Bach left us three sonatas for keyboard with viola da gamba. In the Smeider catalog, these are BWV 1027-1029. They are most often performed on harpsichord and viola da gamba, but Gould performed the works with Leonard Rose in 1977 on their respective instruments: piano and cello. Like his pieces for violin and continuo (BWV 1014-1019), the keyboard takes an active role, forming a type of trio sonata texture for the majority of the pieces. There are a lot of excellent performances today from which to choose (among my favorites include Bruno Cocset and Peter Wispelwey). I am not sure the options were as plentiful in the late 70s with historically-informed options.
The cello isn’t a bad stand-in for the gamba; Rose is well-captured in the recording and projects a warm sound. I get the sense he’s been left to follow Gould’s lead, and tries his best. Listen closely enough, however, and you’ll find examples where they’re not quite together, precisely. And then there’s some of the questionable tempos and solutions, such as the super-long trills Rose employs in track 3 (BWV 1027). Some of it, quite honestly, doesn’t sound very Bach-like. Then the fast movement kicks in, and you’re quickly jerked-back to Bachland. Then there’s the little short quirky things Gould does on the piano that come-across strange, like these broken chords (arpeggios) that go up, like he’s trying to extend the chord by playing them that way.
Gould isn’t around today to defend his tempi nor his performance style. And to that, why I am reviewing a recording that’s nearly as old as I am?
As part of the Glen Gould Bach Edition from Sony, this was new to me, and despite Gould & Rose taking some departures from a historically-informed interpretation, I wanted to share what I thought came across especially successfully.
The first two sonatas are 4-movement works (slow/fast, slow/fast). The last (my favorite), is a fast-slow-fast one. The slow tempos Gould employs are really far too slow for my comfort level. Yet, they don’t fail to work. This is the thing: the music can be played this slowly and work; a great example is the opening to BWV 1028. What doesn’t work, really, is all the gestures on the piano at that tempo. What doesn’t help is Gould’s insistence on playing the notes short. It works great for the faster numbers, but in the slow ones, it’s almost pointillistic. It’s what’s Gould’s known for. But what does it do for the music? For me, it lets me hear these pieces with new ears. The dominance of the piano in the mixture and consistent articulations (really) between both players let the harmonies emerge more clearly, I think. You will no doubt notice things that you may not be used to with your other recordings with their approach.
I’ve spent the most time with my favorite sonata, the third in G minor (also my favorite key). In the first movement, it’s Rose who emerges the stronger player, perhaps, by his refusal to play the notes all “straight.” He succumbs to the line, adding more to the phrases. It’s natural. Gould follows suit, eventually, but his emphasis is on the larger form, on the nuances between phrases. Rose’s use of legato in the phrasing, too, should have been echoed by Gould. It would have ultimately made it the two players sound as if they were from the same place. No matter these issues, however, because a righteous tempo and Bach’s excellent righting sort of keep the interest high, no matter what the performers aren’t doing perfectly in sync.
The middle movement is much more of the same of what we’ve already experienced: the tempo chosen is just too slow. Where before I said it still kind of worked, thanks to Bach’s writing, this time the long notes just sound too darn long. In fact, I think the middle movement can work with some rubato treatment (where the tempo isn’t locked-in consistent throughout the entire reading). While I think the last movement too suffers from too conservative a tempo, I do like the style both performers employ.
No doubt, this release is kind of “experimental.” On one hand, I believe you had Gould directing the artistic decisions in this recording who was a figure who was sensitive to the historical world of Bach and took measures on his modern piano to emulate Bach’s sound world in interesting ways (most frequently in his choice of piano voicing and his broken touch). I think these pieces can be enjoyed on the piano and cello, but in the end, the experiments Gould took are far- removed from the sound world that’s been achieved in more recent recordings, both in arrangement forms (the one of BWV 1029 with the Rare Fruits Council comes to mind) and using the original instruments. They’re also far-removed from what we might imagine a “romantic” reading of these pieces might have sounded like. That leaves them in some interesting light.
For me, it meant that the slow movements are simply too slow for my ultimate enjoyment. But the fast ones and slow ones together, when savored, give us a little different read on Bach’s gamba sonatas. It’s partially because of the piano as the keyboard, Gould’s touch, and in the end, some of the interpretive decisions made that to my ears are unique. While that means this wouldn’t be my reference recording, it’s valuable due to the new things that come through because of these differences. And that’s what’s made getting to know this recording enjoyable.
As a comparison, I queued up my recording by Wispelwey. He too performs on cello, but a cello piccolo. What’s also interesting is that Richard Egarr on harpsichord, adds a second cello (played by Daniel Yeadon) on the bass line. What really stands out is the dominance of the cello in the texture. Gould’s reading favored the piano in most cases, which is natural, I suppose, with the piano being a naturally louder instrument. What we notice far less, however, is the technical aspect of Egarr’s playing. Which, in hindsight, makes the playing of Gould (even in the role of a duet) all the more astonishing. It’s clean, always articulate, and seemingly locked into a very steady metronome.