Three of Bach’s sonatas for violin and obligato harpsichord were presented in this concert, the C minor with its beautiful opening movement, B minor and the G major. No programme was given so we relied on the information mostly supplied by Julia Fredersdorf who in her last recital as artistic director of this festival presented the salient points around the pieces concisely and informatively, so lacking a paper programme to rattle around during the concert was not a disadvantage. This concert was well attended with about 110 people and with only a few more people would have been standing room only. At 4.00pm we were all standing in the pleasant confines of the church yard on a pleasant cool summer’s day (after the 40 degrees the day before!) and shortly after, shuffled in, slightly late for the starting time, to our seats in a smallish red brick church. As I tune harpsichords myself I do realise how this important item has to be squeezed into the day’s preparations for the concert and frequently have to tune to within minutes of the starting time!
The opening movement of the C minor with its allusion to “Erbarme Dich” is a sublime movement with the chance for the beautiful violin’s melodic line to be dwelled upon which was executed with superb warm sound and exquisite control of the sound. However, for my tastes this felt a little slow as the movement in the bass line felt like it was measured in quavers rather than the dotted crotchets that would have made this movement flow more. The pauses in between the sections were also a little disconnecting although this might have have worked in a more resonant acoustic. The following fugue movement had a beautiful clarity with the entries of the fugue melody (subject) clearly marked and also not played too fast. This was an elegantly played fugue which entertained and delighted due to its poise and tempo. Again in the slow movement Fredersdorf was able to produce a beautiful tone which allowed the music to flow very naturally and unselfconsciously.
The B minor sonata following had some of the hallmarks of this key for Bach; beauty mixed with a sense of ominous fate. The violin sonatas with a written out right hand (as opposed to those that only have a bass line) for the harpsichordist are called sonatas with obligato harpsichord and are really trio sonatas for two treble instruments (violin and right hand of harpsichord) and bass. The opening movement of the B minor sonata has both “treble instruments” double stopping; that is to say playing two notes in a sort of parallel melodic harmony which produces the sort of drama and tension expected from this key. The melodic lines falling in pairs of descending notes were handled in just the right tempo to lend a type of inexorability or inevitability to the feeling of the movement. I noted how beautifully in tune these difficult double stops (for the violin) were and how naturally the descending movement was a part of a longer phrase structure rather than being broken into separate two note motifs. This sense of the whole structure of each piece and even the progression of the whole concert was a defining quality of this whole recital and was particularly exemplified in this movement.
Again in the slow movement Fredersdorf showed her sublime control of the bow with one of the most delightful fadeouts to almost nothing I have heard on the last note almost leaving one wishing to stay in that moment forever.
This sonata also has a few changes of role for the harpsichord occasionally moving to a bass line with right hand filling chords (basso continuo) and for this Aline Zylberajch made good use of the manual changes with the chords on the upper manual and thus quieter and the bass line either on the upper manual or on the lower manual if it was a particularly important bass line motivically speaking. In other parts of this work Zylberajch also used the reverse of this with the quieter bass line contrasting with a louder solo line in the right hand.
In the G major Zylberajch had a movement for harpsichord alone. There are two of these movements available for this sonata which has any number of permutations of many movements possible such that one almost never hears the entire sonata as it would take too long and most likely was never intended to be performed like this. I would dearly have liked to also hear the harpsichord solo that is almost a direct quote from the E minor partita’s courante movement, but that derives from my being a harpsichordist! In any case the format used for this performance was that of the first version although Bach reviewed what he did with this whole sonata many times throughout his life. Therefore there is no definitive version of this work so it can really be left to the performers which movements to include. In general this sonata was securely performed like the others with all the tempi well-chosen and allowing the music to speak well.
After much well deserved applause a short but expressive prelude was played from Couperin’s third Concert Royaux displaying a completely different and worthy aspect to this duo.
This duo worked well together and in particular Fredersdorf consistently produced beautiful sounds with phrasing that always went to the last note of the phrase and without being abruptly terminated. Pregnant pauses and gestures in the music were well timed and this duo clearly had thought about how they wanted to construct the music and their presentation of it. Baroque music is both forgiving and unforgiving as you can do pretty much anything to it, but if you do nothing it is unforgivingly boring. What this duo did to the music was convincing, logical and pleasing to the ear, heart and mind.