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Sonatas for Viola da Gamba & Harpsichord BWV 1027-1029
Alison Crum (Viola da Gamba) & Laurence Cummings (Harpsichord)
Bach’s Viola da Gamba Sonatas from Laurence Cummings

H-1

J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsihord

 

WTC 1: Prelude & Fugue No. 5 in D major, BWV 850 [3:55]
WTC 1: Prelude & Fugue No. 15 in G major, BWV 860 [4:19]
WTC 1: Prelude & Fugue No. 16 in G minor, BWV 861 [4:03]
Sonatas for viola da gamba & harpsichord BWV 1027-1029 [13:24, 14:28, 15:03]

Alison Crum (Viola da gamba); Laurence Cummings (Harpsichord)

Signum UK SIGCD-024

Nov 26, 1999

CD / TT: 55:12
MP3 / TT: 55:08

Recorded at St. Andrews Church, Toddington, Gloucestershire, England.
Review: Bach's Viola da Gamba Sonatas from Laurence Cummings [D. Satz]
Review of Bach Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord by Alison Crum and Laurence Cummings [K. McElhearn]
Buy this album at:
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CD (2011): Amazon.com | Amazon.de
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Music Download (2009): Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.de | ClassicsOnline

Donald Satz wrote (February 26, 2001):
The title of this thread is purposely misleading, and I'll get to that later. The recording at hand is a recent Signum disc of Bach's Sonatas for Viol & Harpsichord BWV 1027-29. Performing are Alison Crum on viola da gamba and Laurence Cummings on harpsichord. The three Sonatas don't come close to filling a CD, so three sets of preludes/fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier are also offered. Even so, the total music time is under sixty minutes. The catalog number is SIGCD024.

I have three basic comments concerning this strange recording:

1. Alison Crum and her instrument often sound like they are two rooms down the hall. It amazes me that those involved in the disc's production didn't see this as a major problem that needs fixing; then again, maybe it's purely intentional. Crum has to be subservient to Cummings, and that obviously impacts the balances including those of mood.

2. Although the above problem would reasonably seem to be the nail on the coffin, I end up finding the disc one I can't resist. Yes, the balances are greatly out-of-sync, and the result is the most joyful and uplifting set of performances I've ever heard. Cummings, given the situation, is in the limelight. He takes to it wonderfully with thoroughly effervescent readings. This is about the best harpsichord playing I can recall. And what about the viola da gamba? Well, it's around now and then and actually possesses the same mood span as Cummings.

3. Also strange is the decision to close the disc with the relatively serious Prelude & Fugue in G minor. Up to this point, the disc has radiated warmth, love, and the joy of life (including the previous two preludes/fugues). Then, two pieces are offered which significantly alter the impact of the disc. I find it a poor decision which does addtional damage to the sense of balance.

Balances be what they may, I love this recording. Cummings is fantastic, and his WTC peformances are excellent. Other reviews I have read, except for one, have been quite critical as they cite the distant viola da gamba and a highly percussive harpsichord. First, I don't find the harpsichord unduly percussive at all; I think it sounds great. Second, there's little point in judging the performances in the normal fashion. If you do that, the disc is a loser. The best thing is to simply listen to what it offers, and I think it offers a great deal of life's wonders. Further, pacing and rhythm are always at the highest levels. A comparison with the ter Linden performances on Harmonia Mundi reveal a great difference in mood, particularly in the G minor Sonata. They are so different that I don't find them competitive with one another, being highly complimentary.

Don's Conclusion: An unusual recording that should be sampled before buying. It does not fit into any pre-existing category and needs to be considered without preconceived notions as to how these sonatas are best presented. Personally, I treasure the disc. I first heard it on my car cd player at a time when I felt highly burdened with weights holding me down. The Crum/Crummings recording made those weights disappear and I was soaring upward in disposition. It's worked like a charm ever since. This disc has been worth much more to me than its meagre retail cost; I've always had a sentimental streak. Give this Signum disc a try; it could be just what you need and end up wanting.

 

Feedback to the Review

Kirk McElhearn wrote (June 29, 2001):
I enjoy Don's reviews so much, I save them. I just looked back at this review, because I received this disc today and just listened to it. I felt I would like to comment.

< 1. Alison Crum and her instrument often sound like they are two rooms down the hall. It amazes me that those involved in the disc's production didn't see this as a major problem that needs fixing; then again, maybe it's purely intentional. Crum has to be subservient to Cummings, and that impacts the balances including those of mood. >
I don't find that - listening on headphones, you can clearly hear the gamba to the left and the harpsichord to the right. The harpsichord is a bit louder, but it is not a problem.

< 2. Although the above problem would reasonably seem to be the nail on the coffin, I end up finding the disc one I can't resist. Yes, the balances are greatly out-of-sync, and the result is the most joyful and uplifting set of performances I've ever heard. Cummings, given the situation, is in the limelight. He takes to it wonderfully with thoroughly effervescent readings. This is about the best harpsichord playing I can recall. And what about the viola da gamba? Well, it's around now and then and actually possesses the same mood span as Cummings. >
Hear, hear! Cumming is magnificent. I think one factor that makes the sound so great is that his harpsichord is strung with all brass strings.

If you recall, back when this thread was alive, I posited that these were works I just couldn't find myself liking very much. Yet, from the very first notes of this disc I knew I had found the version I needed to hear. Magnificent!

< 3. Also strange is the decision to close the disc with the relatively serious Prelude & Fugue in G minor. Up to this point, the disc has radiated warmth, love, and the joy of life (including the previous two preludes/fugues). Then, two pieces are offered which significantly alter the impact of the disc. I find it a poor decision which does additional damage to the sense of balance. >
Agreed. These preludes and fugues do not belong here, and sound like commercials interrupting the film of the sonatas...

< Balances be what they may, I love this recording. Cummings is fantastic, and his WTC peformances are excellent. Other reviews I have read, except for one, have been quite critical as they cite the distant viola da gamba and a highly percussive harpsichord. First, I don't find the harpsichord unduly percussive at all; I think it sounds great. Second, there's little point in judging the performances in the normal fashion. If you do that, the disc is a loser. The best thing is to simply listen to what it offers, and I think it offers a great deal of life's wonders. Further, pacing and rhythm are always at the highest levels. >
I can't agree more. Excellent! Amazing! What else could be said...

(A note - in spite of my reticence concerning the presence of the WTC bits, I would really like to hear Cummings record the entire WTC...)

< Don's Conclusion: An unusual recording that should be sampled before buying. It does not fit into any pre-existing category and needs to be considered without preconceived notions as to how these sonatas are best presented. Personally, I treasure the disc. I first heard it on my car CD player at a time when I felt highly burdened with weights holding me down. The Crum/Crummings recording made those weights disappear and I was soaring upward in disposition. It's worked like a charm ever since. This disc has been worth much more to me than its meagre retail cost; I've always had a sentimental streak. Give this Signum disc a try; it could be just what you need and end up wanting. >
Go for it!

Donald Satz wrote (June 29, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Concerning that balance issue, it also depends on the equipment used. Crum's instrument was least audible in my car cd player.

I have a little test I use when the balances seem out of whack to me. I get out my equalizer and skew it entirely toward the recessed instrument or instruments. If the recessed instrument still is recessed, I consider the balance to have a significant problem. That's what happened with the Crum disc. But that's fine, since Cummings is so good. Also, and I didn't emphasize this enough in the review, Crum may not be quite an equal partner, but she's always on target, incisive, and matching the approach of Cummings.

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 29, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn & Donald Satz] Kirk and/or Don: from your description here it simply sounds as if Cummings is playing on an ITALIAN HARPSICHORD...all brass strings, more percussive tone, stronger presence in the duo's balance than you expected. That indeed would make the differences you mention here, since Bach is most often recorded on German or Flemish or French harpsichords.

If so, it's not so much what Cummings is doing as a player, as the choice of a particularly effective harpsichord for the viola da gamba sonatas. The instrument takes care of the balances. I've played some of the Bach violin sonatas with Jaap Schroeder, using a small Italian harpsichord with his Baroque violin, and we found that a single 8-foot register gave plenty of presence while two together was too much. (It surprised me since the concert was in a large church and I thought I wouldn't be heard, but a listener at our rehearsal insisted that the balance was great with a single register.) That's just what Italian harpsichords do in the Bach obbligato sonatas: they project very strongly.

And they should be used more often! These pieces do, after all, have three equal lines most of the time and the harpsichord has 2/3 of the material. (But how often do we hear, say, one of the flute sonatas with a very loud modern flute in the foreground and a weak tinkly harpsichord far in the background....? Urgh.)

Plus these strong little Italian harpsichords typically weigh about half as much as other harpsichords, so they're particularly useful for hauling around to gigs. All around they're terrific as a default ensemble instrument. A few months ago I played the Pergolesi Stabat Mater with a group of Baroque string players, and the countertenor brought his Italian harpsichord for it (one by Willard Martin)...it had just the right amount of presence. That's what they're designed to do. One builder I've worked with closely, David Sutherland, makes _only_ Italian instruments anymore because he believes in them so strongly. I've played full-length solo and ensemble concerts on Italian harpsichords of his that had only a single 8-foot register, and there was plenty of color and contrast in just that.

Here's a useful description of Italian harpsichord character by Robert Hill, from the notes of his Hänssler set of the Art of Fugue:

"Today's harpsichordist, who is used to having four or five alternative tone colours, would at first be deterred by the rigours of the Italian harpsichord in its original setting. And this goes all the more so for the modern listener, who tends to find even the sound of the grand harpsichord with its two manuals and multiple registers rather monotonous after a while! However, a good Italian-style harpsichord offers many advantages: the tone colours of the bass, tenor, alto, and soprano registers are very distinct, and the flexible brass strings have a fast response but don't hold the note for long, so that the sound always remains transparent. These advantages make the Italian harpsichord ideal for the performance of contrapuntal pieces. In this respect I believe the development of Frescobaldi's contrapuntal composition is closely linked with the tonal quality of the Italian standard harpsichord. In view of the correlations between central German and Italian harpsichord! building traditions there are good reasons to perform the Art of Fugue on an Italian harpsichord, especially as Frescobaldi was probably Bach's prime influence for this work."

Some other especially good recordings that show what an Italian harpsichord can do:
- Tactus 600601, Roberto Loreggian playing Ferrini
- Wildboar 8501, Edward Parmentier playing Scarlatti
- Auvidis Astree 8502, Pierre Hantai playing Scarlatti
- Bongiovanni 5527, Cesare Atticciati playing Frescobaldi
- Auvidis Astree 8585, Pierre Hantai playing Frescobaldi

Can you please supply the details about the harpsichord Cummings plays with Crum in the vdg sonatas?

p.s. If you haven't already found my ancient web page that compares the sounds of different types of harpsichords, now would be a great time to find it: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/hpsi.html orhttp://i.am/harpsichord

Donald Satz wrote (June 29, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] I'm at work for a few more hours, so I can't provide the Cummings harpsichord info. until this evening. One point I'd like to offer - even a great harpsichord needs a highly worthy performer. I give much credit to Cummings. If he's also made a super choice of harpsichord, that's another plus for him.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (June 29, 2001):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Kirk and/or Don: from your description here it simply sounds as if Cummings is playing on an ITALIAN HARPSICHORD >
According to the notes, it is a copy of an instrument by Michael Mietke (such as the one owned by Bach himself).

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 29, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] Agreed, but I'd go further with it: especially if there's a great harpsichord it needs a highly worthy performer. An outstanding harpsichord sounds different for every different player. An outstanding player will get much more out of the instrument than a novice will. An outstanding harpsichord, by giving the player a huge range of possibilities, is less forgiving if the player isn't up to handling it.

At the other side, a bad harpsichord has only a limited range of expression and sounds pretty much the same for any competent player.

I didn't mean to downplay Cummings' contribution as a player...he's fine. I was just pointing out that the instrument's basic sound does take care a lot of the balance issues when the right type of harpsichord for the music is chosen. And Italian harpsichords should be used more often in Bach! (For musical reasons more than historical reasons....)

If, as Kirk said just now, it's merely a Mietke copy on that recording, it lets down my hopes a bit. Mietke copies can sound fantastic (witness Hantai's Goldbergs) but if one is expecting a good Italian-style instrument from the clues in the review, .... Ah well.

A few minutes ago I found a few samples of that Crum/Cummings recording at: PeopleSound
That opening movement of the G minor sonata sounds very good...I might have to get this CD after all. Thanks, Don and Kirk, for mentioning it.

But I had the Kuijken/Leonhardt set (dhm 77044) on a couple days ago, and marveled again at it. That's still the #1 for me.

 

Sonatas for Viola da Gamba & Harpsichord BWV 1027-1029: Details
Recordings:
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
Comparative Review (3 Parts) | Sonatas for VdG & Harpsichord - Crum & Cummings [D. Satz] | Sonatas for VdG & Harpsichord - Crum & Cummings [K. McElhearn] | Sonatas for VdG & Harpsichord - Ghielmi & Ghielmi [J. Morrison] | Sonatas for VdG & Harpsichord - Savall & Koopman [S. Schwartz]
General Discussions:
Part 1

Alison Crum: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Bach's Viola da Gamba Sonatas from Laurence Cummings [D. Satz] | Review of Bach Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord by Alison Crum and Laurence Cummings [K. McElhearn]

Laurence Cummings: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works | Recordings of Vocal Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Bach's Viola da Gamba Sonatas from Laurence Cummings [D. Satz] | Review of Bach Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord by Alison Crum and Laurence Cummings [K. McElhearn]

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Last update: ýJanuary 4, 2013 ý23:46:13