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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa