The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music poll: Which version of a Bach violin sonata sounds better? The one with piano? Or the one with harpsichord?

September 13, 2011
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

About a week ago, on the occasion of the all-Bach concert that closed the Token Creek Festival, guest reviewer John W. Barker (below) made the case that although the piano is not really the correct instrument, historically or esthetically, for playing any works by J.S. Bach, it is especially wrong to use it in chamber music and orchestral combinations.

Barker made an articulate and appealing defense of his position, one that many early music and Bach fans share.

Here is a link to his review and commentary:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/classical-music-review-token-creek-festival-concludes-with-beautiful-bach-from-emmanuel-music-of-boston-but-can-modern-instruments-–-especially-the-piano-really-do-justice-to-his-music/

I have written before on this blog about how much I like the music of Bach (below) on the modern piano and feel that the modern piano allows for more subtle shading and dynamics as well as clearer voice leading — when played well and judiciously, of course. I think it also has a far more pleasing sound than the harpsichord, at least to my ears.

I was mostly talking about solo works such as the Two-Part Inventions and Three-Part Sinfonias, the Partitas, the French and English suites, and the Well Tempered Clavier.

And I will agree that using the piano for a continuo part in Bach’s chamber music is a different case.

Still, I find myself torn.

My head says Barker is right.

But then I my heart recalls a Bach chamber performance with piano that nearly always brings me to tears.

The work is the Andante movement, the third of four movements, from Bach’s Sonata for Violin and Keyboard in F minor, BWV 1018.

So here are two versions with which we can play audio optometrist (or simply audiologist. if you will). That is: Which is clearer – A or B? Which is sharper – A or B? Which is more expressive and musical — A or B? Which do you prefer – A or B?

The first version (call it A) is performed on violin and harpsichord:

The second version (call it B) is performed by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould with the Bolivian-born and American-trained violinist Jaime Laredo:

So there it is.

Tell me, readers, what you think and which version you prefer and why?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

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