, I couldn't imagine wanting to hear it any other way. Still, it's the Sonata No. 3 that steals the show. It is particularly haunting, a little melancholy, and entirely enchanting, especially with the harp. Two of the four movements are adagios, ensuring a serene atmosphere, and the performers take the two allegros at a correspondingly relaxed pace so as not to disrupt the tranquil continuity of the piece. I'd recommend the album if this were the only selection on it, it's that good.

The final three works on the disc Bach the elder may or may not have actually written, but it's close enough. Ms. St. John's and Ms. Langlamet's playing of the Sonata in G minor, originally for flute and harpsichord, has a graceful, almost playful quality to it. Then, we get the Sonata in B minor, also originally for flute and harpsichord, which is probably the most creative of the pieces on the album; it is quite a lot of fun, actually, with the performers appearing to have fun with it as well. The two musicians conclude the program with the Siciliana movement from the Sonata in E-flat, a perfect ending to the proceedings because of its sweet, gentle character.

It's hard to argue against the amiably refined playing of Ms. St. John and Ms. Langlamet or their decision to perform together in the arrangements they do. The results are not just enchanting but sometimes stunning, turning familiar tunes into welcome new creations. Count the idea a success on my end.

The folks at Ms. St. John's Ancalagon label recorded the performers at Teldex Studio Berlin in January, 2011. On the two-channel stereo layer of this hybrid 2.0/5.0 SACD, the sound is warm and full, with a pleasant ambient bloom on the instruments. The recording is slightly close-up but not so much that the performers are in our lap; it's just close enough to capture the crisp, vibrant tone of Ms. St. John's 1779 "Salabue" Guadagnini violin and the rich, mellifluent moods of the harp. In the first sonata I thought the resonance of the low harp strings was a tad too prominent, but the issue disappeared by the second selection. There is no forwardness to the sonics, no edge, no brightness, nothing to interfere with one's enjoyment of the music.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa