J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord (CD review)

Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. Cedille CDR 90000 177 (2-disc set).

As with so many of Bach's works, musical scholars have not found the origins clear for the six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV1014-1019. Although Bach probably wrote them during his final years in Cothen (1720-23), just before moving to Leipzig, the only existing scores derive from his Leipzig years and show continuing revisions.

In any case, what is known for sure is that musical scholars, critics, and listeners alike have all loved the sonatas, Bach himself saying of his style that all the voices should "work wondrously with each other." Apparently, he and his followers agreed they do. Bach's son, C.P.E. Bach, described them as among the finest things his father composed.

The two performers here are experts in their field. American concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine began playing the violin at age three, made her debut with the Chicago String Ensemble at the age of seven, and played with the Chicago Symphony at the age of ten. On the current disc she plays an original, unaltered instrument by Nicola Gagliano, 1770. American harpsichordist Jory Vinikour has twice been nominated for Grammy Awards and here plays a replica instrument built in 2012 by Tony Chinnery after a 1769 model by Pascal Taskin. Bach stipulated that the harpsichord pairing for the violin was mandatory (obbligato), although the bass line could be taken by an optional viola da gamba. Vinikour opts to do it himself.

One of the remarkable aspects of Bach's sonatas is that they are among the earliest examples of pairing the two instruments as coequals. The harpsichord doesn't so much accompany the violin as the two are treated as equivalent partners. One instrument doesn't just play along in the background, but both instruments share the center stage as a duet.

Rachel Barton Pine
The six sonatas are laid out here three to a disc in this Cedille two-CD set, with the addition of the Cantabile in G major, BWV1019a as a bonus track. The show gets off to a rather leisurely start with BWV1014, which seems, even apart from the Adagio, a little more dew-eyed than I would have expected from a historically informed performance. Still, it's charming, and the two performers provide a wonderful inaction with their presentation.

With BWV1015, things seem a bit more normal for period instruments. even though it, too, begins with a slow movement. The piece is graceful yet spirited, with the performers clearly taking delight in the music making. That takes us to the Sonata in E major, BWV1016, which is probably the highlight of the set. It's rich and lush, ornate and opulent, vibrant and vivacious. More important, it affords the two players a further chance to show off their skills, separately and together. The instruments intertwine so seamlessly they almost sing as one voice, like a great symphony orchestra where you never notice the contributions of any one or two sections but rejoice in the overall effect.

Disc two continues in much the same manner, with BWV1017-1019. But there is a difference. Bach appears to have done more revision on the final Sonata than the others, and here we find it presented in five movements rather than four. Apparently, it exists in a number of different versions, with yet another movement discarded, the Cantabile in G major, BWV1019a. It is about twice as long as any of the other movements, which is possibly why Bach didn't think it belonged, upsetting the balance of the movements as it would. So Ms. Barton Pine and Mr. Vinikour offer it as a stand-alone piece. It's certainly lyrically beautiful, and they do it supreme justice.

Producer James Ginsburg and engineer Bill Maylone recorded the sonatas at Nichols Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago in September 2017. The somewhat close miking seems to stretch the violin and harpsichord a little too far across the sound stage for my taste, but reducing the volume a decibel or two ameliorates the situation considerably. Maybe it's Cedille's way of telling you to turn it down.  Whatever, there is no question both instruments benefit from the miking's added clarity and presence, with excellent detailing and transparency. The instruments appear lifelike all the way around, with a hall resonance that flatters but never intrudes upon their sound.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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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.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa