Gamba Sonatas

Steven Isserlis cello, Richard Egarr harpsichord
Bach, Handel, Scarlatti
Hyperion CDA68045

I suspect that those looking on this EMR site are more used to performances of the standard Baroque repertoire on the instruments for which they were written. Yes, I know people will argue that Bach’s three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord may have been transcriptions from lost works and Handel’s one gamba sonata was the composer’s own transposition of a lone violin sonata, but is there a need for a new recording on a modern cello?

The Domenico Scarlatti sonata in D Minor takes transcription a step further: one of Scarlatti’s few harpsichord sonatas with a few figured bass annotations (K. 90) has been recorded as a violin sonata – so why not play it down the octave on cello? Isserlis nods his head towards current performance practice of the period by a somewhat restrained use of vibrato in the slow movements, but he adopts an aggressive approach to the faster sections, which some may not like. The Scarlatti and Handel sonatas (supported by a second continuo cello) struck me as being unashamedly romantic in approach. The disc concludes with an encore of a Bach organ chorale prelude (BWV 639) arranged for cello and harpsichord. The playing from both Isserlis and Egarr – if you can tolerate the style – is, as one would expect, impeccable. If you prefer the dulcet tones of the viola da gamba, then give this a miss. Booklet notes are more Isserslis’s personal thoughts on his programme rather than an instructive essay (“1685 – what a year! The storks must have been working overtime …”).

Ian Graham-Jones