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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Mikko Perkola and Aapo Häkkinen give impressive accounts of the three Viola da gamba Sonatas…Perkola has a fine, full timbre…What makes this generous (76-minute) Naxos disc worth considering are the bonus works, two Trios (transcribed from organ sonatas) and a pair of Harpsichord Sonatas, a single-movement work in A minor and a five-movement work in D which the final fugue is a ‘Theme in Imitation of the Hen and Cuckoo’. Aapo Häkkinen plays them stylishly.

Johan van Veen
MusicWeb International, July 2008

Bach's sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba – to mention the instruments in the right order – were not the last pieces ever composed for the viola da gamba. They were however written at a time when the instrument was beginning to be relegated to the sidelines. It was gradually overshadowed by the cello, although it would take some time before any music was written for the cello as a solo instrument.

Bach used the viola da gamba in a number of pieces, including vocal works, such as the Passions. It is mostly used for moments of deep expression, as in the famous 'Actus tragicus' (BWV 106). We do not know when the three sonatas were written, but what seems clear is that they are arrangements of sonatas for a different scoring.

As there are only three sonatas the artists and the record company have to think about what to use as fillers. Not many companies dare to produce a disc which lasts less than 38 minutes although the recording by Michael Behringer and Hille Perl in the Hänssler Bach Edition is an exception. One of the solutions is to play very slowly. I am sure that was not the reasoning behind the choice of tempi in these performances, but it certainly helps. And the tempi are generally very slow indeed. The three sonatas together take here more than 52 minutes. Admittedly, Behringer and Perl are pretty fast, but even performances in a more moderate tempo take less time, like Piet and Wieland Kuijken (Arcana) at a little under 48 minutes. Most astonishing in this respect is the Andante of the Sonata in D, which takes more than six minutes and is without doubt the slowest performance I have ever heard. As a result this movement just drags and can easily lull one to sleep. Most fast movements are slowish too, and in general the result is that the natural flow of the music is lacking and that too often all notes get the same weight. The rhythmic pulse is also underexposed in these performances.

In addition the balance between the two instruments is not satisfying. Right at the start, in the Adagio which opens the Sonata in G, the entrance of the viola da gamba is rather massive, almost overpowering the harpsichord. But in Bach's time in all sonatas for the combination of keyboard and melody instrument the former has the lead. The best example in Bach's oeuvre is the set of six sonatas for harpsichord and violin (BWV 1014 - 1019). The sound of the viola da gamba is rather obtrusive anyway. In comparison the harpsichord sounds a bit thin, even though it is a fine instrument.

As slow as the tempi are there was still room for additional music. It results in a programme with a playing time of almost 76 minutes, which is excellent. Four pieces have been added. The two Trios (BWV 583 and 584, the latter generally being considered spurious) are just single movements from what could have been trio-sonatas for organ, as they are stylistically close to the well-known six trio-sonatas (BWV 525 - 530). Their structure makes it plausible to play them with an instrumental ensemble, and therefore a performance of these trio movements on harpsichord and viola da gamba is fully legitimate and musically convincing. The performances are generally better than those of the sonatas for this combination.

The other two pieces are for keyboard only and were written in the first decade of the 18th century. There is some similarity between the Suite in D and the Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo (BWV 992). The suite ends with a fugue in which the call of the cuckoo is imitated. The tempi in these two pieces are a bit slow too, but it doesn't disturb me as much, which is also due to Aapo Häkkinen's playing which is well differentiated, with some nice ornamentation.

The keyboard parts in the sonatas for keyboard and viola da gamba are also played well, but as I indicated the strong sound of the viola da gamba often overshadows Aapo Häkkinen's contribution. It is just one of the features of this disc which have disappointed me. But in particular the slow tempi make these performances hard to swallow. The additional pieces are just not enough to win a recommendation for this disc.

Burton Rothleder
Fanfare, May 2008

These two young Finnish artists have turned out an excellent disc that displays fine interpretations of Bach's three viola da gamba and keyboard sonatas and several more of his works for this combination or for solo keyboard. The sound quality is excellent.

What is most interesting is the following notation on the back of the jewel case: "Pitch: A=403 hz; Temperament: Sorge, 1758." The pitch has been decreased almost a whole tone below that of current practice, which is thus in keeping with the pitch in Bach's era. The temperament, or tuning of the scale, has been adjusted with respect to (or with "care" regarding) the era around 1758. How this compares with Bach's well-tempered scale is not discussed.

The viola da gamba produces a raw sound compared to its modern counterpart, the cello. In conjunction with the harpsichord, the string sound is somewhat mellowed. The performances of these three beautiful sonatas are clean and well articulated, with the part-writing well delineated. My favorites have always been the G Major and G Minor, with the middle sonata having a bit less interesting material. But when I'm in the mood for the D Major, it's a great listening experience.

I was not familiar with the two trios or with the A-Minor Keyboard Sonata, but I am now. But the best of these additional pieces is the D-major Keyboard Sonata, which is beautifully and expressively played by Aapo Häkkinen.

The viola da gamba and keyboard sonatas are more familiar in their modernized version for cello and piano (or piano and cello, which is the order I prefer). The touted recording by Glenn Gould and Leonard Rose is magnificently played by Leonard Rose, but is spoiled by Gould with his staccatostyle "Bach-speak." I have read that Gould believed that this enabled the piano to imitate the harpsichord, but whatever Gould's reason, this Perkola-Häkkinen CD is preferable. I conclude with a very favorable recommendation, but also with the hope that a Schiff-Perényi CD will someday let us hear these sonatas in a modern-instrument version with a rational keyboard sound.

D Moore
American Record Guide, May 2008

Here is a curious program that blends Bach's well-known viol sonatas with arrangements of two of the organ "trios" arranged for viol and harpsichord and two little-known keyboard works: S 967, a one-movement piece in A minor, and S 963, a five-movement work containing two fugues, one of them mixing the sounds of a hen and a cuckoo. The performances are unusual as well, the viol material played in a more relaxed and rubato-ish way than has become customary. I liked it this way up to a point; it makes the music sound very expressive and intense. The balance gives us a bit more harpsichord than usual. This is a plus, because that instrument plays two parts out of the three and we need to hear that bass line, among other things. The phrasing does get a tad predictable sometimes, though.

The arrangements of the organ pieces are effective and the harpsichord pieces, though not necessarily by Bach, are good to have. At Naxos's price, this is a good deal.

John Sheppard
MusicWeb International, February 2008

The main works on this disc are the three Sonatas, composed either during the period that Bach was in Cöthen at the same time as the great bass viol-player C.F. Abel, or later during his time in Leipzig when he wrote many works for the Collegium Musicum. They are wonderfully varied, each in the form of a trio sonata in which the harpsichord plays the bass and one of the upper parts and the gamba the other.

There have been many recordings, including some using cello and piano, a combination which all too often sounds simply too heavy and unwieldy for the music. I thought initially that this was the case here, but soon realised that this was simply a result of playing the disc at too high a volume. Once I had rectified this, the very beautiful sounds of the instruments became a source of considerable pleasure. The harpsichord – a copy by Joel Katzman of a 1769 instrument by Pascal Taskin – has a particularly lovely sound, heard to especial advantage in the two solo keyboard Sonatas. There is always a problem in balancing the two upper lines in the Sonatas and here the gamba is somewhat too far forward for my liking. This has the effects of making the intertwining of the upper parts hard to hear at times and of making the gamba sound at times harsh, almost as though the player was trying to copy the sheer power of the modern cello.

The very first track provides an immediate surprise which proves to be characteristic of the disc as a whole. The G major Sonata exists also in a probably earlier version for two flutes and continuo. It is common for performers of either version to play the first movement, marked Adagio, at a flowing speed where the 12/8 bars can be heard as a whole and where the quavers become a kind of barcarolle. That is not the case here. The players take it very slowly, and then add to the effect by applying slight hesitations, presumably to point the phrases. This is disconcerting at first but does mean that the phrases are heard more lyrically and without any sense of haste. A similar approach applies throughout the disc, even in what you would expect to be quick movements. Some do gain from this, but the first movement of the last Sonata – marked Vivace – plods along, altogether missing the sense of being a brother to the 3rd Brandenburg Concertos that we are used to. All of this might be enough immediately to put you off the disc, but that would be a pity as it is otherwise notable for the variety of tone and articulation that Mikko Perkola obtains, and for the wonderful phrasing and line achieved by both players. Even where I am not convinced overall by their approach it is clear that it has always been carefully considered and realised.

Similar comments can be made about the remainder of this well-filled disc. The two Trios BWV 583 and 584 – the latter of which is probably not by Bach – are usually heard on the organ but work well in these arrangements. The keyboard works, not often played, are in many ways the most enjoyable parts of the recital as a whole.

This is not then a “safe” option for anyone wanting a single recording of the three Sonatas; it is too idiosyncratic for that. Given the sheer beauty of the playing and the logic of the performances even where you may think them most wrongheaded, I can however recommend it to anyone interested in a thoughtful if not entirely convincing reconsideration of how these works should sound.

Robert Oliver
Early Music Review, February 2008

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David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2007

We tend to forget that most composers of yesteryear only composed to order and often to a tight deadline. The fact that Johann Sebastian Bach had discernable phases in his career was due to the employer he was working for. As Prince Leopold was not principally interested in elaborate church music from his Kapellmeister, Bach's endeavours were pointed to the court musicians during his years at Cothen. It would appear that the group of three Viola da Gamba sonatas (BWV 1027-29) came from this era around 1720 and were for an outstanding performer in the court, though he probably borrowed extensively from his previous compositions. Of the remaining items on the disc, the Trios are adaptations for the viola da gamba of organ scores (BWV 583-4). It does seem incongruous in a disc entitled 'Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord' to find a large chunk of the disc devoted to two keyboard sonatas (BWV 967 & 963), their origin probably coming from Bach's younger years. Often purloined by greedy cellists and revered by viola da gamba players I just wish I could have enjoyed those three linked sonatas a little more, particularly when they are given such committed performances as we have from the Finnish Duo, Mikko Perkola and Aapo Hakkinen, the string instrument rather more pungent than we usually hear. Sadly they do little for me, and my major enjoyment comes from Hakkinen's nicely paced harpsichord sonatas, the D major, with its 'hen and cuckoo' movement (BWV 963), being a little gem. Sound quality is very good.

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