JS Bach, Handel, Scarlatti: Gamba Sonatas
Steven Isserlis (cello), Richard Egarr (harpsichord)
While Steven Isserlis is more agile and adaptable than other cellists who have mixed and matched with a harpsichord in these sonatas, the fact remains that Bach wrote them for the modern cello’s uncle, the viola da gamba, and the centuries-wide gap of sound, style and aesthetic takes some getting used to, just as one imagines it would were Hockney to skype Vermeer for a chinwag. For all that in his engaging booklet-note, Isserlis welcomes the opportunity ‘to play as lightly as possible without ever courting inaudibility’ – and at least in Hyperion’s finely balanced recording, he does – he never apologises for the full-bodied sound that is his instrument’s natural property.
On a recent comparable recording from Genuin, Nicolas Altstaedt cuts back the vibrato, uses a daringly light bow and a veiled tone to complement Jonathan Cohen’s harpsichord, but the result is curiously neutered, especially in comparison with the bracing dialogue of Isserlis and Richard Egarr. When he made his previous recording of these sonatas, Egarr tailored a suitably taut and punchy accompaniment for Jaap ter Linden’s breathy and penetrating gamba – a countertenor to the warm mezzo of Isserlis’s cello – but the suspicion remains that he and ter Linden were playing within a style compared with the greater expressive freedom he and Isserlis allow themselves, and which indeed Bach’s music should prompt.
Isserlis is no less nimble than his gambist rivals in the trills and runs of the quick finales, though phrase ends are sometimes pinched rather than shaded away. He allows himself a good old-fashioned spread chord to nail the arrival point of the G major sonata’s finale, as indeed any harpsichordist would, and the apex of a phrase tends to be celebrated with welcoming vibrato, just as the slow movements are spun along on a cantabile thread that would hardly sound out of place in Chopin; though in the G major Adagio’s simple progressions he is admirably plain, letting Egarr’s more florid part carry the expressive burden. Of the three sonatas, perhaps the D major behaves most like a ‘Classical’ sonata, and here questions of stylistic dissonance become irrelevant in the face of the confidence, not to say bravado, with which melody and harmony instruments trade semiquaver flourishes.
Perhaps the more rhetorically straightforward, Italianate vigour of the sonatas by Scarlatti (Kk90) and Handel (HWV364b) brings a stronger sense of cello and harpsichord speaking in different tongues. This is intensified by the use of a second cello to support the bass line and creating fleeting impressions of double-stopping in the slow movements, for all Robin Michael’s discretion. The encore is no mere indulgence but a Bach chorale, Ich ruf zu dir BWV639, the arrangement of which is as sober as the performance is affectingly restrained.