Paolo Pandolfo / Markus Hünninger

Bach: Sonatas for viola da gamba & harpsichord

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Gambist Paolo Pandolfo, a student of Jordi Savall, has an unorthodox style that listeners either passionately love or are left completely cold by. He has recorded Bach's sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord in the past but returns to them here with a thoroughly unusual reading that, he says, was motivated by the desire to turn the relationship between the two instruments from a contrasting "musical argument" into a "musical conversation." To accomplish this he makes use of the gamba's capability of producing sound from "a kind of bowed pizzicato." The instrument is grazed with the bow, creating a quiet, gently percussive sound from both the gamba and the keyboard. The result is an odd sound in which the gamba and the harpsichord seem to be separated only by shading rather than by fundamental differences of texture. You might say that this negates the basic principle of contrast that underlies Baroque instrumental music, but an answer would be that the gamba was always an exceptional instrument and was even more so by the time Bach wrote these works. They can't be judged by the standards of Bach's other instrumental sonatas. The murky still lifes on the nicely designed packaging dovetail nicely with the performers' intentions, but the church venue puts an unpleasantly remote quality into the sound. This is the kind of performance that demands a tolerance for experimentation from the listener. Pandolfo and harpsichordist Markus Hünninger rewrite several pieces at will in addition to their unusual overall approach. But there is no denying that a really fresh interpretation of Bach, especially one that generally sticks to the notes, does not come along every day, and Pandolfo has accomplished one here.

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