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JS Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014-23

Adrian Butterfield (violin), Silas Wollston (harpsichord) (SOMM)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

JS Bach
Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014-23
Adrian Butterfield (violin), Silas Wollston (harpsichord)
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0664-2   60:45 mins (2 discs)

Composed in the early 1720s, when he was director of music for Prince Leopold of Cöthen, Johann Sebastian Bach’s six sonatas for violin and harpsichord contain some of his most ravishingly lyrical music. His son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, considered them among his father’s finest works and enthused about their ‘singable manner’.

While their trio-sonata texture can produce tricky figuration for the harpsichord, it gives the violin free melodic rein. A spectacular example is the first movement of the E major Sonata (BWV 1016) where the harpsichord’s gracefully embellished bass allows the violin to soar ecstatically in arching, ornamental lines. Likewise the Largo of the C minor Sonata (BWV 1017) with its pre-echo of the unforgettable aria ‘Ebarme dich’ from the St Matthew Passion.

Adrian Butterfield’s sweetly focused violin tone and Silas Wollston’s elegant accompanying are well matched. Wollston negotiates the occasional awkward passages in the harpsichord part with consummate skill, and in the solo middle movement of the G major Sonata ( BWV 1019) delivers a performance of poise and genuine humour. Adrian Butterfield’s playing is, throughout, expressive and captures a real sense of improvisation where needed, as in the first movement of the E minor Sonata (BWV 1023), although the intonation is not always flawless.

These carefully prepared and enjoyable performances come with exemplary accompanying notes and include extra ‘alternative’ movements for the G major Sonata (BWV 1019) as well as the two early sonatas in E minor and G major. The resonant acoustic suits the music well, although the recorded balance could have favoured harpsichord a touch more.

Jan Smaczny