With the rise of historically informed performance and early instruments, the gamba has become something of a staple of more recent recordings. The modern cello has a comparable range and numerous similarities, but its more focused and directly expressive sound is palpably different to that of the more ethereal gamba. Steven Isserlis is an acknowledged Bach exponent, as evidenced by his award-winning recording of the solo Suites, but while he is sensitive to the Baroque idiom his performances are by no means an attempt to imitate the sound of the gamba. At the same time, you couldn’t imagine Isserlis transferring the nature of these same performances to an accompaniment with piano. The differences in balance and blending of sound between partners when it comes to piano and harpsichord are apparent when you take a recording by for instance Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich in their Deutsche Grammophon recording of BWV 1027-29, in which the music takes on an unavoidably Romantic character. With cello and piano you have two partners with almost equal dynamic and expressive powers, a quasi-dual singing partnership if you will. With cello and harpsichord you have a ‘vocal’ part and a more rhythmic-based partner in the keyboard. The harpsichord plays its part in terms of thematic content, serving as counterpoint and harmonic foundation for the music, but with its straight-line dynamic the illusion of vocal expressiveness is that much further removed from that with the piano and its shapely responses to that ever-so vocal instrument the cello. These are differences, not points of criticism. With Steven Isserlis and Richard Egarr’s programme we are provided with a rich feast of excellent music, played with finesse and character and in a partnership of supreme balance in every way.
This programme is an excellent way to (re)acquaint oneself with the contrasts in style between these three composers, all of whom were born in 1685 but whose characters and careers diverged widely. J.S. Bach’s poise, technical refinement, poetic musical language and Lutheran restraint are familiar enough, where Domenico Scarlatti’s internationalist sensibilities take us straightaway into a world of heart-on-sleeve, almost operatic sensibility in his Sonata in D minor. This piece is filled out with the addition of a basso continuo cello played with elegant presence by Robin Michael. The second movement is great fun, “a fizzy Allegro, overflowing with irrepressible energy and humour”, the three movement closing with a dancing Allegro-Largo-Allegro, the central slow section a delightful enclosed garden with damped harpsichord strings and pizzicato bass to accompany the wistful, almost absent-mindedly promenading soloist.
Handel was also more of a traveller than Bach, becoming a friend of Scarlatti when in Italy and also known for his operas and showmanship at the keyboard. Handel’s music always has a high enjoyment factor, and the Sonata in G minor is no exception, with virtuoso solo writing and an all too brief but distinctly aria-like Adagio. This sonata was in fact originally published as for oboe, but this alternative is given authenticity from a page in Handel’s handwriting transposing the part as ‘per la viola da gamba’, making it Handel’s only sonata for the instrument.
Steven Isserlis and Richard Egarr are superb in their performances of the three sonatas by J.S. Bach, revelling in but not chewing over those give-and-take musical conversations that Bach includes everywhere. Pacing and energy are perfect, delivering intensity without violence, expression without sentimentality and witty playfulness without superficiality. There are a few alternatives around with this instrumental combination, but none I’ve found to be preferable. Karine Georgian and Gary Cooper set on SOMMCD090-2 together with the Georgian’s Bach solo cello Suites is good, but at times seem wilfully choppy in movements that deserve more flow and expression in the sonatas. This Hyperion disc ends with a moving encore chosen by Isserlis as an all-time favourite, Bach’s organ chorale prelude Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ. This lies rather high on the cello in this arrangement, but as “a supplication in time of despair” seems appropriate enough. With an excellent recording from the surroundings of the well-known Wyastone Concert Hall, intelligent programming, Isserlis’s full and informative booklet notes and Hyperion’s usual high standard of presentation this is a CD to enjoy for many years to come.