December 02, 2010


Bach: Sonatas for Flute and Continuo; Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering.” Joshua Smith, flute; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Ann Marie Morgan, baroque cello; Allison Guest Edberg, baroque violin. Delos. $16.99.

Bach: Cantatas, Volume 18—For Christmas Day; For Epiphany; For the First Sunday after Epiphany. Claron McFadden and Magdalena Kožená, sopranos; Bernarda Fink, Sally Bruce-Payne and Michael Chance, altos; Christoph Genz and James Gilchrist, tenors; Dietrich Henschel and Peter Harvey, basses; Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $34.99 (2 CDs).

Eugène Ysaÿe: Six Sonatas for Solo Violin. Rachel Kolly d’Alba, violin. Warner. $18.99.

     Bach’s pervasiveness in classical music shows no signs of abating, both in terms of performances of his works and on the level of his unending influence on later composers. If anything, the attempts in recent years to re-create period performance style and use period instruments (or carefully crafted reproductions) have led to an upsurge of interest in Bach, whose music sounds quite splendid as he originally intended it to be heard – and loses nothing even when altered almost (but not quite) beyond recognition by, say, Leopold Stokowski. Flautist Joshua Smith and the other performers in a new recording of Bach’s flute music are representative of the skill of modern players on old instruments: they imbue the works with warmth and color entirely suitable for the time in which Bach wrote the music, without unnecessary Romantic-era flourishes and without turning the pieces into display vehicles for Smith or anyone else. This is cooperative music-making at its finest, with each player contributing his or her element to the whole texture while holding virtuosity in check and making no attempt to overstate an individual part or alter the fine balance that Bach brought to these delicate and poised works. The pieces are miniatures, especially the first flute sonata (in C Major, BWV 1033), whose four movements run only eight minutes; but there is something substantive in each work. In the second and third sonatas (E Minor, BWV 1034; E Major, BWV 1035), it is the first movements, both marked Adagio ma non tanto and both providing considerable depth of feeling. And the Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering,” with its extended Largo opening balanced by the Allegro that follows, is a simply wonderful weaving together of flute and violin lines. These performances are effective, even loving, adhering to practices of Bach’s time while speaking meaningfully to our own.

     The meanings of Bach’s cantatas transcend their time as well. John Eliot Gardiner’s monumental recording of the complete cycle has been in the works for a decade now, and with the 18th volume, the set of live recordings is finally complete. Interestingly, this release contains the cantata that started it all: the well-known Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63, which Gardiner performed on Christmas Day 1999 – beginning a year-long recording project that is the basis for the many releases by SDG (an apt name for this company, since those very letters – standing for “Soli Deo Gloria,” meaning “only for the glory of God” – were appended by Bach to each of his cantatas). Gardiner used the same choir and orchestra for all the recordings, but the soloists varied – although all were of fine quality. The idea was to perform each cantata on the feast day for which it was originally written, giving them all within a single year. So, for Christmas Day, in addition to BWV 63 (whose title translates as “Christians, engrave this day”), Gardiner here offers BWV 191, Gloria in excelsis Deo (“Glory to God in the highest”), which Bach also used as the Gloria in his Mass in B Minor. The two Epiphany cantatas on this release (performed on January 6, 2000) are BWV 65, Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (“All those from Sheba shall come”), and BWV 123, Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen (“Beloved Emmanuel, duke of the pious”). And there are three cantatas for the first Sunday after Epiphany (recorded January 9, 2000): BWV 154, Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren (“My beloved Jesus is lost”); BWV 124, Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht (“I shall not forsake my Jesus”); and BWV 32, Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (“Beloved Jesus, my desire”). These cantatas are examples of religious music in its highest form, and given Bach’s devotion to God and to compositions glorifying God, they are heartfelt and penetrating in a way that the composer’s purely instrumental works are not. Even in our far more secular age, the cantatas enthrall and engage with their beauty, and Gardiner’s well-balanced and carefully wrought performances are excellent from start to finish. This final volume of the cantata series includes a complete index to the whole set – although at a list price of more than $600 for all the releases, Gardiner’s complete Bach cantatas will be a luxury rather than a necessity for the vast majority of listeners.

     An excellent new recording of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin shows Bach in a different light – very different. These are fascinating works that would surely be performed more often if they were not so fiendishly difficult. Ysaÿe (1858-1931), a superb Belgian violinist whose career was shortened by ill health, was directly inspired by Bach’s solo-violin sonatas to produce his own – and bits of Bach, often transformed almost beyond recognition, float throughout the set. But there were two other, equally important influences on Ysaÿe’s sonatas: the performance and harmonic techniques of the time the works were written (early 1920s), and the particular musical personalities of the six violin virtuosi to whom Ysaÿe dedicated the pieces. A slightly less significant influence on these works was Paganini, whose propensity for sheer display comes through in Ysaÿe’s works as well. The sonatas are dedicated, respectively, to Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, George Enescu, Fritz Kreisler, Mathieu Crickboom and Manuel Quiroga Losada – as impressive a roster of performers as can be found in any time, even if not all remain well known today. Ysaÿe tried to make each sonata reflective of the dedicatee’s personality and performance style, and although it may be hard to gauge, nearly a century later, how well he succeeded, there is certainly internal evidence in the sonatas of what the composer tried to do – in his imitation of some of Kreisler’s compositional techniques in Sonata No. 4, for example. Each sonata has its own charms, and all share truly Olympian levels of difficulty. Just to choose one example: No. 2, dedicated to Thibaud, includes a bit of a Bach Prelude, a slow movement to be played with mute throughout, a Sarabande that is also a theme and variations, and an exceptionally difficult Allegro furioso finale – and the whole work is knitted together by the Dies irae theme, which in the finale becomes as much of a recurrent motif as in Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. This is not music to be undertaken by the timid, and Swiss violinist Rachel Kolly d’Alba attacks it with a sure sense of style and very considerable enthusiasm. She never seems to struggle, even in the most difficult passages, and brings expressiveness and even warmth to her performances – although not depth, which these sonatas do not really invite. The playing is remarkably controlled and frequently eloquent, and the sonatas themselves are an enduring monument both to Ysaÿe’s skill as performer and composer and to Bach’s as a composer of his own era and a strong influence on all times since.

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