Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord

Lucy Russell violin, John Butt harpsichord
85″ (2 CDs)
Linn Records CKD433

Lucy Russell, best known as leader of the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, and John Butt, director of the Dunedin Consort, join forces to produce a uniquely personal interpretation of these six sonatas, or perhaps more correctly, trio sonatas, as many movements follow the pattern of the organ trio sonatas, giving two of the three contrapuntal lines to the harpsichord. This can often give rise to problems of balance, and I felt that the harpsichord could at times have been a touch more forward in this recording.

To compete with numerous other period instrument recordings – Comberti, Mackintosh, Manson, Manze, Podger, to mention just a few well-known names (in alphabetical order) – this recording needs to stand out, and a comparative review would here be impossible. Others may be better value, in that they include the G and E Minor sonatas (BWV 1021, 1023, both with continuo accompaniment), whereas the six trio sonatas alone are inevitably short measure on two discs. These works can often receive performances which can sound dry and a little academic, but here Lucy Russell puts her own stamp on the works, giving a spirited and emotional rendering, and for that this recording is worth investing in, even if you have another. Allegros are always spirited and the tempi never sag in the slow movements, whereas I have heard some players who like to wallow in the sound.

It is a test of a harpsichord player to make the right sort of sonority from the instrument in the passages where Bach’s writing imitates the texture of an accompanied string band (e.g. as in the first and third movements of the E Major sonata), and John Butt acquits himself well in such passages. I was pleased that I could detect no trace of a 4’ sound, Butt confining himself to the texture of just two 8’ stops. Although Lucy Russell gives details of the violin used in the recording, it would have been interesting to know the instrument that John Butt was playing. Otherwise the booklet notes, all in English, are excellent, with an extended essay on the sonatas from John Butt.

Ian Graham-Jones