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3.6.09

Viktoria Mullova's Bach


available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Sonatas & Partitas,
Viktoria Mullova
Onyx 4040 (130:22)

Of Bach’s Cello Suites, there has been such a plethora of recent recordings lately that greatness (Queyras) and extroverted excellence (Lipkind) relegated the merely superb (Klinger ) and the very good (Gastinel) (nevermind the dishwater variety—Isserlis) to shadowy spots they didn’t necessarily reserve and wouldn’t have received had the timing been better. Timing is excellent, however, for Viktoria Mullova’s Sonatas & Partitas because there hasn’t been an important recording issued since Julia Fischer’s (Pentatone) and Gidon Kremer’s on ECM in 2005, and Christian Tetzlaff’s on Hänssler in 2007.

Her recording is big news, then, and better yet: it’s good news. In brief and thoughtful liner notes that peel right through to the essence of why she added hers to the long list of violinists’ names on the Sonata & Partita roll call, she outlines her musical transformation as it relates to Bach. She has come from a decidedly old-school approach (she describes it as a sort of Russian robotic approach with continuous vibrato, sans liberties, and little articulation) to what is for all theoretical purposes a Historically Informed Performance account. She even plays with gut strings and a baroque bow, one or the other or both of which she has been doing for years in all repertoire where appropriate. (Her recordings of the Beethoven and Mendelssohn Concertos are on gut string and she uses the baroque setup for her recent Bach and Vivaldi recordings.) As with her latest Bach release and the Vivaldi concertos on Archiv, she is playing a 1750 Guadagnini (and a Walter Barbiero baroque bow) tuned to A=415, not her 1723 "Julius Falk" Stradivari.



Listening to it at first, my first response to it was rather cool. Her playing is not always beautiful. Short bow strokes in the D minor Sarabande certainly don’t aim for prettiness. The sound is close, but with lots of room around her, direct but spacious, allowing the sound to bloom, and hiding nothing—for better and worse. I found it occasionally too close, leaving me with the feeling of standing a little too close to a painting that I admire. Her former rigor in Bach—perhaps even stiffness—is gone, although that approach I actually find myself appreciating.

It wasn’t until direct comparison that the scales fell off my ears, revealing not only relative excellence but greatness. If upon the first few listens she didn’t seem to be delivering something truly out of the ordinary, now she shines. I matched her against Tetzlaff’s new recording and—difference of pitch apart—the dissimilarities are vast and instructive. The relative lack of ambience gives a yet more immediate, more contained impression of Tetzlaff’s instrument (presumably his modern Guarneri del Gesu copy by Peter Greiner). When listened to on its own, Tetzlaff’s Hänssler recording is striking to a degree, but the allure is lost: the violin sound comes across as squeaky, the playing constrained and lacking spontaneity.

Mullova works hard to get momentum by way of her rather aggressive rhythmic dotting and double stopping, enjoying the hard edges that Bach offers. Although it doesn’t quite sound like it, it feels more like Nathan Milstein than anyone else. The touches of gentleness amid that overt vigor betray the amount of thought put into making the recording, making Tetzlaff’s approach seem rather academic and deliberate (check the Siciliana) in comparison. Mullova really does play with guts—not just gut strings—which gives the Sonatas & Partitas a feel of being lived rather than just read. When Mullova is faster (throughout most of the First Sonata) she strikes as more pointed and lively. When she is slower (most extreme—4:04 to 2:21—in the first Double), less trying to master a technical challenge than communicating the spirit of the music. In the second Double, taken fast by both but faster still by Tetzlaff, the latter comes perilously close to sounding like a sewing machine.

With first impressions manifesting themselves as hardened opinions, the differences between her and Tetzlaff, which I originally thought would be small despite Mullova’s quasi-HIP approach, became ever more obvious. Painfully so, after a while. After a while, the audio quality of the Hänssler recording gives you the impression of being thrown back 25 years. And the interpretation becomes more and more uninteresting. Not skipping ahead whenever it was Tetzlaff‘s turn grew ever more difficult. When Mullova came back on (say, with the A minor Fuga after Tetzlaff’s Grave), it felt like relief.

That the differences are—or become—so striking, is all the more surprising since I cherish Tetzlaff in general and cherished his Bach in particular. This drop in appreciation (despite some terrific instances on his part—the A minor Allegro, D minor Giga, and his Ciaconna among them) isn’t just a matter of appreciating a particular interpretive style, either. Spot-light comparisons with other favorite recordings (Milstein on DG, my eternal touchstone; Podger, my HIP-standard bearer; Fischer, my favorite among modern, honeyed versions) did not yield the same discrepancies despite being very different from Mullova. Especially Julia Fischer offers drastic contrast (only Shlomo Mintz’ mellifluous account might be further from Mullova than Fischer) and yet she delights equally.

Mullova, for all her HIP-training and gear, will not replace Rachel Podger as the favorite of that particular approach: there is modern spirit to it all that makes it stand too tall and too proud as to be a vehicle for the authenticists’ ideology. Nor will she end all arguments on style with this HIP-means/modern spirit approach.

That’s incidentally not what a recording is intended or supposed to do. What Mullova will achieve, however, is as much a splash in the world of Sonata & Partita connoisseurs as Fischer created, and that by wonderfully different means. The time it took to get to appreciate, like, and finally love this recording was well invested.

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