J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Viola da Gamba


It is not difficult to discern many of the elements that render Bach’s three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord so remarkable by the standards of their age: a mixing of virtually every conceivable genre, form, style, medium and gesture of the late German Baroque; a forging of connections that had not hitherto been made; a penetrating insight into the multi-dimensional potentialities of each motive, theme and polyphonic complex.

Composing for the viol in this way was by, the early eighteenth century, archaic, yet what has made J.S.Bach a summit for many is his apparent ability to transcend historical contingency, somehow to stop the clock of outward progress and to rearrange and recreate the world as he knew it.

On this disc we hear the three sonatas for the Viola da Gamba and three Preludes and Fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier.

Sonata in G major BWV 1027
Sonata in D major BWV 1028
Sonata in G minor BWV 1029
Prelude & Fugue in G major BWV 860
Prelude & Fugue in D major BWV 850
Prelude & Fugue in G minor BWV 861


What people are saying

"these are two great players who know the music’s personality and mannerisms"


Alison Crum & Laurence Cummings

Release date:3rd Apr 2000
Order code:SIGCD024
Barcode: 63521200242

Artistic quality 8, Sound quality 6

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.

David Vernier

EMFS news – April 2000

These are authoritative performances of this entertaining repertoire. The opening sonata, which also saw the light of day as a trio sonata, is probably the best known, but all three sonatas are charming. The opening Adagio of the first sonata contains some trills, which don’t always come off entirely convincingly in the present performance, but after this minor blemish, we are given playing of a high standard. Lawrence Cummings’ interpretation of three preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier is measured and expressive, and they provide a nice variation in texture. In her performance note, Alison Crum draws attention to the fact that the instruments used are copies of originals which would have been familiar to Bach himself and indeed from the point of view of balance and tone they match perfectly. A very enjoyable CD.

D James Ross

MusicWeb June 2002

While I am an unconditional Bach-lover, I have always felt that the sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord were minor works. Having heard several different recordings, both with the gamba and cello, they never really convinced me of their value. I had come to the conclusion that they were indeed uninteresting, and left it at that. Until I heard this recording.

From the very first notes, I knew there was something different, and I can honestly say that this extraordinary recording has totally changed my point of view of these works.

Essentially simple pieces, with the viol playing one voice and the harpsichord playing two voices (in the first two sonatas, composed like trio sonatas), these three pieces do not stand because of any special form or structure. Written over a period of time, and not destined to be a set like the solo cello suites or violin sonatas and partitas, these are unimposing works. The first two sonatas each contain four movements, in the slow-fast-slow-fast form, and the third sonata contains only three movements (fast-slow-fast). The third sonata, less of a trio sonata than a Vivaldian concerto, has a different tone, more virtuoso than the first two, especially in the harpsichord part.

But what sets this performance apart from others? First of all, the two musicians are both excellent on their own, and even better together. They perform these works with such energy and emotion that one is surprised, especially when comparing them to other recordings, such as those by Jordi Savall and Ton Koopman or Anner Bylsma and Bob van Asperen. But, also, the sound of this recording stands out so that it almost shines a totally new light on the work. Most recordings of these sonatas feature the harpsichord in a very subservient role – the gamba dominates, and the harpsichord goes about its business in the background. Here, the harpsichord and gamba are both on the same plane – after all, in the first two sonatas, which are really trio sonatas, the harpsichord is playing two-thirds of the music. This is a very gutsy choice, on the part of the performers and/or the producer; yet it is entirely judicious.

This is not without a down-side – listening on speakers, the harpsichord seems to drown out the gamba in some passages. However, this is not the case with headphones, where the gamba is spatially located more to the left and the harpsichord more to the right. (I would recommend adjusting the balance slightly with speakers.)

The instruments also sound fresh and alive: the gamba is a beautifully rich instrument, which, as Alison Crum’s comments point out, has a very focused sound. As for the harpsichord, it is strung entirely with brass, which gives it a huge, yet precise sound that is not heard often.

A brief note about this disc’s “filler”. Since the gamba sonatas are not very long, most recent recordings feature additional music. This recording includes three preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, in the three keys of the sonatas. While Laurence Cummings plays these extraordinarily well (I sincerely hope he records the entire set!), I find these a bit of a distraction on the disc. One can always program around them, so it is not a major problem.

This is perhaps the best recording available of Bach’s Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord. Beautiful performances by both musicians, instruments that sound fresh and alive, and an excellent recording make this an essential disc for any Bach lover.

Kirk McElhearn

Fanfare – November/December 2000

Alison Crum and Laurence Cummings have created one of the most simply charming recordings of these works for viola da gamba and harpsichord that I know: their playing is sweet, relaxed and precise rhythmically. The viola da gamba sound is carefully nuanced, and Laurence Cummings’s beautifully recorded harpsichord is exuberant. He certainly has the necessary technique, as we hear on the solo-harpsichord works such as the Prelude and Fugue in G, where his rapid fingerwork is breathtaking. Yet nothing in this recording distracts us fro the onward flow and basic lyricism of Bach’s writing: one thinks of the virtuosity displayed here, or of Crum’s unforced tone, or the sublimely matched interactions of the two musicians, almost as an afterthought. You’ll find yourself singing along to this Bach disc.

Michael Ullman

American Record Guide – November/December 2000

Playing the keyboard with the bass line sounding consistently ahead of the melody is a mannerism I have encountered a good deal lately but it still sounds like a mannerism, especially when done as a way of life as here. All the slow movements share this characteristic. The harpsichord sound is itself excellent in tone and generally overshadows the tone of the viol. The two players are at one in interpretation, yet that balance problem pervades the production. The addition of three harpsichord pieces just emphasises the preponderance of clink over wheeze.

Crum plays with accuracy, but any personality she may have is buried under the pervasive sound of the keyboard.


Goldberg, No.12 – Autumn/Winter 2000

Bach’s three gamba sonatas present a variety of recording difficulties, not always easy to solve: the solo gamba voice must balance between the harpsichord’s two equally important parts (the left hand’s bass plus the right hand’s melody line). Then there is also the matter of programming content for a compact disc, the three sonatas only adding up to slightly less than three-quarters of an hour. How does one best fill the gap? The British harpsichordist and organist, Laurence Cummings, has come up with a novel and effective solution by placing a Prelude and Fugue from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier in the appropriate key after each of the gamba works in those same tonalities. Balance is more problematic (as it is in a live performance situation as well). Here, Alison Crum’s solo gamba, perhaps because of its especially mellow timbre, appears often to take a back seat to the projecting brightness of the brass-strung Michael Mietke copy (by Bruce Kennedy). One’s ear therefore is apt to pay more attention to the well-played keyboard part. Incidentally, Ms. Crum is in error when she implies in her annotations that such an instrument was owned by Bach, although it is true that in 1719 he was responsible for the purchase of a decorated Mietke double manual for the Cothen court. The opening G-major Sonata tends interpretively towards some rhythmic stolidity, but the remaining two sonatas emerge more high powered in energy, notably in the fast movements, but again I feel that it is Cummings whose personality takes the lead. A new Savall/Koopman recording of the gamba sonatas (their second) has just been announced, and interested purchasers of these wonderful works might be advised to wait for that or at least check out the competing and relatively recent Dreyfus/Haugsand and Pandolfo/Alessandrini.

Igor Kipnis

Gramophone – July 2000

… By contrast, Alison Crum and Laurence Cummings offer less buoyant performances. The latter’s harpsichord playing is neat with tightly controlled articulation, characteristics we have much opportunity to study since Crum’s gamba is damagingly far back in the balance. Her sound is muffled as a result, masking any subtleties she may have brought to the music, and indeed leaving one in places (such as the latter stages of the G major Sonata’s second movement) wondering whether she is playing at all. As it happens, her contribution seems naturally reticent and undemonstrative – perhaps too much so – but in any case this just sounds at times too much like a gamba accompanying a harpsichord instead of a true dialogue.

No two recordings of these sonatas adopt the same method of filling the disc out to respectable length. For Signum, Cummings interlaces the sonatas with brusque accounts of Preludes and Fugues from Book 1 of the 58, a neat idea which beaks the programme up nicely…

Lindsay Kemp

BBC Music Magazine, July 2000
Performance ***, Sound **** (Crum), Performance **, Sound *** (Luolajan-Mikkola)
(Comparison review with Viola da Gamba Sonatas, Markku Lualajan-MIkkola (viola da gamba), Miklos Spanyi (tangent piano), BIS CD-1061

Bach’s three sonatas for viola da gamba with obbligato harpsichord were once thought to be entirely products of his years at the Cothen court (1717-23), where not only was his employer Prince Leopold an enthusiastic amateur gambist, but his orchestra boasted, in Christian Ferdinand Abel, one of the ghreatest gamba virtuosi of the period. Yet the surviving performance material strongly suggests that Bach wrote them at Leipzig during the mid- to late 1730s, or even slightly later, probably for use at the monthly student collegium musicum concerts of which he was, for many years, director. In this lyrically conceived music, Bach places the gamba line between the treble and bass voices of the harpsichord, providing a third voice in the alto-tenor range for this most plaintively expressive member of the viol family.

Recordings of the gamba sonatas have featured in record catalogues for half a century,  ever since the late August Wenzinger made his first version of  them (1950-52) at what was then termed ‘old low pitch’. At the moment there is a wealth of versions to which these two must now be added. Alison Crum and Laurence Cummings offer pleasingly direct readings, untainted either by exaggerated gesture or excessive affectation; and their programme is imaginatively assembled with Preludes and Fugues from Book I of the ’48’ interspersed among the Sonatas. Markku Luolajan-Mikkola and Miklos Spanyi offer a contrasting entertainment by substituting an early fortepiano for the harpsichord and by a G minor transcription of  Bach’s B minor Flute sonata (BWV1030). It’s a lugubrious affair, to my ears, laboured and lacking in charm. Luolajan-Mikkola may have a more refined technique than Crum, but it is her recital that possesses the greater allure. My first recommendation, though, is a version by Laurence Dreyfus and Ketil Haugsand (Simax)

Nicholas Anderson

  1. Sonata in G major, BWV 1027 – Adagio – – [3:54]
  2. – Allegro ma non tanto – – [3:47]
  3. – Andante – – [2:31]
  4. – Allegro Moderato – – [3:12]
  5. Prelude in G major, BWV 860 – – [0:58]
  6. Fugue in G major, BWV 860 – – [3:21]
  7. Sonata in D major, BWV 1028 – Adagio – – [1:43]
  8. – Allegro – – [3:53]
  9. – Andanta – – [4:26]
  10. – Allegro – – [4:26]
  11. Prelude in D major, BWV 850 – – [1:48]
  12. Fugue in D major, BWV 850 – – [2:07]
  13. Sonata in G minor, BWV 1029 – Vivace – – [5:31]
  14. – Adagio – – [5:39]
  15. – Allegro – – [3:53]
  16. Prelude in G minor, BWV 861 – – [1:36]
  17. Fugue in G minor, BWV 861 – – [2:27]