Yet it is precisely in these sonatas, largely composed between 1717 and 1723 while serving as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold in Cöthen, that Bach allowed his expressive genius to flower, producing works that sound as fresh today as their period of composition. “That’s Bach?!” is an expression often heard from those experiencing these works for the first time, such is the level of richness made possible by Bach’s innovation in freeing the harpsichord from its typical basso continuo role to serve as a true obbligato instrument, giving the right hand equal importance in weaving contrapuntal lines of dialogue alongside the violin.
I’ll admit I’m a little obsessed with these works – I own eleven different performances, and traded away or test drove another dozen others over the years. For me, these sonatas hold up to differing interpretation more than any other works from Bach. With your permission, I’ll mention the pros and cons of a few releases after first covering the works themselves.
The first five sonatas follow the typical sonata da chiesa (or ‘church sonata’) format, with four movements in a slow-fast-slow-fast pattern, while the final sonata, which Bach revised numerous times, adds a fifth movement. A great deal of imitative interplay is employed in faster movements, many tinged with a breathless excitement (resembling either a trio sonata or three-part invention), while the slow pieces form the true heart of the opus and include independent turns of phrase that occasionally break off from the canonical structure, particularly notable in violin parts that soar in melismatic fashion or adopt breathy, sighing motifs.
The Third Sonata in E (BWV 1016) is particularly communicative, as the violin takes off in flights of fancy for the opening Adagio, framed by block chords just insistent enough to make it earthbound at the end of each phrase. The third Adagio ma non tanto movement is as heartrending as anything Bach wrote, the initial descending keyboard chords supporting an aria-like arc from the violin that builds to an emotional peak before the composer pulls the rug out from beneath the proceedings – the roles suddenly reverse, the violin imitating the harpsichord’s original opening, though in an elegiac, nearly crying tone, while the keyboard buoys this expression by taking upward runs that largely mirror the original string line, in the process converting the original lead to a supporting role (the Sonatas are worth acquiring for this movement alone).
Other stirring moments include the song-like opening to the Fourth Sonata in C minor (BWV 1017), which bears more than a passing resemblance to the famous Erbarme Dich section of the St. Matthew Passion, cast in the form of a poignant Siciliano, and the Fifth Sonata’s first movement in which a rather deliberate keyboard figure is rather touching in its economy, here the bowed instrument largely employed for backing coloration.
But make no mistake, the twenty-five movements comprising these six sonatas run the gamut of emotions, and also include ebullient, effervescent flights of fancy, florid lines traded back and forth between the two instruments in good-natured contests of virtuosity. In this sense, the Sonatas seem unusually modern amongst Bach’s greater oeuvre, just when you think you’ve pinned them down a surprising shift occurs, such as the bouncy solo harpsichord piece placed squarely at the center of the Sixth Sonata in G.
Assuming your appetite is sufficiently whetted, it will make sense to list a few recommendations from among the dozens I’ve tested out over the years, all on period instruments (or faithful copies). Many include added ‘continuo’ sonatas with the addition of cello as a bonus. No one choice will be best for everyone, so I’ll try to describe the stylistic differences.
Perhaps the safest ‘reference’ version is that by Catherine Mackintosh and Maggie Cole on the Chandos label [0603(2)], with authoritative, non-mannered performances difficult to find fault with, hitting home runs in all the key movements.
One popular set has been the Rachel Podger/Trevor Pinnock collaboration (Channel Classics, CCS 14798), though opinions are rather barbelled, with most appreciating Pinnock’s steady approach and Podger’s ability to project, while others find the harpsichord to be a little metronomic, and fault Podger for the occasionally romantic “swelling” effect.
John Holloway and Davitt Moroney (Virgin Veritas) must be considered niche players, given Holloway’s gloriously sour, nearly vinegary tone, recorded with a rich presence, that ups the ante on slow movements to nearly stratospheric levels, though may fatigue some listeners in the fleeter tracks. Moroney is typically reliable, if a bit square, tossing in occasional short pauses in solo passagework, though largely backing with great aplomb. (For my money this should be in everyone’s collection, if only as a secondary purchase).
Those who prefer to follow their instrumentalist favorites have a bounty to choose from. Fans of harpsichordist Céline Frisch will certainly enjoy her recording with Pablo Valetti on Alpha, with its brisk fast movements and modestly cautious slow movements, while Christophe Rousset supporters (and there are indeed many) will collect his set despite comparatively weaker efforts from violinist Stefano Montanari. And though I personally found it a little self-conscious, Giuliano Carmignola (of Vivaldi fame) released a set with fellow Italian Andre Marcon that many give top billing.
As all these remain steadfastly on my shelf despite annual attempts to replace them with newcomers, you really can’t go wrong with any of them for, as I indicated, these sonatas hold up under a greater range of interpretation than virtually any J.S. Bach work. I can't think of a more pleasant way for many to fill a rather gaping hole in their Bach collections.