The 50 greatest Bach recordings – part 2

Gramophone Fri 30th September 2016

Continuing our traversal of the finest JS Bach recordings, from the flute sonatas to the English Suites...

Bach

All of the reviews printed below were originally published in Gramophone, the world's leading classical music magazine. To find out more about subscribing, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

Flute Sonatas

Ashley Solomon fl Terence Charlston hpd

(Channel Classics)

This is an impressive and enjoyable CD that easily bears repeated listening – certainly I’ve played it many times already, and not just for reviewing purposes. There is a soothing quality to the baroque flute, and its gentle, slightly reedy tone is captured very well on this disc from Channel Classics. It is closely recorded in a church acoustic to give a brilliant tone with added depth. Today’s makers of the baroque flute are producing highly refined instruments, exemplified here by the Rod Cameron copy of a Denner, which has a strong, even tone and good balance of register, allowing highly accomplished performers like Ashley Solomon complete technical freedom.

This recording is not merely music therapy, however, but a genuine musical experience. His performance of the unaccompanied A minor Partita, for example, is nothing short of commanding: the control in articulation and breathing allows the phrasing to be flexible and unfussy. Indeed, it is the directness of his interpretations that is so telling; there is almost none of that slightly coy rubato that some other flautists use to disguise the need to breathe. Rather, Solomon ensures that the phrases are neither choppy nor fragmented. He has an excellent sense of the longer line and the harmonic pull beneath Bach’s wonderfully melodic writing. The faster movements are perhaps the most successful, full of buoyancy and energy without seeming rushed or pushed. Try the second movement of the E minor Sonata, for example, or that of the C major. Slow movements are far from inexpressive, but again refreshingly direct: he never wallows (a good example is the introductory movement of the E major Sonata). Solomon is well partnered by Terence Charlston on a rich-toned Ruckers-copy harpsichord. Even if you already have a version of Bach’s flute works on CD, I can strongly recommend this version, which makes an equally good first-time buy. Prepare to be uplifted. Tess Knighton (May 2001)

 

Lute works

Stephan Schmidt gtr

(Naive)

Whether or not the description of these as ‘lute’ works is justified has long been a matter for debate, and in their annotation Stephan Schmidt and Claude Chauvel inevitably fail to resolve the matter, though they lean more in the direction of ‘yes’ than any lutenist I know. In a sense it matters little, for the works have been performed and recorded on a variety of other plucked-string instruments – harpsichord and lute-harpsichord as well as guitar – in exemplary fashion. The ‘standard’ six-string guitar is a baritone instrument, but its lowest register is not extended enough to avoid the need for compromises; accordingly guitars with more strings (the extra ones at the bass end) have been in use for over 30 years. Goran Sollscher’s Deutsche Grammophon recordings on an 11-string alto guitar (10/84 and 1/89) remain as fresh as they were then.

Now Stephan Schmidt, using 10 strings, sets a new benchmark with this magnificent set. The extra four strings give firmer bass and more resonant bass lines, as did Sollscher’s five, and free the player’s left hand from the restriction of having to hold many of them down. Schmidt’s touch is happily light in the galanteries and in the Loure of BWV1006a, but there is gravity in the unhurried sarabandes – such variations apply not only to pace but to spirit, too. He knows when to embellish (which he does with elegance) and when not; the profound simplicity of the Sarabande of BWV995 calls for no gilding of its lily and Schmidt gives it that respect. His rubato ‘bends’ a little more than Sollscher’s and he is less conservative in his approach to embellishment – but attitudes to such matters have eased during the last one-and-a-half decades. If there is a better version of these works on any kind of guitar in terms of content and recording quality I have yet to hear it. John Duarte (November 2000)

 

Complete Sonatas for Violin and Obbligato Harpsichord

Rachel Podger vn Jonathan Manson va da gamba Trevor Pinnock hpd

(Channel Classics)

Another recording of Bach’s violin sonatas, and at last one that really hits the spot. Rachel Podger has already attracted much praise for her recordings of the solo violin music, but is heard here to even better advantage in the Six Sonatas for Violin and Obbligato Harpsichord, BWV1014-19, for which she is joined by Trevor Pinnock (of whose English Concert she is now the leader). The two make a fine match. Both are uncomplicated, utterly instinctive musicians with a sure technical command and sound stylistic sense, and in works as robust and complete as these, that is most of the battle already won. But this is also music of great poetry, and, without straining unduly to make their points, Podger and Pinnock bring this out superbly; Pinnock’s harpsichord is gently resonant and softly voiced, and Podger coaxes a lyrical flexibility out of her violin, its singing qualities enhanced thanks to a restrained but tellingly sweetening use of vibrato – one which also enables her to play more consistently and blessedly in tune than almost any other baroque fiddler currently in business.

It is difficult to single out details of this recording for comment; there just seems to be such a tremendous feeling of overall ‘rightness’ to it. Maybe the finale of Sonata No 2 seems rather frantic and the wonderful Adagio ma non tanto of No 3 a touch lumpy, but there really is not much else to criticise. And there are true gems to be enjoyed in the opening movement of BWV1014, where the violin makes an almost imperceptible initial entry, or the warm embrace of BWV1017’s Adagio, or practically any of the sparkling fast movements, played with invigorating rhythmic drive and clarity, into which Podger’s elegant but firmly controlled, willowy bowing tosses myriad subtle impulses and articulations.

This recording’s most recent period rival, that of Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr, shows a typical wealth of new ideas and inspired moves but is less satisfying as a whole, and suffers from some intonationally hairy moments and a less precisely pointed sound. Both recordings include the two Sonatas for Violin and Continuo, BWV1021 and 1023 (for which Podger and Pinnock are joined by a discreet and sympathetic Jonathan Manson on viola da gamba), but Manze and Egarr’s inclusion of the dubious BWV1024 is not echoed here; instead we get two of the three versions of BWV1019 whole, with the glorious extra movement required to make up the remaining version added at the end. The only period recording to touch Podger and Pinnock for technical assurance is that of Fabio Biondi and Rinaldo Alessandrini, but in both sound and interpretation it is heavy-handed compared with the spontaneous musicianship and airy texture on display here, and rather meanly it gives the six obbligato sonatas only.

In truth, all the recent recordings of these sonatas have had their merits. But this natural beauty – two discs for the price of one – is, quite simply, the best yet. Lindsay Kemp (February 2001)

 

Cello Suites

Pablo Casals vc

(Warner Classics)

Young music-lovers today may find it difficult to believe that, 50 years ago, major works by Bach were considered to be of such specialized appeal that recordings could be obtained only in a limited ''Society'' edition. The cello suites had never been recorded until Fred Gaisberg, after protracted efforts, finally persuaded Casals to play them for HMV: Nos 2 and 3 in London in November 1936, the rest in Paris in July 1938 and July 1939. Casals had hesitated for 35 years before committing to disc these works – long regarded as unplayable, and never performed in their entirety – which he had discovered at the age of 13 and worked on for 12 years before playing them to an astonished public. To do so he had had to evolve new techniques and, intellectually, to delve deeply into the character and inner structure of the music. He stressed the dance basis of the movements; and his vitality, rhythmic flexibility (to clarify the shape of phrases) and tonal nuance, and the vigour and variety of his bowing, still leap from the discs to impress the listener.

From the profound contemplative quality of the G major Sarabande or the C minor Allemande to the zest of the C major Bourree, the breadth and grandeur of the D minor Suite's Prelude and the gravity of its Sarabande, the lightness of the E flat Allemande and Bourrees or the C minor Gavotte, the raptness of the C minor Sarabande, and the lucidity of thought behind the elaborate D major Allemande, these performances remain the classic yardstick by which all later ones must be judged.
The digitally remastered transfers from the original 78s, yielding an astonishingly clean ambience to the cello, represent another technical triumph for Keith Hardwick; but listeners with acute ears will notice that the Courante of the E flat Suite and the Gavotte of the C minor were recorded at a slightly sharper pitch than the movements preceding them. Lionel Salter (March 1989)

 

Cello Suites

Pierre Fournier vc

(DG)

Of all the great cellists I have heard playing Bach's six Cello Suites, BWV1007-12, either in the concert hall or in recordings of various kinds, Pierre Fournier came closer to the heart of the music, as I understand it, than almost any other. He made these recordings for Archiv between 1961 and 1963 since when they have seldom been out of the catalogue. Readers who prefer the charisma and extrovert flourishes of Tortelier (EMI), the penetrating though sometimes unstylish gestures of Casals (EMI References), or the brilliant but too often superficial readings of Schiff (EMI) and Maisky (DG) may be hard to win over to these concentrated, personally unassuming interpretations by Fournier.

Fournier seems to me to have possessed all the virtues of his fellow cellists without yielding to any of their self-indulgences; irrelevant personal idiosyncrasies are never allowed to intrude these finely sustained performances. He could be brilliant in execution – his technique was second to none, as he proves throughout this set – profound in utterance, aristocratic in poise and wonderfully coherent in his understanding of Bach's articulation and phrases. We need look no further than the Prelude of the First Suite in G major to find the supreme artistry which characterizes each and every moment of these performances. To be sure, there are very occasionally notes which fail to reach their centre but they are few and far between and certainly Fournier's intonation compares favourably with that of some of his virtuoso companions. Fournier's rubato is held tightly in rein and when he does apply it it is in the interests of enlivening aspects of Bach's formal writing. Thus it is in the Preludes, where the music requires rhythmic freedom if it is not to be relegated to the ranks of mere study material, that Fournier demonstrates his intuition and fine sense of style most forcefully; the Preludes to the First and Third Suites provide good examples. Fournier can sparkle too, as he does in many of the faster dance-orientated movements such as courantes, gavottes, bourrees and so on; in the sarabandes, on the other hand, he invariably strikes a note of grandeur coupled with a concentration amounting at times – as in the sarabandes of Suites Nos. 2 and 3 – almost to abstraction.

Above all, Fournier's Bach playing is crowned with an eloquence, a lyricism and a grasp both of the formal and stylistic content of the music which will not easily be matched. Curiously, perhaps, it is the baroque cellist, Anner Bylsma on RCA who often provides close parallels with Fournier. Bylsma's tempos tend to be faster than those of Fournier – that, after all has been a trend in baroque music over the past 20 years or so – but his conception of the music shares ground with that of Fournier. All things considered, it is hardly surprising that these readings seem as fresh and as valid today as they did 25 or more years ago. Out and out purists, poor devils, may not be able to adjust to modern pitch, modern instrument and, in the case of Suites Nos 5 and 6, the wrong instrument, but if that is so they are deserving more of compassion than censure. Fine recorded sound and strongly commended on virtually all counts. Nicholas Anderson (March 1989)

 

Cello Suites

Steven Isserlis vc

(Hyperion)

For Isserlis the Suites suggest a meditative cycle on the life of Christ, rather like Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. He points out that this is “a personal feeling, not a theory”, but it has to be said that once you know that he is thinking of the Agony in the Garden during the darkly questioning Second Suite (the five stark chords towards the end of the Prélude representing the wounds of Christ), the Crucifixion in the wearily troubled Fifth or the Resurrection in the joyous Sixth, it adds immense power and interest to his performances.

But then, this is also the most wonderful cello-playing, surely among the most consistently beautiful to have been heard in this demanding music, as well as the most musically alert and vivid. Not everyone will like the brisk tempi (though the Allemandes, for instance, gain in architectural coherence), but few will fail to be charmed by Isserlis’s sweetly singing tone, his perfectly voiced chords and superb control of articulation and dynamic – the way the final chord of the First Prélude dies away is spellbinding. There are so many other delights: the subtle comings and goings of the Third Prélude, the nobly poised Fifth Allemande, the swaggering climax that is the Sixth Gigue – I cannot mention them all. Suffice to say that Isserlis’s Bach is a major entrant into an already highly distinguished field, and a disc many will want to return to again and again. Lindsay Kemp (July 2007)

 

Cello Suites

David Watkin vc

(Resonus)

As with so much mainstream repertoire, the catalogue is so full of recordings – good and bad – that there often has to be some form of abstract justification to qualify any further additions. David Watkin’s profound musicianship, though, is more than enough to accelerate this recording of Bach’s Cello Suites to the top of the tiny league of ‘definitive’ recordings, beyond the infinitesimal care of Ditta Rohmann (Hungaroton, 5/14, 11/14), the meticulous intellectualism of Anner Bylsma (Sony, 7/81, 1/93) or even the refined warmth of the benchmark Fournier performances (Archiv, 3/89): all encapsulate the vital elements of these works but none succeeds completely in covering them all.

Watkin plays the first five suites on a cello by Francesco Ruggieri – a luthier contemporary of Bach’s whose instruments are famed for their warmth of tone – and the sixth on a rare five-string cello by the Amati brothers of the same period. But the extraordinarily resonant sound he makes is probably less to do with the instruments than with the playing itself, which is warm, expansive, generous and friendly. That is not to say that this performance is not of the highest level intellectually and technically: it is, and largely because of its appreciation of these suites as not just dances but discourses almost verbal in their directness. It is as if all the work that Watkin has ever done on these pieces has been absorbed absolutely and then reproduced in a performance that is able to be completely original in its voice at the same time as never producing a phrase that jars in its unsubtlety, or presents an ego that overarches the music.

That generosity of artistry directly results in some movements that are not only opened up to the listener as the masterworks they are but as paeans of heart-cracking joy. If you only buy this disc for the Prelude of the C major Suite, for exactly that reason, it will be money well spent. Caroline Gill (June 2015)

 

Solo Violin Sonatas & Partitas

Rachel Podger vn

(Channel Classics)

As a matter of tactics disregarding the printed order of the works, this second disc opens in the most effective way with a joyous performance of the ever-invigorating E major Preludio. At once we can recognize Podger's splendid rhythmic and tonal vitality (not merely Bach's marked terraced dynamics but pulsatingly alive gradations within phrases), her extremely subtle accentuations and harmonic awareness (note her change of colour at the move from E to C sharp major in bar 33), are all within total technical assurances. The Gavotte en Rondeau is buoyantly dance-like, and in the most natural way she elaborates its final statement (her stylish ornamentation throughout the Partita is utterly convincing). She takes the Giga at a restrained pace that allows of all kinds of tiny rhythmic nuances. Only a rather cut-up performance (for my taste) of the Loure stops this being one of the most enjoyable E major Partitas I can remember.

In the sonatas she shows other sterling qualities. She preserves the shape in the A minor Grave's ornate tangle of notes; she judges to a nicety the balance of the melodic line against the plodding accompanimental quavers of the Andante; she imbues the C major's Adagio with a hauntingly poetic musing atmosphere, and her lucid part-playing of its Fuga could scarcely be bettered. In the Fuga of the A minor Sonata, however, she unexpectedly allows herself considerable rhythmic freedom in order to point the structure. The final track is a stunning performance of the C major's closing Allegro assai which would bring any audience to its feet. This disc is a natural for my Critic's Choice of the year. Lionel Salter (December 1999)

 

Solo Violin Sonatas & Partitas 

Monica Huggett vn

(Erato)

With these impressive performances (on her beautiful-toned Amati) of the Solo Sonatas and Partitas Monica Huggett sweeps other baroque interpretations off the board. She nails her colours firmly to the mast in her printed introductory note (which follows an uncommonly perceptive and informative commentary on the music by Mark Audus): her aim, she says, is a characteristically bright and sweet seventeenth-century timbre, and she declares herself less interested in the virtuoso aspect of the music, more in the “interior spirituality of the sonatas and the gracious elegance of the partitas”. That certainly does not imply any absence of virtuosity: there have been few recordings of these pillars of the repertoire so impeccable in intonation and so free from any tonal roughness.

Her rhythmic flexibility (very marked in the Chaconne) may upset some traditionalists, but it gives her readings a thoughtfully spontaneous air, and is always applied to clarify the phrasing. The B minor Corrente and D minor Allemande, for example, become more expressive through this subtle phrasing, and her G minor Presto and E major Prelude are not merely mechanically fluent. She is adept at balancing the interplay of internal parts and at preserving continuity of line (as in the D minor Sarabande) and rhythmic flow despite the irruption of chords: only in places in the gigantic C major Fugue did I feel this under strain and at the start of the B minor Bourree lost. There is a lively bounce in her D minor Courante and E major Gigue, and she is splendidly neat in the double of the B minor Courante and in the C major’s finale. For the most part she is very sparing with embellishments, decorating ritornellos of the E major Gavotte and the first half (only) of the D minor Sarabande, but then suddenly becomes lavish in the repeats of the A minor Allegro. Monica Huggett’s musicianly readings are very rewarding and are warmly to be recommended. Lionel Salter (January 1998)

 

English Suites Nos 1, 3 & 5

Piotr Anderszewski pf

(Warner Classics)

This is a glorious disc. Simply glorious. Anderszewski and Bach have long been congenial bedfellows and the Pole’s playing here is compelling on many different levels. To start with, there’s the sense of sharing the sheer physical thrill of Bach’s keyboard-writing. This is particularly evident in faster movements such as the fierce and brilliant fugal Gigue that concludes the Third Suite, or, in the E minor Fifth Suite, the extended fugal Prelude and the outer sections of its Passepied I. Common to all is a sense of being fleet but never breathless, with time enough for textures to tell.

At every turn you get the sense of Bach flexing his compositional muscles in these early keyboard suites. There is of course nothing innately ‘English’ about them and the origin of their title is shrouded in mystery, though Bach’s earliest biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel speculated that it reflected the nationality of the suites’ (unknown) dedicatee. As with the keyboard partitas (of which Anderszewski so memorably recorded the First, Third and Sixth for Virgin Classics back in 2001 – 1/03), there’s a sense of Bach demonstrating just how much variety he could introduce into a suite built around the common elements of Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue. In Anderszewski’s hands the First, Third and Fifth very much occupy their own worlds in terms of mood. Thus there’s a palpable delight in the rhythmically ungainly theme from which the Gigue of the First Suite is fashioned and Anderszewski’s way with Bach’s counterpoint is at once strong-jawed and supple. We’re always aware of the re entry of a fugue subject, for instance, as it peeks through the texture in different registers or reappears stood on its head, yet it’s never exaggerated as is sometimes the tendency with less imaginative pianists.

And how Anderszewski can dance – at least at the keyboard – in a movement such as the Prelude of the Third Suite, urged into life through subtle dynamics, voicings, articulation and judicious ornamentation. A very different kind of dance reveals itself in the Gavotte II of the Third Suite, a musette in which he takes a more impish view than many, the sonorous drone effect contrasting delightfully with the tripping upper lines. The way he has considered the touch and dynamic of every phrase means that these are readings that constantly impress with fresh details each time you hear them.

Even the most apparently unassuming numbers, such as the Second Bourrée of the First Suite or the Passepied II of the Fifth, gain a sense of intrigue as he re examines them from every angle, again bringing multifarious shadings to the music. And it all flows effortlessly – though I’m sure the journey has been anything but that. Highlights abound: in the murmuring Courante of the Third Suite, the Pole’s reactivity leaves Maria João Pires sounding a touch unsubtle – which is really saying something. This is followed by one of the most extraordinary readings of the Sarabande I’ve ever heard. While Pires revels in its echoing harmonies, Anderszewski draws you daringly into his own world, as Bach’s initially grandiose sonorities become more and more withdrawn. This whispered intimacy extends into his insertion of an ornamented version of this movement, entitled ‘Les agréments de la même Sarabande’, which proves a masterclass in audacious ornamentation, yet never overburdening Bach’s melodic lines. In fact the effect here is truly meditative. Fittingly, there is a long silence before the limpid Gavotte.

Are there any caveats? Some might find the basic pulse of the First and Fifth Sarabandes perhaps too slow. To me they work precisely because he teases so much out of each line. They have a Gouldian intensity that draws you ineluctably in without any of the Canadian’s wilfulness.

You can be in no doubt of the thought that has gone into this enterprise, from Anderszewski’s ordering of the courantes of the First Suite, which he explains in the booklet, to the programming of the suites themselves, opening the disc with the Third rather than the more quizzical First. And at every turn, he harnesses the possibilities of the piano in the service of Bach; the result is a clear labour of love, and one in which he shines new light on old music to mesmerising effect, all of which is captured by a warmly sympathetic recording and an engaging booklet-note by Mark Audus.

Anderszewski’s CDs are all too infrequent, so let’s cherish this one. Harriet Smith (February 2015)

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