Here are some thoughts on the Adagio movement of the F-minor sonata and its
interpretation over a fifty year period.
On the sleeve notes of an old record I no longer own, and whose details escape
me, it was suggested that Bach composed three of the six sonatas, including the
F-minor sonata, shortly after the death of his wife. It was further suggested
that these works were suitable for, and perhaps primarily intended for, domestic
performance, and as such allowed Bach to express his grief in a highly personal
idiom. I do not know, however, whether this view is currently in vogue or not.
Let me start with the Wanda Landowska / Yehudi Menuhin 1944 New York recital,
the audio of which has recently been rescued from decay and restored to life by
Dr. Teri Noel Towe. In my opinion, this recording provides the benchmark against
which other recordings should be measured (and in some cases found wanting!).
The first point to address, perhaps, is the title of the (in part) autograph:
"Sei Suonate a Cembalo Certato e Violino solo col Basso per Violla da Gamba
Accompagnato se piace, composta da Giov. Sebast. Bach".
As indicated in the program notes to the Landowska / Menuhin recital, the
harpsichord is listed before the violin. So, by mutual consent, their concert
was advertised as "Joint Recital Landowska - Menuhin", perhaps unusual given the
status Menuhin enjoyed at that time. For me, the profound bass notes offered by
Landowska's harpsichord facilitate the harmonic underpinning that the optional
"Violla da Gamba" might be expected to provide, while keeping the focus on the
obligato instruments. At the same time, the use of a modernised Stradivarius
violin ensures balance with Landowska's instrument. Great emphasis was placed on
the historical accuracy of the phrasing, with Menuhin adopting bowings suggested
by Landowska to reflect her thoughts on Barock practice.
The main characteristics of this performance are romanticism, vibrato, and slow
tempo. For many, this interpretation will not be Bach, but something they
associate with old fashioned practice. Similar prejudice assailed Bach's music
itself, of course, shortly after his death. But fortunately, with the passage of
time, a new generation was able to approach Bach's music with objectivity.
Likewise, there will come a time, I believe, when transient fashions will pass.
In the meantime, this performance comes closest, I think, to Bach's conception.
The Zuzana Ruzickova / Josef Suk recording uses a tempo similar to Landowska /
Menuhin for the Adagio and both recordings use modernised violins with vibrato.
It is perhaps the recording closest in style to that of Landowska / Menuhin and
can be recommended.
The Glenn Gould / Jaime Laredo performance likewise uses a tempo similar to
Landowska / Menuhin for the Adagio and a modernised violin with vibrato.
The Gould performance uses a piano which balances well with the modern violin.
Gould's playing is admirable and restrained, but Laredos arpeggios in this
movement are somewhat idiosyncratic Notwithstanding, the recording can be
I have three "HIP" recordings of this work - all, in my opinion, inferior to
those above. The Gustav Leonhard / Sigiswald Kiujken recording and the Manno
van Delft / Johannes Leertower recording are broadly similar in approach with
regards to the Adagio. Both use a fast tempo and little or no vibrato. However,
an interesting feature is the attempt to recreate the sound of a Barock violin.
One can question the claimed authenticity of such approaches, however. With
regard to the Harpsichord, I understand modern scholarship indicates that Bach
preferred Saxon and Thungarian harpsichords, whose distinctive timbre is not to
be found on these recordings. Due to a lack of depth, I cannot recommend either
of these performances.
The last, and most amazing, performance I have is by Robert Hill / Reinhard
Goebel. Here there is also the attempt to recreate the sound of a Barock violin,
but again neither Saxon nor Thuringian harpsichords are used. The amazing thing
about this performance, however, is the tempo of the "Adagio", which would
appear somewhat closer to the traditional Presto. This performance certainly
appears to invalidate any claim to respect the composers wishes. To some it will
be seen as either blundering incompetence or else wilful vandalism.