Bach & Schmidt-Kowalski

Sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord in G, BWV1027
Sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord in D, BWV1028
Sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord in G minor, BWV1029
Sonata No.1 for cello and piano in D minor, Op.4
Sonata No.2 for cello and piano in F sharp minor, Op.12
Sonata No.3 for cello and piano in B flat, Op.99 (Atlantis)

The Baillie-Lisney Duo:
Alexander Baillie (cello) & James Lisney (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 12 July, 2006
Venue: Purcell Room, London

An ambitious and generous programme from the Baillie-Lisney duo presented the three ‘gamba’ sonatas of JS Bach alongside (interspersed with) the three cello sonatas (so far) of German composer Thomas Schmidt-Kowalski who was born in 1949.

Schmidt-Kowalski is an intriguing figure, for he shuns ‘modern’ music as we might perceive it, preferring instead to compose in a late-Romantic idiom that completely suits his compositional strengths. His use of opus numbers (possibly the only living composer to do so) gives his catalogue of works a 19th-century feel, yielding four symphonies and seven piano sonatas thus far.

In Alexander Baillie and James Lisney, Schmidt-Kowalski could hardly ask for more passionate advocates, a debt recognised in his dedication of the ‘Atlantis’ sonata to the duo. The first encounter with his music came through the Second Sonata, its broad and passionate opening movement pesante indeed. The piece could easily have had a genesis of 1890 rather than 1980, drawing influence from Brahms, Schumann and Weber among others. Despite this Schmidt-Kowalski’s melodic material retains an original quality, his teaming of cello and piano leading these to be ‘duo’ rather than ‘solo’ works as motifs were often doubled.

Baillie and Lisney responded well to this, their enjoyment evident to all as they punched out the scherzo, a Furiant in all but name containing a soaring second subject that found the cellist’s immaculate higher register. The heady last movement sought the radiance of F sharp major, an ending that convinced both formally and emotionally.

Schmidt-Kowalski’s First Sonata is a far edgier affair, brooding yet urgent in its opening dialogue. With a first movement marked Agitato, it has a scherzo-like manner and features more cogent teamwork between the two musicians, Lisney’s figurations here driving the momentum onward. The opening thematic material is recast at the end, transformed into a slow chorale that gave a most satisfying conclusion. If not perhaps “the missing link between Brahms and Janáček”, as Baillie had suggested in his programme note, it nonetheless felt as if the composer had ventured south-east of his German homeland to source his melodic and harmonic material.

The ‘Atlantis’ sonata is just a year old, and emphasises once again the composer’s love of the cantabile line, fully realised by Baillie’s seamless exposition, once again beautifully performed in the highest register. This was echoed in Lisney’s sensitive pianism, revealing the melodic threads of the full texture without ever resorting to volume over detail. Loosely based on the Atlantis legend, the closing movement takes on the feel of a pavane for the lost city, restless at times but ended reverently and with evident affection by the duo.

The Bach sonatas (originally for viola da gamba and harpsichord) complemented the relative emotional excesses of Schmidt-Kowalski perfectly, and found clear and mostly precise interpretation. Lisney in particular excelled here, his piano dynamics mostly achieved without pedalling and well controlled, despite a fully opened lid. Particularly beautiful was the G minor Sonata’s Adagio, and though Baillie occasionally tended to push ahead in the faster music the interpretations were unfussy and tasteful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content