Bach Weekend – The Two- and Three-Part Inventions & Viola da Gamba Sonatas

Two-Part Inventions, BWV772-786
Three-Part Inventions (Sinfonias), BWV787-801
Sonatas for Viola da Gamba, BWV1027-1029

James Johnstone (harpsichord)

Jonathan Manson (viola da gamba) & Matthew Halls (harpischord)

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 21 March, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room

The Southbank Centre’s Bach Weekend concentrated on instrumental works composed during the years 1717-23, when Bach was Court Conductor at Coethen. The Brandenburg Concertos and the six Suites for unaccompanied cello comprise some of the most famous music to come out of that period; these two short (around 40 minutes each) concerts featured slightly less well-known repertoire while still drawing a healthy audience to the Purcell Room.

The Two- and Three-Part Inventions, a collection of thirty short keyboard works, were composed for students of the instrument and within these miniatures can be found some of the purest examples of the use of counterpoint as well as a whole range of techniques from canons to fugues. There’s much wonderful music to be found in these works, which are often assumed to be dry and of purely academic interest. James Johnstone whetted our appetite with a short introduction about the genesis of the works.

Unfortunately Johnstone’s performance was simply too uneven to be truly satisfying. His interpretation was refreshingly unmannered and free of over-embellishment. On some of the Inventions Johnstone’s fingerwork was delightfully nimble and beautifully articulated but there was a hesitancy and choppiness to his playing which made some pieces sound almost under-prepared. In his introduction to the Three-Part Inventions, or Sinfonias, he highlighted the ninth, the F minor, as the jewel in the crown , yet here he almost gave the impression of feeling his way, lacking fluency and making several errors.

The performances of the three Sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord were, for the most part, vital and fresh. Manson and Halls combined beautifully to give this wonderful music the treatment it deserves. The only problem was the balance in the first two sonatas, which gave undue prominence to the harpsichord. In the slow movements, Manson’s rich lyricism and warmth of tone were a sheer delight but in the faster movements Manson’s line was often hard to follow. Halls’s nimble playing and elegant phrasing gave the music impetus but the unequal balance was a shame. The problems seemed to be ironed out during the interval and in the third, more ambitious, Sonata, we were able to enjoy Manson’s incisiveness of line in the outer movements.

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