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Rachel Barton Pine Recites Violin Bible

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Bach, Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, R. Barton Pine

(released on April 1, 2016)
Avie AV2360 | 125'33"
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine has long been an Ionarts favorite, although I have had to miss her last two local appearances, playing all of the Paganini Caprices in 2013 and on the Candlelight Concert series last year. Given her impeccable musicality, astounding technique, and beautiful tone, we were hoping she would get around to recording the six solo violin works of J. S. Bach, pieces known around here as the "Bible of music" (Gidon Kremer). Avie is about to release Barton Pine's top-notch account of the "Sei solo," as Bach put it on his manuscript copy of these pieces. I have only just started to listen to them, but her set is up there among my favorites of recent recordings, with Isabelle Faust (now available as a discounted 2-CD set) and Alina Ibragimova, although Viktoria Mullova and Rachel Podger still reign supreme in the Ionarts heart.

Barton Pine came home, in a way, in her choice of recording venue, to the sanctuary of St. Pauls United Church of Christ in Chicago, where she attended church as a child. She first performed Bach's music there, at the age of four, she explains in her booklet essay, and an image of Bach from one of the church's stained glass windows adorns the album. "You must practice Bach. It is the music of Gott!" Barton Pine recalls being told by elderly German ladies there. To accompany my delectation of the recording, Barton Pine chose Easter Sunday to be at the National Gallery of Art to give a live performance of the violin bible. So, after singing for an Easter Vigil and two Easter Day Masses, it was off to a different kind of sacred service for Ionarts.

Not all performers can speak with such easy authority about the music they play, but during this concert Barton Pine offered many insights about each sonata and partita, without ever abusing our attention. Introducing the first sonata, she described Bach’s written-out ornamentation as a way to prevent over-embellishment, but for the record Barton Pine’s excessively ornamented version, a fragment offered as an amusing way of being over the top, would probably make for great listening. After all, it is possible that Bach wanted to make sure that the performer did ornament these pieces, so he offered one plausible way of ornamenting, perhaps to encourage performers to go even farther.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Violinist Rachel Barton Pine brings joy to Bach’s ‘Chaconne’ (Washington Post, March 29)
In general, Barton plays this music with no vibrato, at one point in the first movement of the second sonata using a strong vibrato as an ornament, which had a striking effect. She played with her Baroque bow on her modernized 1742 Guarneri del Gesú instrument, so the sound was akin to what she achieves on the recording, with impeccable intonation, including in multi-stops, so that the fugal structures in the sonatas were precise and clear. One overarching facet of her approach was to keep meters strict, without becoming mathematical or mechanical. This makes her Ciaconna, the famous piece at the end of the second partita, feel again like a dance, a sense of rhythmic organization that can get lost in other performances, propelled at essentially the same tempo in all sections, including the shift to major. Each time that the opening section returned, sort of a "refrain" in the piece, she tightened the emotional impact of the piece.

Only the start of the second partita felt slightly dull in this performance, the only time my mind wandered slightly. As Bach intended in many of his pieces like this, designed as encyclopedic compendia, the third sonata and partita are climactic. The third sonata, with its most complex fugue, based on the chorale tune Komm, Heiliger Geist, was solemn and grand, followed by a simple, spare Largo as a moment of repose. Lest we take too seriously the God-minded side of Bach, he of the motto Soli Deo Gloria, the set ends with the much lighter third partita, here deft, sometimes thrilling, but without the heaviness of having to make too profound a statement. Life, after all, is far too serious not to dance.

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