The three sonatas for viola da gamba have enjoyed some measure of popularity on disc, but in many cases the harpsichord's partner is something other than a viol--cello, viola, violin, oboe. And not many of those productions that try for authenticity are totally successful. For one thing, if you're going to do this right, you need a gamba player of some significant degree of competence, and you need compatible instruments--not always easy because of the wide variations in sizes and "voices" of harpsichords, whose middle and lower registers can either obliterate the gamba in a wall of overtone resonance, or can itself be swamped if too anemic or thin to stand up to its partner's reediest depths. Well, what we get here are two instruments with very strong personalities, neither of which wants to give much room to the other. (Both gamba and harpsichord are "copies of instruments Bach might have known", and I assume Alison Crum's impressively full-bodied gamba is a seven-string model, necessary for the D major sonata.) A lot's happening--Bach's often intricate and lively music certainly keeps performers and listeners busy--but you get the impression that there's just too much: it's a fight rather than a conversation. At least it's never boring because these are two great players who know the music's personality and mannerisms; and yet they seem to be victims of the miking and perhaps the acoustic space itself.
I remember as a student playing the G minor sonata in a transposed version for violin--and it worked quite well; better, I suspect than this supposedly original setting which seems somehow awkward, the two parts interacting as two nervous and slightly incompatible teenagers at a junior high dance. These excellent musicians just don't seem to believe, that is until the last movement allegro, which probably would sound convincing even in an arrangement for garden hose and saw. Harpsichordist Laurence Cummings intersperses the sonatas with three preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, concluding the program with the G minor fugue that one of my conservatory professors referred to as the "Great Depression" fugue, its subject sung to the words "They are so poor, they've lost all that they had." Try it. You'll never hear it the same way again. As for this recording, it's a nice idea, and these are two of the world's best players. But the Savall/Koopman performances (Alia Vox) of the sonatas remain supreme--and probably always will.