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Bach's Unaccompanied Violin Bible

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J. S. Bach, Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo, Gidon Kremer, released October 11, 2005
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J. S. Bach, Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo, Julia Fischer, released June 14, 2005
For audiophiles, it's always interesting to listen to the same performer assay an iconic masterwork more than once, although most of us settle on one of their recordings as the best to our ears and listen only to that one. There are more and more cases of great performers recording a piece once as a young person and again after a long career of playing experience, forming two panels of a sonic diptych, as it were. Just as Mischa Maisky did with Bach's unaccompanied cello works, veteran violinist Gidon Kremer has made a second recording of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin, released this fall. I don't own Kremer's first recording, with Phillips in 1980, although a set of LPs is up for auction right now on eBay. Otherwise, it's rather difficult to find it these days. However, I do have another young violinist's recording of these incredible pieces, Julia Fischer's 2-SA-CD set recorded in The Netherlands in December 2004 and released this summer.

At this point, I would probably listen to Gidon Kremer play anything, but the chance to hear his take on these pieces, perhaps the most important set of six pieces ever written for the violin, is invaluable. I was starting to kick myself for waiting so long to finish this review, but then I stumbled across an interview by Jean-Louis Validire with Gidon Kremer (Gidon Kremer : «Bach est la Bible», November 14) in Le Figaro, of which I can now include a portion. As it turns out, he and his group, Kremerata Baltica, are in Paris, to play a concert at the Châtelet as part of the Etonnante Lettonie festival. The tag line of the interview says everything about Kremer's approach in this recording: "My challenge was to treat Bach as a contemporary composer." The six pieces are the "Bible of music," to which he needed to return "before it was too late. This is the last time I will record them: twice is enough." Here are a few excerpts (my translation):
Under what conditions did you make this recording?

I wanted to make it myself, without any interference from the recording company so that this recording would truly bear my signature. I chose the one in which I had the most confidence, which shared my values [ECM]. I don't want to be treated like a piece of furniture! This is not the narcissistic behavior of someone who wants to appear like a great violinist, but the desire to express this music's profundity. I tried to forget all the other interpretations, to concentrate on the musical problems and also to be loyal to the score and to what is behind it. The spiritual aspect is in effect more important than the violinistic challenges. I didn't think about succeeding, just unleashing my interpretation.

Just what does Bach represent for you?

You are not supposed to pronounced God's name, as it is written in the scriptures, and for me Bach is God. It is obvious that his music is written by someone who came from another planet, but at the same time he is a human being -- let's not forget that he had 23 children! He saw his work as service, and through it he was serving something even greater. My challenge was to treat Bach like a contemporary composer. How it will be judged is not my concern.
The first thing that struck me listening to this recording is the forceful angularity of the playing, which rings very true to the Baroque spirit in my opinion. Kremer makes judgments about voicing and then often uses dynamics and accent to distinguish the voices from one another. In his notes for this recording, Kremer revealed his concept for what he played:
It's a strange thing that I, a violin player, should actually want to "distance" myself from the "tool" of my trade... Has that been an unconscious attempt to get closer to Bach and his universe -- which he was likewise able to convey on a single-voice instrument? Or was the goal that of avoiding the idiom of "beauty" (the familiar misconception: "You must sing on the violin!") in order to dedicate onself to the spirit of the message?
Excessive rubato in this music often mars Bach's vision, at least in my opinion, and that is what makes the rhythmic drive of Kremer's rendition, at times veering almost dangerously toward the precipitous, so addictive. In the three rather different Fuga movements, increasing in length and complexity from BWV 1001 to 1003 to 1005, you have one of the major criteria by which I judge a performance of these works. How to incorporate the contrapuntal lines often merely implied in the multiple-stops is a conundrum, and there are all kinds of possible solutions. Kremer's are the most precisely rhythmic versions of the three fugues I have heard, shorter in duration than any other performer's. That of the first sonata, the only one marked with a tempo (Allegro), is magnificently propelled. To preserve that almost manic pulse, Kremer is often willing to sacrifice beauty of tone, only to the degree necessary without losing what is overall a beautiful performance.

Additional Comments by Jens F. Laurson:

Gidon Kremer's recording is to the Sonatas and Partitas what Mischa Maisky's second recording is to the Cello Suites - if less vulgar. Kremer takes to the work very aggressively, but never by sacrificing innate musicality. It is an intelligent but also very personal recording. For fans of Kremer a must, for those who cannot have enough recordings of these works a valuable addition. For the rest of us we'd love to get it as a stocking stuffer - but otherwise Nathan Milstein, Rachel Podger, or Shlomo Mintz's mellifluous account will suffice.
The first recordings of the Bach solo violin works I ever heard were made by Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein, and they are both wonderful listening. Although my tastes have changed, I still indulge the guilty pleasure of listening to them when I can. (I finally wore out the cassette tape copy of the Heifetz Bach that I made as an undergraduate student.) Both of them approached Bach largely through the lens of the 19th century, and when Kremer says that he is trying to treat Bach like a contemporary composer, I think that he means he has tried to play these pieces not like any conception of music from any period, including how we Baroque specialists view the Baroque period. The Romantic legato (the Milstein of his Paganiniana that we heard from Hilary Hahn last weekend) is just one of the concepts that goes out the window.

This does not mean that Kremer never takes liberties, because he does, and some that I don't really understand. At several points in this recording, Kremer reduces his volume to a spidery web of minimal sound, as if he is lost in thought or muttering to himself (at about the 7' mark in the Ciaccona is one particularly beautiful example). As everything Kremer has said publicly about this recording indicates, this performance is intensely personal, which means that it will not appeal to everyone. Along with a couple facsimiles of Bach's manuscript of these works, the CD booklet has several pages of Kremer's personal score, reproduced with the fascinating marks and notes he has made for himself. This goes along with the little notebook of Kremer's thoughts on each piece, which although sincere does not really add to the vision of the performance and may detract from it. One final note about this recording. Kremer laid down the partita tracks in Lockenhaus on September 25 to 29, 2001, that is within two weeks of the terrorist attacks in the United States. He concluded with the sonatas several months later, in March 2002. Although he does not mention those dates in his comments, we all remember what most of the world was feeling in September 2001.

For a consistently beautiful tone production, you would be better off buying the Julia Fischer recording. When I read M. S. Smith's review (Julia Fischer's Solo Bach Is One for the Ages, September 1) on CultureSpace, I set out looking for this recording. When I first started listening to it, I basically agreed with the detractors she imagines in her introduction:
No doubt many of you are wondering whether I should be recording Bach's complete sonatas and partitas at the age of only 21. Perhaps I should have waited a bit longer?
Yes, I thought at first, perhaps she should have. But I kept listening, and the youthful idealism of the recording -- and the rich tone of Fischer's 1750 Guadagnini violin -- hooked me.

Especially in the dance movements of the partitas, I like to hear some attempt to capture the regularity of dance choreography, no matter how stylized and distanced Bach's pieces are from those origins. I feel that there would be no point in including dances to make a suite, if each type of dance were not supposed to evoke a specific character. Musicologists have been attempting to analyze Bach's music in terms of his encyclopedic attempts to create compendia of all available styles, for example, the Brandenburg Concerti as a didactic manual about what is possible and recommended in composing a concerto. In the solo violin works, none of the three partitas is really a traditional suite. (BWV 1004 is the closest, but for the singular Ciaccona, longer than the other four movements combined. It may appear to stick out like a sore thumb, but it is probably there because this is near the midpoint of the six-work cycle, in a position of importance.) This must mean that Bach was trying to show as many different dance characters as he could. The temptation to distort the rhythmic character is strongest in the slower pieces, the two sarabandes, and Fischer yields to this temptation, too, although her fast dances, the Gigues and Correntes, have a pulse that I appreciate.

The final criterion that I use to judge a recording of the solo violin works is that magnificent Ciaccona. If that piece doesn't work, you might as well put the recording back on the shelf. Fischer's Ciaccona is expansive, perhaps a little too syrupy for my taste. At 15'47" her version is longer than Nathan Milstein's gutsy reading (who played the big multiple-stop chords like violent slashes with a sword) by 90 seconds or so. My favorite Ciaconna of the recordings I have been listening to over the past couple weeks is Rachel Podger's reading (a svelte 13'36") on "Baroque violin" (reviewed by Jens in July 2004). In fact, Podger's instrument, a 1739 Pesarinius from Genoa, is only a decade older than Fischer's, but her technique is more Baroque. (In fact, Kremer's violin, the Guarneri del Gesù "Ex-David," was made in 1730, the closest in date to the composition of the Bach solo violin works, in 1720.) I don't necessarily prefer every track on Podger's recording, but I think she has the best approach to Bach. Even in the Ciaccona, where other players afford themselves the most obscene license, there is rhythmic impulse in Podger's reading. (Kremer's Ciaccona clocks in at 13'50", leaning much more toward Podger's concision than Fischer's languor, and is somewhat similar to Milstein's version.)

The length of this review says something about just how important these pieces of music are in my mind. There will probably never be a "perfect" recording of them, because that ideal can only be found on the page of the manuscript, the sketch of a dream in an ambitious young composer's thoughts. In Cöthen, Bach found an employer worthy of his compositional vision, someone who recognized his talents, recompensed him generously, had a good ear, and liked to listen. Sadly, within a year or two of the composition of these idealistic works for solo violin, their relationship was spoiled by the intrusion of a spouse with a much poorer ear. Fortunately for us, Bach went on to another position, in Leipzig, that had its own faults and challenges but that led him into yet another area of composition, no less important.


jfl said...

i suppose that "baroque violin" really is meaningful not so much as the actual age of the violin is concerned, but the fact that gut strings, a baroque bow and technique add a different quality. is milstein really (just) a "guilty pleasure"? i am willing to take offense. the c-major, for example, is some of the best violin playing ever!

Charles T. Downey said...

Agreed, Jens. No, I was being facetious. Milstein is still tops in many ways.

jfl said...

with heifetz, however, i am willing to take you at your word. :)

Anonymous said...

Charles, thanks so much for this review. I greatly enjoyed it. I've had a little trouble adjusting to Kremer's version of these works; I think you're right about there being an "angularity" to the performances, and also how his is a personal, even idiosyncratic, reading. What you say about "excessive rubato" is interesting because I think perhaps that's where I have the most difficulty adjusting -- but I am doing my best to approach Kremer's recording with an open mind.

I think my experience with Kremer's version proves to me just how much I am conditioned by my habits and my tastes. I began the sonatas and partitas with Grumiaux and Mintz, and then migrated to Mullova; she only did the Partitas, but think of them as a Russian virtuoso of the highest order bringing her modern technique to bear on gut strings -- an interesting combination. I think I warmed to Ficher's recording so much because of the expansive, leisurely, athletic nature of her playing -- in other words, it sort of fit in perfectly with my previous experiences of these works (and her tone, as you mention, is consistently beautiful). Kremer's a different thing altogether from these experiences, and so I am going to have to revisit the CD and see if I can adjust. Your review helps greatly in this manner.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for the comment. A lot of people admire that Mullova recording. I have not heard it yet.

Anonymous said...

I think I warmed to Ficher's recording so much because of the expansive, leisurely, athletic nature of her playing -- in other words, it sort of fit in perfectly with my previous experiences of these works