The viola da gamba yielded to the cello during the 18th-century, its quiet and reedy sound eclipsed by the more robust tone of the younger instrument. In his liner notes for this recording of gamba sonatas by Bach, Scarlatti and Handel, Steven Isserlis justifies his decision to pair cello and harpsichord as a chance to explore a broader expressive range. While the balance occasionally misses the mark—the cello sometimes sounds distant—this combination open up some exciting musical possibilities.
Isserlis’s touch is largely light and his sound warm, allowing him to bring out metric and rhythmic play without it sounding overly mannered. His exploration of the softer end of the dynamic scale frequently suggests a sense of vulnerability, penetrating to the heart of the more introspective movements; this is especially affecting in the Adagio of Bach’s G minor sonata (BWV 1029). However, he certainly isn’t afraid to let rip in the Allegros; although he tends to rush, his judicious use of an intense sound is most successful.
Cellist Robin Michael provides steady continuo support, while Richard Egarr provides a characterful contribution on harpsichord. His role often that of an equal partner, Egarr’s dialogue with Isserlis adds light and shade to the music. A stylish and enjoyable recording.