J. S. Bach: Sonatas for violin and harpsichord

Guido de Neve, Frank Agsteribbe
(2 CDs in a jewel case)
Et’cetera KTC 1596

This is a very well-researched project funded by the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp with the research group on Performance Practice in Perspective.

You may or may not like the violinist’s rather rhapsodic style which involves some – to my ears – rather aggressive (and 20th-century feeling) bowing. But de Neve is playing an instrument of 1692 by Hendrik Williams of Ghent and the pair have clearly made a detailed study of the rhetorical expressiveness of 18th-century music. This leads to some pretty slow tempi in some of the slow movements, as in the opening of the A major sonata for example, as well as a breakaway Presto, so fast as to appear almost unsteady. So expect a degree of engaged commitment to making the music speak as dramatically as a Baroque painting. In the liner-notes each sonata is prefaced by a quotation from Mattheson’s Das Neu-Eröffnete Orchester of 1713 on the particular key, for example: h-moll: Kombination aus Gefühlen der Unlust und Melancholie. Bizarr – wird deshalb selten gespielt. [B minor: Combines feelings of unease and melancholy. Slightly odd and therefore rarely performed.]

They also explain with a welcome degree of clarity why, due to the uneven distribution of the Pythagorean comma across the octave in historic tunings, different keys are sharply different from one another. It is a pity then that the information in the liner notes does not make specific reference to the particular system they use.

I think that the violin is recorded slightly too close, so the harpsichord frequently feels a less than equal partner. But this performance certainly offers an alternative reading to those, for example, by Rachel Podger with which my generation has been brought up.

David Stancliffe

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