Bach: Sonatas and Partitas (ECM New Series 1909/10 & 1926/27)

Johann Sebastian Bach
The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo
as played by John Holloway and Gidon Kremer

Recorded July and September 2004, Propstei St. Gerold (Holloway)
25-29 September 2001, Lockenhaus, Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, and 10-15 March 2002, Riga (Kremer)
Engineers: Stephan Schellmann (Holloway) and Niels Foelster (Kremer)
Produced by Manfred Eicher (Holloway) and Helmut Mühle (Kremer)

I first heard Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin on vinyl under the bow of Thomas Zehetmair in his awe-inspiring Teldec recording, which remains my interpretation (and format) of choice. Ever since Zehetmair signed with ECM, I have constantly wondered what untold pleasures a repeat performance for the label might bring. Sadly, this has yet to be realized. Thankfully, however, ECM listeners have two complementary representations to choose from, and for this reason I review them side by side.

Looking Back
As one of the world’s foremost Baroque violinists, John Holloway brings four decades of intimate engagement with these masterworks to the proverbial table. Working from the original autograph score, Holloway takes meticulous care in observing every detail of articulation as a means of arguing for the composer’s own deeply informed knowledge of the instrument. His supple playing and humble approach make for one of those rare “historically informed” performances that actually dusts off the ravages of time and breathes cleanly rather than calling attention to its antiquity. Not only does he bring a visceral robustness to the Adagios and a refreshing regularity to the Prestos, but he also makes sure that every tempo in between is given its own dynamic quality.

I have always cherished the Allemanda of the B minor Partita over all, as it is the last piece I learned to play on the violin before I abandoned the instrument to focus on training my voice. It is typically the standard I go by when encountering a new version for the first time and I am proud to report that Holloway draws from it a wealth of seductive material for our auditory perusal. He adopts a similar posture in the Fuga of the A minor Sonata and in the Siciliana of the G minor sonata, both of which scintillate like dark pools in moonlight. But the true gem of this collection is the D minor Partita, where we encounter one of the most heartrending Sarabandes imaginable, an absolutely resplendent Giga, and as finely executed a Ciaccona as one could hope for. The C major Sonata brings out another exemplary performance, especially in the haunting vulnerability injected into the Allegro assai. The E major Partita is pitch-perfect. Its immediately recognizable Preludio shines with renewed verve in Holloway’s hands.

Looking Ahead
What can one say about Gidon Kremer? He is one of the leading innovators among contemporary classical performers, having inspired a wealth of commissioned music and a somewhat controversial discography of variable projects. Kremer first recorded these pieces for Philips in 1980 and returns to them here in a self-professed “final statement” on Bach. As any avid Kremer listener can expect, this interpretation is at once fiercely idiosyncratic and deeply aware of its roots. His G minor Sonata is appropriately subdued and sets an introspective tone for the entire performance. Kremer truly stands out in the fast movements, such as in the Double Presto of the B minor Partita and the delicately executed Allegro assai of C major Sonata, where he is able to put his dynamic energy on full display. He also puts his “GK” stamp on the more dance-like movements, such as his ravishing Tempo di Borea from the B minor Partita and the Gavotte en Rondeau of the E major Partita. This is not meant to imply, of course, that he is without sensitivity. Under Kremer’s agile fingers the Andante of the A minor Sonata weeps with unrivaled ardor, the Sarabanda of the D minor Partita stumbles with an unusually supplicatory air, and his C major Sonata Adagio brings a whole new sense of tortured emotion to a movement so often played with reserve. Kremer revels in the rhythmic possibilities afforded to him by the score, stretching out as many moth-eaten holes in its musical fabric as he can, so as to emphasize its polyphonic structure and harmonic integrity. He also shows a predilection for sharp attacks. Witness, for example, his crisp Ciaccona, which punctures the ether with the power of a thunderclap. And what of my beloved B minor Allemanda? It has taken some getting used to, but I can now appreciate Kremer’s halted style and flawless tuning, and the liveliness he brings to this somber dance is uniquely his own.

I would never venture to say which of these performances is “better” than the other. Holloway plays at period pitch, while Kremer opts for a modern tuning, resulting in two entirely different experiences. Holloway’s opaque sonorities become Kremer’s airy glitter. These are both recordings to be savored and revisited. The reverberant acoustics and attentive microphone placement put Holloway’s a head above the rest in sound quality, while its somber undertones speak to the violinist’s humility in the face of Bach’s complex symmetries. Then again, Kremer’s staggering attention to detail and variation prove once again why he is one of the instrument’s sharpest proponents. I can only recommend both for their technical spread and complementary attitudes. Not to mention that the pieces themselves belong on any music lover’s shelf.

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