Bach: “Sei Solo” — Partita No.1 in B minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1002
Media Review / Comparison
2021-10-27 — Original posting
2021-11-04 — Fixed corrupted / missing table image
2021-02-21 — Replaced two of the header images with samples from Partita I
2022-07-20 — Corrected year of Gidon Kremer’s second recording
Table of Contents
- Introduction — The Recordings
- About the Partita No.1 in B minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1002
- The Interpretations, Overview
- A Note on Ratings
- The Interpretations, Detail
- Procedure, Technical Aspects
- Yehudi Menuhin, 1934 – 1936
- Joseph Szigeti, 1956
- Arthur Grumiaux, 1961
- Henryk Szeryng, 1967
- Gidon Kremer, 1980
- Thomas Zehetmair, 1982
- Jaap Schröder, 1985
- Vito Paternoster, 1995 (Cello, E minor)
- Monica Huggett, 1997
- Rachel Podger, 1999
- Gidon Kremer, 2001
- Christian Tetzlaff, 2005
- Viktoria Mullova, 2008
- Kristóf Baráti, 2009
- Alina Ibragimova, 2009
- Sergey Khachatryan, 2009
- Amandine Beyer, 2011
- Thomas Pietsch, 2011
- Christine Busch, 2012
- Isabelle Faust, 2012
- Giuliano Carmignola, 2018
- Mikhail Pochekin, 2018
- Atilla Aldemir, 2019 (Viola, E minor)
- Tomás Cotik, 2019
- Augustin Hadelich, 2020
- Other Review Posts on J.S. Bach’s ” Sei Solo “, BWV 1001 – 1006
Introduction — The Recordings
This posting is about the Partita No.1 for Violin Solo in B minor, BWV 1002, which Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) published under the title “Sei Solo” (see the title page above). I am comparing the 25 recordings in my collection:
|2019||Atilla||Aldemir||1975||Wiki||Web||a' = 433||Review||Artist, Media|
|2009||Kristóf||Baráti||1979||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2011||Amandine||Beyer||1974||Wiki||Web||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|2012||Christine||Busch||Web||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|2018||Giuliano||Carmignola||1951||Wiki||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|2019||Tomás||Cotik||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2012||Isabelle||Faust||1972||Wiki||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1961||Arthur||Grumiaux||1921||1986||Wiki||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2020||Augustin||Hadelich||1984||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1997||Monica||Huggett||1953||Wiki||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|2009||Alina||Ibragimova||1985||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2009||Sergey||Khachatryan||1985||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1980||Gidon||Kremer||1947||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2001||Gidon||Kremer||1947||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1934||Yehudi||Menuhin||1916||1999||Wiki||a' = 433||Review||Artist, Media|
|2008||Viktoria||Mullova||1959||Wiki||Web||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|1995||Vito||Paternoster||1957||Wiki||Web||a' = 443||Review||Artist, Media|
|2011||Thomas||Pietsch||1955||Web||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|2018||Mikhail||Pochekin||1990||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1999||Rachel||Podger||1968||Wiki||Web||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|1985||Jaap||Schröder||1925||2020||Wiki||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|1967||Henryk||Szeryng||1918||1988||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1956||Joseph||Szigeti||1892||1973||Wiki||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2005||Christian||Tetzlaff||1966||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1982||Thomas||Zehetmair||1961||Wiki||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
Explanations on the Table
- You can sort the table by any specific column (in ascending or descending order) by selecting the respective title field.
- The first field is the year when the respective recording was completed (not necessarily identical to the ℗ or © years).
- The birth year is not known for all artists.
- The fields “Wiki” and “Web” are links to the respective artist’s Wikipedia entry and/or personal Website.
- The highlighted column “Review” contains links to the respective entry in the comparison section (The Interpretations, Detail) below.
- The green column “Summary” contains links to the respective entry in the comparison summary, featuring detailed Media information, as well as notes on artist, instrument, recording, etc.
Details about the media (CDs) are available as part of the Comparison Summary posting on Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo. That information includes cover image, title, artists, technical media information (label, label-number, booklet info, barcode, amazon link, where available, plus additional information, as deemed relevant). That summary also features an overall comparison table.
About the Partita No.1 in B minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1002
Within the “Sei Solo“, the three Partitas (or Partias) for Violin Solo formally are baroque dance suites, i.e., a sequence of traditional dance movements. In their original form, baroque suites follow the scheme Allemande — Courante — Sarabande — Gigue. Often, a Prelude precedes that sequence. The Partita No.1 in B minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1002, deviates from that standard. It replaces the closing Gigue with a Bourrée (Tempo di Bourrée, or Tempo di Borea). In addition, each of the four movements is followed by a variation, labeled Double (or Double Presto in the case of the Courante). See the section below.
I don’t need to give a detailed introduction to these movements, as they are all well-known. However, you do find some additional information on the Partita No.1 in B minor, in the review from 2019-06-02, when Isabelle Faust performed all Sonatas and Partitas, BWV 1001 – 1006, in two recitals on the same day.
Bach completed his “Sei Solo” around 1720 in Köthen (Anhalt). Bach’s original manuscript (see the three images in the header section) survived to this day. There is also a beautiful manuscript, now identified as being a copy dating from 1727–32 by Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena Bach (1701 – 1760). The facsimile of Bach’s manuscript (as well as of Anna Magdalena’s copy) can now be downloaded from IMSLP.
As part of the (brief) explanations on the individual movements, I’m including short excerpts from that document, showing the first 2 – 3 lines of each movement.
Without exception, all movements and their associated Double complements follow a two-part AA’BB’ scheme, i.e., both parts have repeat signs.
Note that Bach uses a mix of Italian and French in the movement annotations: Correnta vs. Courante, Tempo di Borea vs. Tempo di Bourrée, Doble (a typo?) vs. Double. Anna Magdalena Bach copied these annotations 1:1. I’m mostly using French annotations, as used in some editions.
In his first Partita, Bach limits his annotation to the name of baroque dance forms. With one single exception (see below), there is no tempo annotation. In the case of the Allemande, this implies the tempo of a moderate dance in an even meter (4/4), maybe Andante, possibly a stately pace. The notation indicates 4/4, indeed—but with all the small notes (ornaments), it is a real challenge to make the listener feel the 4/4 beat. Many artists read this in quavers, rather than crotchets.
In most of the Double movements, Bach opted for a simple, uniform rhythmic structure. Here, the uniform chain of semiquavers from beginning to end creates a stark contrast to the Allemande with its complex and irregular, punctuated notation. Bach leaves it open how the artist ought to interpret the relation to the preceding “parent” movement.
The Double keeps the harmonic scheme of the Allemande, and it has the same number of bars (24). However, it uses split time (₵, 2/2, alla breve), so the two movements possibly don’t share the same tempo. Still, the absence of concrete instructions leads to a huge variability in the tempo among the interpretations. The difference between the slowest and the fastest interpretations is more than a factor of 2.
The Courante is a fluent, sometimes lively baroque dance in 3/4 time. The movement is entirely in quavers, and the composer grouped these into 6 notes per beam, one beam per bar. This might lead artists to read the movement in 6/8 units (entire bars), which gives the piece a calmly stepping pulsation. Read in crotchets, the pace might at the same time feel like a real Courante with its fluent pace.
It’s more complex, though: the movement consists of 2-bar phrases, which some editions indicate with a short bar line after odd-numbered bars. In most phrases, the first bar has 6 isolated quavers (usually articulated staccato), while the second bar has the initial three quavers under a slur (legato). That’s a strong argument for a 2 x 6/8 base rhythm.
Visually, the slurred quaver triplets (along with the 6 quavers per beam) might misguide to a reading as 6/8 meter (i.e., groups of three quavers, or 2 x 3/8), in disagreement with the 3/4 annotation. In fact, on a local scale (within the bar lines), the composer leaves the listener “in the air”, wavering between the sensations of 2 x 3/8 and 3 x 2/8 (i.e., 3/4) rhythms. Examples for the latter: bar 7 and numerous others.
IV. Double Presto
Here, Bach retains the 3/4 meter of the “parent” movement. This is the one exception where there is indeed a tempo annotation, Presto, i.e., it is a fast, virtuosic piece. The Presto appears to indicate a tempo that is different from the “parent” movement—however, the Presto almost certainly does not refer to the basic pulse (crotchets or entire bars), but merely to the fast, virtuosic semiquaver movement.
Not so much in the motifs, but in the melodic lines / waves, this Double shows a direct and very obvious relationship to the preceding Courante, irrespective of their tempo relationship.
On top of that, the Double Presto of course follows the harmonic path of the Courante. Not surprisingly, both movements have the same number of bars (80).
As indicated, the connection between the Courante and its Double Presto is closer, more direct than in the case of the other pairs. In the case of the Courante, the pulse is defined by entire bars. And that is the same in the Double Presto. As also the meter is the same (3/4), it seems logical to take over that basic pulse (maybe not exactly, but at least in approximation). The Presto then simply refers to the fast, virtuosic semiquaver movement, not the basic pulse. In fact, in most interpretations, the durations of the two movements are close to each other—with very few obvious exceptions, see below.
At its origin, Spanish early baroque, the Sarabande was a fast dance. At Bach’s time, however, this has changed to a slow, reflective, often intimate dance movement. The conventional, baroque Suite with its four basic movements Allemande — Courante — Sarabande — Gigue therefore follows a slow — fast — slow — fast scheme.
The key relation to the parent movement is in the harmonic scheme / progression. The change from 3/4 in the Sarabande to 9/8 here may imply a tempo change. As in the first Double (to the Allemande), the absence of concrete instructions leads to a huge variability in the tempo among the interpretations. Here, the difference between the slowest and the fastest interpretation is more than a factor of 2.5.
Just one of the artists (Alina Ibragimova) performs the Sarabande and its Double at the same bar pace (3/4 = 9/8, or ♩= 3/8). Few others only, e.g., Monica Huggett, Gidon Kremer (2002), Yehudi Menuhin, and Viktoria Mullova, are close to that. The other extreme is Vito Paternoster (cello), who is fastest in both movements, performing the Double at double (!) pace (♩= 6/8, or 3/8 = 9/8).
VII. Tempo di Borea
In lieu of the usual Gigue, a fast baroque dance, typically in 3/8 time, Bach chooses to return to an even meter, by adding a Bourrée, one of a choice of Galanteries that were often added to baroque Suites between the Sarabande and the Gigue. The Bourée is a lively baroque dance, here in 2/4 time. Note, however, that Bach writes four beats (crotchets) per bar.
While reviewing these recordings I realized what often (if not usually) makes this movement sound unwieldy, bulky. I have dwelled on this in my comments on the recording by Rachel Podger below. These comments are by no means specific to that artist. In fact, they apply to most (especially traditional) interpretations.
Once more, the relationship to the parent movement is in the harmonic scheme. Bach retains the 2/4 time signature, again with four crotchets per bar, though without the Bourrée rhythm. And there is no tempo annotation.
The digitized autograph is available from the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz. This document is in the public domain and shared under a Creative Commons (CC-BY 4.0) International License. It is free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.
The Interpretations, Overview
In order to provide a rating overview, as well as an idea about duration relations between the recordings, I have prepared the table below. Note that the color coding for the duration (blue = longer/slower, red = shorter/faster) refers to the average between the recordings.
I have not corrected the timings for trailing or leading blank time. The one exception is with the last movement (Double), where the times exclude the trailing blank time. One should read the timings in the above table with a grain of salt.
Not all artists perform all repeats. In the cases where repeats were omitted, the track durations can’t be used as indicator for the tempo. Therefore, I corrected these durations in the table (adding the time for the repeat parts to the track duration). In that sense, the overall duration (second-to-last column) is to be read as “if the artist had performed all repeats“. For the actual track and overall durations please see the section below. These may differ from the numbers in liner notes: I’m ripping the recording into Apple Music and use the times in the player software, which may use different rounding algorithms.
A Note on Ratings
First and foremost: all my ratings reflect my personal opinion, hence are inherently subjective. I use a 1 – 5 star rating scheme—simply because that’s what my player software (Apple Music) offers. I use the same scheme for concert reviews. You will note that for these, there are rarely reviews below a 3.0 (★★★) rating. That’s largely because I try to avoid concerts where I anticipate a marginal performance. And I stick to an “absolute” scale, where results below 3.0 are negative.
Ratings in Media Comparisons
- does the performance reflect the notation, i.e., the composer’s (perceived) intent?
- does it present the character of the piece (e.g., in the dance movements in Partitas)?
My ratings also reflect how much a recording offers to me, personally, particularly as a listener with interest in historically informed performances (HIP). With this, I tend to give preference to HIP recordings. I do not mean to devalue the achievements of historic recordings by the great artists of the last century. However, time has moved on, and it is my belief that the in-depth encounter with HIP performances makes it hard(er) to enjoy some of the traditional recordings, especially romantic ones with heavy vibrato, etc. Again: this is my personal view, and I don’t mean to spoil the pleasure that the fans of past great violinists draw from their recordings.
I should also mention that audiophile arguments play a secondary role in my ratings. My primary focus is on the interpretation, not perfection in recording technique. The latter comes into play mainly where it affects the audibility, clarity and transparency, e.g., through excess reverberation. And for newer recordings, blatantly dull, “muffled” sound should also have an effect on the rating.
The Interpretations, Detail
The review comments below are sorted by recording year, from the oldest (1934) to the most recent one (2020). Note: for the artist’s life data, Website and/or Wikipedia entries please see the first table above. Note: in the artist segments below, the pitch is mentioned only where it deviates from a’ = 440 Hz.
Procedure, Technical Aspects
- I go through the collection movement by movement, i.e., I start with listening to the first movement with all recordings before progressing to the next movement.
- I try to choose a sequence that does not put subsequent recordings at a disadvantage. Typically, I start with slow performances, progressing to faster ones. At the same time, I try using a suitable sequence of historic vs. “conventional” vs. HIP interpretations.
- Especially in large comparisons, such as this one, the sequence will typically vary from movement to movement.
- In the sequence in which I listen to the tracks, I typically “just” move forward. If I relate to other interpretations, I refer to recordings I listened to previously, irrespective of the time of the recording. In other words: for older recordings I may use comparisons to interpretations of artists who may not even have been alive at the time of the early version. That may occasionally sound strange. However, in the interest of efficiency, I can’t risk “jumping around” to amend comments that I have already written.
- Naturally, my comments will mostly refer to the recordings immediately preceding the one I’m writing about—in the listening sequence for that given movement (it is impossible to memorize all performances in detail). However, I try my very best to make the ratings absolute, not relative.
Yehudi Menuhin, 1934 – 1936
Pitch: a’ = 433 Hz
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001.
I. Allemande (4’28”)
The oldest, yet—besides Arthur Grumiaux—clearly the best among the historic (not historically informed!!) recordings (i.e., preferable over Szigeti and Szeryng). Yes, there is Menuhin’s ubiquitous, prominent, ultra-nervous vibrato. And there is little dynamic differentiation, apart from sporadic softening (e.g., in the last bar of either part, after a double bar, or at the beginning of a phrase on the g or d’ string). However, Menuhin’s tempo choice (the fastest in this comparison!) fits an Allemande in 4/4 time, and one can even sense some 4/4 dance swaying.
II. Double (4’16”)
Menuhin’s and Szigeti’s Double movements are close in tempo and attitude. However, Menuhin’s is smoother, with more focus on flow than on individual notes. The interpretation (i.e., the listening experience) unfortunately is hampered by Menuhin’s vibrato (see above). To me, this defeats the simple, linear texture of this piece.
III. Courante (3’33”)
Menuhin avoids staccato, rather opts for a clear détaché. Sadly, the strong and nervous vibrato (typically around 2 beats per staccato note) not only obscures the clarity in the articulation, but it also often makes the intonation sound off. Not much joy for the listener.
IV. Double Presto (3’40”)
Spot-on at the average pace among the performances here, and very close to the base pace of the Courante. As many traditional interpretations, it features limited agogics and local expression and differentiation. Undoubtedly virtuosic—but at this tempo, the sonority is often suffering, the tone is inelastic—but OK, at the time of this recording, there wasn’t much of a chance to polish a track in the aftermath. One of the best tracks in Menuhin’s recording.
V. Sarabande (3’44”)
Here it is again: Menuhin’s very nervous vibrato, along with the expected broad, quasi-legato articulation, with very little rhythmic structuring. An interpretation from a distant past, obviously.
VI. Double (3’15”)
A simple, meandering line of quaver triplets—drowning in “vibrato sauce”. I know that the artist meant this to be expressive—but I still find this horrible. But yes, Menuhin does carefully shape phrases using dynamics and agogics—if just it wasn’t all buried in constant shivering… Menuhin’s tempo is close to that of the Sarabande. However, I don’t think this helps the listener a great deal in “mentally making the connection”.
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’13”)
Fast (distinctly faster than average), rabidly dancing, and relentlessly moving forward. The articulation is relatively broad, the chords are well-integrated into the flow. Sure, there could be more agogics, more differentiation in dynamics and articulation. But still I think this is Menuhin’s best movement in this Partita, and clearly the best Tempo di Borea among the traditional / old interpretations in this comparison (e.g., Joseph Szigeti, Henryk Szeryng, Arthur Grumiaux, but also some of the more recent recordings).
VIII. Double (3’12”)
Not much differentiation in the articulation, little, if any agogics (no dance swaying). However, Menuhin consciously shapes phrases and dynamics, the performance is far from being just mechanical, but lives in every phrase. Not the worst of Menuhin’s movements.
Total Duration: 29’21”
Rating: 2 / 1 / 1 / 3 / 2 / 2 / 4 / 3 = 2.25
Comment: Definitely a historic document, considering its pivotal role in the artist’s career, and in the recording history of Bach’s “Sei Solo“. Valuable and recommended as such—but hardly otherwise.
Joseph Szigeti, 1956
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001.
I. Allemande (3’22”, no repeats performed at all)
Virtually the same tempo as Szeryng. Too slow, clearly. On top of that, Szigeti’s vibrato feels very heavy, too strong, to the point where it affects intonation. Szigeti avoids Szeryng’s constant, broad portato: I would call the articulation an “affirmative, percussive détaché“. This makes the stretched tempo less obvious.
In contrast to Szeryng, the ornaments (demisemiquavers, hemidemisemiquavers) are sometimes slightly overpunctuated, as in a French overture (which this of course isn’t). Sadly, such ornaments often have the same amount of emphasis as the main notes. As if they had marcato signs. This defeats their nature (as ornaments). Maybe more than the slow tempo already does, it also destroys the underlying (overall) rhythmic foundation. And it sabotages any larger-scale phrasing.
Szigeti is inconsistent in his choice of repeats. However, given the slow tempo, it is somewhat understandable, that here, the artist chose not to perform any repeat.
II. Double (3’27”, second repeat not performed)
With its simpler, more uniform structure, the first Double does not suffer from Szigeti’s idiosyncrasies of the preceding Allemande. Where the Allemande is dominated by accentuated rhythms and over-emphasis on every note, the Double appears as a chain of calmly meandering semiquaver figures. Slow, carefully played out, with every note getting almost the same weight and emphasis—and vibrato.
The movement is devoid of any dance feeling, and any relationship with the Allemande is hard, if not impossible to recognize at this slow pace. There are subtle dynamics and tempo alterations leading to a discreet climax in each of the two parts. Nowadays, the ritardando at the end feels a bit exaggerated, too romantic.
III. Courante (2’49”, second repeat not performed)
A rude and stiff staccato, with some inconsistencies, as well as occasional inaccuracies in the articulation, e.g.: extra slurs, such as quavers 2 & 3 in bars 7 and 8, as well as similar places. A dance? A Courante? No way!
IV. Double Presto (3’46”)
This may be at the limit of what Szigeti’s technique still permitted at the time of the recording. Yet, the technique “still worked”, and so, this “technical” movement is one of the better in the artist’s interpretation. Agile, relatively clean and clear, few superficialities / weak spots.
V. Sarabande (4’09”)
For the overly heavy vibrato see the Allemande above. Apart from that, the interpretation is as far from a dance feeling as it can possibly be. Starting with the firm (if not harsh), rigid, inelastic chords throughout the movement. But the performance is also devoid of swaying agogics. Too bad for the beautiful music!
VI. Double (2’34”)
As already in the previous pairs, I like the Double more than the parent movement. The articulation is (mostly) simple, between a quasi-legato or simple détaché and a light staccato. The amount of dynamics and agogics is minimal. At one point, Szigeti forms a climax using firmer staccato. Then again, he falls into legato playing. One might call this inconsequential. However, at least, vibrato is of little concern in this movement.
VII. Tempo di Borea (4’21”)
Well … no. A Bourrée is a baroque dance. Moreover, it is one of several possible galanteries (gallantries!) that baroque composers added to their suites, see above. To me, this implies at least some modest degree of grace, elegance, some (harmonious) rhythmic flexibility, and a minimal amount of dance swaying. Joseph Szigeti’s interpretation, however, opens with rude, even harsh staccato chords—rhythmically stiff: that’s rather an old-fashioned, Prussian military ceremonial march. After the opening bars, the pace accelerates (a run-away tempo?). The articulation eventually does soften slightly—but then, the few long notes are “decorated” with Szigeti’s overly slow and heavy “over-vibrato“. Prehistoric at best…
VIII. Double (3’40”)
Except for the slurred quavers, Szigeti performs this with almost consequent staccato—why? The only parts with a slightly broader détaché are in the second half—but that doesn’t save the interpretation, even though Szigeti uses substantially more agogics that, e.g., Szeryng.
Total Duration: 28’07”
Rating: 1 / 2 / 1 / 2 / 1 / 2 / 1 / 1 = 1.38
Comment: At the time of the recording, Szigeti obviously was no longer at the height of his artistic abilities. With this, I’m not even sure whether one should count this as a historic document. The listening pleasure here really is minimal.
Arthur Grumiaux, 1961
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001. Arthur Grumiaux consequently leaves out all second repeats.
I. Allemande (4’25”, second repeat not performed)
Traditional, dense tone, though with substantially more elasticity than other recordings from that period (Szigeti, Szeryng). As with Baráti, which whom Grumiaux shares the tempo, there is little dynamic differentiation at the level of bars/motifs, but permanent vibrato (bordering on nervous), and lots of forte playing. There is very little, if any dance character. Some can be found in the ascending line in bar #3 and (few) similar places. I do concede, though, that Grumiaux’ sonority is beautiful. As is his care and attention to secondary voices.
II. Double (1’57”, second repeat not performed)
A little faster than Szeryng, though much more uniform in tempo, articulation and dynamics. Very little, if any agogics, devoid of dance swaying. Let alone Klangrede. What’s the purpose of playing off a facsimile of Bach’s handwriting? Sure, sonority and tone are beautiful, the technique near-perfect. But isn’t there more to this music?
III. Courante (2’29”, second repeat not performed)
There is a moderate amount of dance feeling in this movement—not through agogics, but merely from the highlighting of “heavy” notes in motifs and phrases. Grumiaux’ sonority is immaculate, as typical and expected for this artist. However, the absence of agogics makes this piece / performance sound rather rigid, mechanical, and formal (not what I associate with a Courante dance!). And: strangely, Grumiaux tends to distort the slurred quaver triplets by shortening the first note, almost making it sound like an acciaccatura. Why?
IV. Double Presto (2’34”, second repeat not performed)
Technically excellent, devoid of flaws, and it even takes over the base pulse from the Courante. However, it is also devoid of agogics (apart from the brief fermatas at the end of a part) and differentiation in dynamics (let alone articulation). To me, it feels like soul-, ruth- and merciless mechanical “sawing”. Irritating.
V. Sarabande (2’03”, second repeat not performed)
Despite Grumiaux’ relatively fluent tempo, this is a very formal dance at best: broad détaché, all f, “big tone”, and intense, except for the diminuendo in the final bars. It sounds as if the artist performed all chords as downstrokes, in order to achieve maximum intensity. The chords start by touching the g (where needed) and d’ strings momentarily, then holding the tones on the a’ and e” strings at full intensity, for the entire duration of the chord (crotchet).
Yes, the sonority is huge, and even the intense, permanent vibrato seems to fit the picture. There is a certain greatness (and uniqueness) to the artist’s view. However, the performance is also static. The (near-identical) emphasis on every single note, combined with the absence of agogic swaying defeat any possible notion of dance movement.
VI. Double (1’26”, second repeat not performed)
As with Henryk Szeryng, this Double is virtually devoid of agogics. However, at least, Grumiaux’ staccato bowing makes the piece sound less ordinary. And the artist uses dynamics, minimal rhythmic marking, and subtle variations in the breadth of the staccato to shape phrases and arcs. And with the staccato, Grumiaux’ vibrato doesn’t get much of a chance of intruding, let alone dominating the scene.
VII. Tempo di Borea (2’29”, second repeat not performed)
Not quite as “square and straight” as Szeryng. Grumiaux’ bow strokes are shorter. The tempo is virtually the same as Szeryng‘s, hence moderate—overall. Yet, the “tempo feeling” is quite different. Primarily, the lighter and more flexible bow strokes make the performance sound less rigid. On the other hand, Grumiaux takes the first bar a tad slow, picking up pace after that. I’m not sure whether it’s that initial acceleration (which feels strange in first place) that causes an ever so slight, but permanent feeling of unrest / pushing forward? Or maybe it’s something in Grumiaux’ rhythm (subtleties in his extremely discreet agogics)? I’m not entirely happy / comfortable with this…
VIII. Double (2’35”, second repeat not performed)
Beautiful, clean sonority and technical perfection throughout—but way too regular, even stubbornly constant in tempo / flow, devoid of any agogics (just an exaggerated ritardando at the end). A study, no more. What’s the point in reading / playing off Bach’s handwriting??
Total Duration: 19’58”
Rating: 3 / 2 / 2 / 2 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 2 = 2.5
Comment: Playing from Bach’s handwriting—pure “marketing” / pretense? I don’t see anything in what reaches my ear. Yes, clean sound / sonority—too cultivated, I’d say.
Henryk Szeryng, 1967
Instrument: 1744 violin “Leduc” by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698 – 1744), Cremona.
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001. Henryk Szeryng consequently leaves out all second repeats.
I. Allemande (5’07”, second repeat not performed)
Listening to this after Khachatryan. Szeryng is noticeably faster, but still clearly too slow. If one were to read any dance character into this, it’s at the quaver level. Then, there’s Szeryng’s broad portato playing (typical for traditional interpretations) that does not really allow notes to evolve. And, of course, there’s permanent vibrato (less nervous and less conspicuous than Khachatryan’s, though).
Furthermore, it feels as if the artist wanted to avoid losing any note at all costs, hence played all ornaments (such as pairs of hemidemisemiquavers) with the same amount of emphasis as the main notes. This makes them sound artificially broadener, destroying all tension within motifs, making the overall performance boring.
II. Double (2’05”, second repeat not performed)
Close to Baráti in tempo—but by far not as glossy and focused solely on technique and esthetics of sound. Uniform in the articulation (broad, portato), though with some subtle rhythmic swaying, and phrasing through dynamics and agogics. Much better than the Allemande.
III. Courante (2’16”, second repeat not performed)
Unlike most other conventional interpretation, Szeryng bases his Courante on a broad, slightly accented détaché. He occasionally sharpens this to a staccato to support the dynamics in phrasing. To me, this feels like “neither fish nor bird”—it certainly is as far from HIP as it can possibly get.
Sure, articulation, intonation etc. are clean, even polished—however, towards the end of either part, there are instances where the tempo appears to run away noticeably. With an artist of Szeryng’s reputation, this should not happen! Needless to say that there is no dance feeling here!
IV. Double Presto (3’17”, second repeat not performed)
Relentless, undifferentiated détaché playing throughout. A study at best—and a boring one at that. And it doesn’t even feel Presto—the slowest of the Double Presto performances. In fact, this is one of the cases where the base pulse is substantially slower than that of the Courante.
V. Sarabande (2’44”, second repeat not performed)
Very close to Yehudi Menuhin’s interpretation. The vibrato is slightly less nervous, less incisive. And as with Menuhin, the movement offers little in dynamic and rhythmic structuring (other than the mere note values), and hence is far from feeling like a dance. Rather, it feels somewhat boring.
VI. Double (1’28”, second repeat not performed)
An excessively regular, relentless flow of portato quavers, without agogics and rhythmic structuring (like a study, really). It might as well be in 3/8 time. Modest dynamics, minimal variation in the articulation. Traditional, of very modest interest only.
VII. Tempo di Borea (2’31”, second repeat not performed)
I can’t resist thinking of this as a “square-shaped” interpretation. To me, it has the elegance of a steam roller. I find it devoid of agogics and elasticity, let alone subtleties. Chords and the notes in-between all appear as broad, “loud”, mechanical strokes. Not much enjoyment.
VIII. Double (2’21”, second repeat not performed)
Devoid of agogics and differentiation in the articulation, minimal dynamics—another study?? I think Bach never used the term Étude or esercizio… Clean playing, but what else?
Total Duration: 21’49”
Rating: 1 / 3 / 2 / 2 / 2 / 2 / 2 / 2 = 2.0
Comment: Considering that Szeryng has recorded this at the height of his artistic career, this recording appears to have fallen out of context, out of fashion, out of what we now understand as baroque music. I would discourage students from listening to this.
Gidon Kremer, 1980
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001.
I. Allemande — II. Double (7’35”)
Allemande: A mostly still traditional interpretation—romantic, emphatic and highly expressive, but “on the way to HIP”. Kremer plays with vibrato very much throughout—but he vibrates harmoniously. Maybe just a tad faster than Hadelich—but back to a quaver base. And there is rather limited dance swaying. At least, in 1980, Kremer was far from the static, broad articulation of the “olden days”: there is expression and life in every motif, in every phrase.
Double: Fast, fluent, agile and light in the articulation, truthful to the score. The highlighted notes and motifs, the dynamic spotlights that occur in every few phrases structure the piece—without disrupting the flow.
III. Courante — IV. Double Presto (6’24”)
Courante: Fluent again, though never rushed. The pace is clearly defined by entire bars. Kremer starts off with staccato, later tends to broaden the stroke to détaché. Kremer differentiates his articulation within each phrase. The intonation is flawless, the tone often somewhat rough in the staccato, especially in the beginning—expressive, and anything but an over-polished performance
Double Presto: In his first recording, Kremer takes the Double Presto at a pace that is slightly slower than the Courante. Expectedly technically excellent, virtuosic, clean, agile, and with dynamic differentiation—maybe a little short in agogics.
V. Sarabande — VI. Double (5’52”)
Sarabande: Rather conventional, and romantic-expressive. The permanent and prominent vibrato (albeit not extremely nervous), the flat dynamics on long notes defeat a possible dance feeling. What remains is a broad, extended cantilena, forming at most broad dynamic arches. Fits last century’s pre-HIP style.
Double: In Kremer’s first recording, a rather fluent Double follows a moderately paced, expressive Sarabande. The beginning is restrained, with a soft, airy détaché. The second part, however, opens up, both in dynamics / volume, as well as in expression, and using a broader scope in articulation. Intense moments alternating with soft, gentle segments. Maybe a little too much for a Double with such a simple, uniform rhythmic structure? Taken as a stand-alone movement, it is still beautiful playing, as well as of course beautiful music. In his 2002 recording, Kremer takes an entirely different approach.
VII. Tempo di Borea — VIII. Double (6’17”)
Tempo di Borea: There obviously is still some way to go up to his 2002 recording—but this already is excellent and anticipates many of the features of the later performance. It (or rather: the listener) does feel a bit pushed, though, and the forward drive also defeats some of the agogics.
Double: Fast, but not pushed. Excellent technique, I like the articulation, the drive, the momentum. Dynamic differentiation occurs mostly in larger segments / phrases (e.g., softer echo passages). The recording can’t compete with the artist’s 2002 recording: there is dynamic swaying, but a certain uniformity in articulation and tempo. Especially the beginning feels somewhat mechanical.
Total Duration: 26’08”
Rating: 3 / 4 / 4 / 3 / 3 / 4 / 4 / 4 = 3.63
Comment: Sure, the interpretation already exhibits Gidon Kremer’s strong individuality—but it can definitely not match up to the artist’s 2002 recording.
Thomas Zehetmair, 1982
I. Allemande — II. Double (7’29”)
Allemande: Listening to this after Thomas Pietsch. Zehetmair is a tad faster, and yet there is not rushing or pressure, as the artist plays a clear 4/4 with “dance agogics” at a pace that feels calm, measure. Zehetmair proves that despite a highly expressive tone (with a moderate, harmonious vibrato on longer note values), a baroque interpretation does not need to sound crude or “raw” (OK, I assume he was using a modern bow). What stands out here are the stark contrasts between the punctuated segments (marked / forte) and the intimate, subtle (piano and mostly vibrato-less) legato triplets and other non-punctuated motifs.
Double: As Zehetmair’s Allemande lives from the expression of the local phrase / motif, rather than from a persistent (let alone dominating) rhythmic pulse / foundation, there is no direct, perceptible relationship with the Double. However, the latter forms a stark contrast. It features simplicity and clarity in the articulation, and moderation in large-scale dynamics. At the same time, there is a wealth of expression through agogics, as well as dynamic differentiation within phrases and motifs. Excellent!
III. Courante — IV. Double Presto (5’44”)
Courante: A little over the top. The fastest performance by far (together with Vito Paternoster), with an exceptional amount of verve and momentum. Unfortunately, the tempo makes the execution of some slurred motifs superficial—some appear as mere arpeggios. Also, many of the bursting highlights appear gross, exaggerated. I wished for some moderation and more care.
Double Presto: very fast, but still always clear and controlled, never rushed, highly virtuosic, rich in articulation details and dynamics, and enough agogics for the performance not to sound mechanical. A very light staccato, at times close to spiccato. Brilliant! The basic (bar) pace in the Courante is substantially faster, but Zehetmair seamlessly attaches the Double Presto without rest—and he indeed manages to make the latter organically grow out of the Courante. Just one minor quibble: a tiny extra fermata at the double bar would have helped the listener in re-gaining breath!
V. Sarabande — VI. Double (5’40”)
Sarabande: A performance in Arthur Grumiaux’ tempo. Yet, it is quite different, starting with the shorter, lighter (discharging) articulation, differentiated dynamics, and broad agogic swaying. A tiny bit, however, I feel that the artist appears to deny himself fully indulging in Bach’s beautiful music / harmonies. Even in intense climaxes, he keeps the articulation relatively short, almost frugal. At the same time, expressive moments are associated with bursts of highly nervous vibrato—fortunately limited in strength (amplitude).
Double: Simple, serene, atmospheric. My main quibble is again with the somewhat nervous vibrato—luckily not too conspicuous, mostly.
VII. Tempo di Borea — VIII. Double (5’47”)
Tempo di Borea: Full of life and drive, and among the fastest of the performances. Unfortunately, Thomas Zehetmair shows a tendency to rush over “minor”, fast passages, and the articulation isn’t always very careful, if not sometimes superficial, and inconsequent / incoherent. Potential for improvement. Still not a bad performance, overall.
Double: Feels very fast, but takes over the tempo from the Tempo di Borea. Occasionally slightly superficial, maybe rushed. However, Zehetmair’s playing is very lively, expressive, with small eruptions, alternating with passages where the quavers pass by almost ghastly. Highly virtuosic, but never polished. Extremely lively in “local dynamics” / Klangrede through dynamics (rather than through sophisticated refinements in articulation.
Total Duration: 24’40”
Rating: 4 / 5 / 3 / 5 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 4 = 4.13
Comment: For a recording made at age 21, this certainly is an amazing achievements. It might be interesting to listen to the artist’s newer, 2019 recording—see the comparison summary for details.
Jaap Schröder, 1985
Instrument: Dutch baroque violin; baroque bow. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
I. Allemande (4’48”)
Basically, a good HIP approach, as expected from this artist, at the proper tempo for a calm Allemande in 4/4 time. Unfortunately, there are several moments of “local unrest”. Examples: in the descending, punctuated scale sequence in bar #2 and related places. Also, there are occasional, softened punctuations, while in other places (e.g., the second crotchet in bar #3), non-punctuated motifs appear a tad punctuated. This leaves the impression of lacking rhythmic precision. The intonation is OK—though not always as clear as (e.g.) Isabelle Faust‘s.
II. Double (3’14”)
Careful in articulation and dynamics. Steady in the flow, but clear (not exaggerated) agogic swaying in every half-bar, creating a calm, stepping dance swaying. Simple, but effective—a very nice interpretation!
III. Courante (2’58”)
One of a minority of performances that (mostly) avoid staccato in this movement, in favor of a broad(ish) détaché. This makes it easier for the artist to maintain clarity in the articulation despite a relatively fluent tempo. Good, but certainly not my favorite HIP performance: more recent ones are richer, more differentiated in expression and articulation. After listening through these interpretations, I prefer performances using (at least moderate) staccato.
IV. Double Presto (4’01”)
This interpretation does feel Presto, despite a very moderate base pulse. However, some of that “fast” feeling may stem from the fact that with a staccato at this pace, the articulation with this artist starts to sound superficial, and the intonation is occasionally marginal.
V. Sarabande (3’33”)
As in earlier movements, Jaap Schröder’s intonation often sounds marginal (not really “off”, but also often “not quite clean”). The light détaché articulation is OK per se—however, the movement does sound somewhat fragmented and static, despite the local agogic swaying.
VI. Double (2’53”)
Tempo-wise, Jaap Schröder is close to Monica Huggett. However, his agogic swaying comes in wider waves. And it feels much more natural. Interestingly, with this (and the faster performances yet to follow in my reviewing), we are getting into a domain where it is much easier for the listener (me, at least) to recognize harmonic pattern from the Sarabande, i.e., to make the connection to the parent movement.
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’48”)
Jaap Schröder obviously tries to avoid harshness in the arpeggiated chords. He deliberately broadens those chords, at the expense of frequent rushing in the “minor” notes / motifs. The instrument’s sonority is somewhat nasal, and once more, the intonation is occasionally marginal.
VIII. Double (3’50”)
Jaap Schröder is one of the artists who perform the Double at exactly the pace of the associated Tempo di Borea. In my view, this tempo consistency is not really relevant here. Still, Schröder’s articulation is careful and sufficiently differentiated, and there is agogic swaying. In comparison to the parent movement, the Double appears tamed. However, Jaap Schröder’s Tempo di Borea also stays away from any unruly, wild aspects that others see in this movement.
Total Duration: 29’05”
Rating: 3 / 4 / 3 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 3 / 4 = 3.25
Comment: I appreciate Jaap Schröder’s key role among the pioneers of historically informed playing in the second half of the last century. In that sense, this recording is a historic document—though it can’t really compete with the recent performances in that field.
Vito Paternoster, 1995 (Cello, E minor)
Instrument: 1792 cello by Lorenzo Carcassi (1737 – 1775), Florence. Pitch: a’ = 443 Hz
I. Allemande (5’09”)
An unusual interpretation in several ways! First and foremost, Vito Paternoster is extreme in his agogics: every single phrase (one or two bars each) shows very prominent agogic swaying. It starts slow, accelerates / picks up momentum towards the center, then swings out / slows down again towards the end of the phrase, often ending in a little (hinted) fermata. Basically, this fits the idea of a dance movement—to the extreme. The main disadvantage of this performance—as I see it—is, that overall, the music feels fragmented. In other words: there is no real flow across the two halves of the movement.
Articulation: Paternoster keeps all punctuated notes very short, essentially replacing the dot with a rest. With this, the motifs often sound over-punctuated. Essentially, (slurred) triplets and motifs without punctuation stand out as “regular rhythm”, or “singing moments”. Sure, this is in the notes—still, there is hardly any other interpretation where this stands out so strongly.
Finally: Paternoster has profound experience in performing baroque music. And so, he can’t resist adding extra ornaments (trills or inverted mordents) every here and there. He does that not just in the repeats, but even in the first passes. These extras are definitely “in style” and fitting very well. Somebody who doesn’t know the score or is not familiar with the piece would probably not notice them. Still, some might question whether adding extras is appropriate in a movement where Bach already specifies ornaments, and which already is full of small and smallest note values?
II. Double (2’03”)
The fastest of all performances here—on the cello!! Fast to the point where it isn’t just virtuosic, but at the same time also appears playful. And Vito Paternoster even manages to add a few, casual inverted mordents and trills—amazing! Does it need to be that fast? Maybe not—however, Paternoster manages to keep this playful, controlled. He uses agogics, the rhythm is swaying (on a larger / mid-scale), the articulation is detailed, the dynamics lively, but not exaggerated, nor demonstrative. And I don’t have the feeling that this is merely a display of virtuosity or technical prowess. Astounding, for sure!
III. Courante (2’21”)
Together with Thomas Zehetmair’s, this is the fastest performance by far. However, amazingly (if not miraculously), Paternoster completely avoids Zehetmair’s superficialities and exaggerated outbursts. Rather, even on the cello, Paternoster manages this tempo with clean, clear articulation, and with excellent sonority. Truly astounding!
IV. Double Presto (3’19”)
In the Courante and its associated Double Presto, Paternoster’s tempi are identical to Thomas Zehetmair’s. The Double Presto is not as extreme relative to the violin versions as the Courante. However, the artist is still among the very fastest here—and I can’t resist calling the tempo truly horrendous. In fact, it’s so fast that with the slower response of the cello strings, it is hard to impossible for the listener to grasp much of the musical substance. True, Vito Paternoster’s technical abilities are mind-boggling, and as far as I can tell, all semiquavers are there in articulation and intonation. However, shouldn’t this movement be more than an olympic effort in reaching the ultimate tempo, and a perversion of the Courante?
V. Sarabande (2’42”)
Paternoster takes this Sarabande to the extreme! Not only is it one of the fastest performances (together with Tomás Cotik), but it also is maybe the most dancing ones. And it is the most ornamented version. Already in the first passes, Paternoster can’t hold back on adding a wealth of very personal extra ornaments, such as trills, mordents, transition notes, little fioriture, and frequent jeu inégal. It seems that he is barely leaving any note alone.
Some may perhaps claim that there isn’t much Bach left in this. And/or, that respect for the composer commands that the artist’s extras are limited to the repeats? I can see and understand such opinions. At the same time, I must concede that Paternoster’s ornaments are not only very artful and rich in fantasy: they are also very much in style—and simply beautiful.
Lastly: interestingly, despite all the “bells and whistles”, it’s not short-breathed at all. A top rating for this movement may be debatable. I leave it at that, be it only for the artist’s originality and fantasy, and for his guts to venture into uncharted territory—and for the sheer beauty of his ornaments.
VI. Double (1’22”)
Vito Paternoster’s performance of the Double is unique not only because it is on a cello, but because it is the only one which doubles the (already fastest!) pace of the Sarabande, i.e., ♩= 6/8, or 3/8 = 9/8. However, I feel that this relation is pointless, given the entirely different textures in these movements. Sure, Paternoster’s performance is utterly virtuosic, even masterful, and I can’t say that it lacks differentiation in dynamics, articulation.
However, it is still a Double (a reflection of sorts) to a Sarabande! The “fast” closing movements in this Partita are yet to follow—why should this Double be such a relentless, virtuosic race for speed, if not mere virtuosic show? I definitely prefer the simple, reflective, even intimate views of this movement.
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’56”)
I suspect that this is at the limit of what is doable on the cello. For one, some the chords have a rather dull sonority on all but the top (a) string, some even are unclear about the pitches of the lower strings. Then, as the artist tries playing out the arpeggiated chords, there is a certain tendency to (occasionally) rush the small (“weak”) notes in-between, beyond what I would consider good agogics. The artist tries compensating that by adding extra ornaments (trills, inverted mordents, tiny fioriture) every now and then—also in the first passes. Sure, very artful playing, but somehow, I’m missing the overall (“dance”) flow, the piece momentarily feels somewhat clumsy, as if the instrument was too heavy for this.
VIII. Double (2’54”)
Along with Tomás Cotik’s performance, this is the fastest interpretation of this movement. However, this is a cello, not a violin. Therefore, I’m not surprised that this feels mostly just fast. There is differentiation in articulation and dynamics, also phrasing. However, this really feels breathless, and there is very little agogic swaying in phrases, but of course none between bar lines. Sure, technically it’s amazing, outstanding, if not mind-blowing—but I don’t see a prestissimo marking in the score…
Total Duration: 23’45”
Rating: 4 / 4 / 4 / 3 / 5 / 3 / 3 / 3 = 3.63
Comment: Performing this partita on a cello is a challenge, and so I’m not surprised to note that Vito Paternoster isn’t equally successful in all movements. Not all these pieces are really suited for the cello, both technically, as well as in terms of sonority. Still, this recording is a unique and highly interesting experience—along with Atilla Aldemir‘s recording on the viola.
Monica Huggett, 1997
I. Allemande (4’44”)
Virtually the same tempo as Jaap Schröder—but rhythmically more consistent / coherent, at least as far as Schröder’s occasional unrest is concerned. Sadly, Monica Hugget has this habit of pronounced “delayed belly accents” on the peak or the ending motif of a phrase. She does this so prominently, demonstratively, and predictably that it really turns me off. Such “belly accents” are often also associated with a slightly distorted, “washed out” rhythm.
II. Double (2’59”)
Rich in agogics—almost exaggerated. Same with the dynamics, and Monica Hugget’s richness in articulation also contradicts the simplicity in Bach’s notation (which I believe should contrast with the rhythmic complexity of the Allemande). As in the first movement, peak / key notes in phrases appear excessively broadened, and with a “belly accent”. Doesn’t the simple texture of the Double call for more subtlety?
III. Courante (3’29”)
Noticeably faster than Christine Busch’s and Thomas Pietsch’s HIP performances—and quite different in general: Monica Huggett avoids “hard” staccato almost throughout, preferring a clear, but gentler détaché, with harmonious agogic swaying in every bar. More than in 2-bar phrases, the artist appears to feel in entire bars, i.e., in groups of 6 quavers. On top of that, there are moments of stronger agogics, i.e., momentary accelerations. To me, these defeat a regular dance pace (in entire bars, that is), making the music sound hesitant, if not a tad erratic.
IV. Double Presto (3’58”)
At Giuliano Carmignola’s pace, both in this and in the parent movement. However—lo and behold—with similar “equipment”, Monica Huggett achieves clearer articulation and better, cleaner sonority on the semiquavers. It’s one of the better interpretations of this movement, particularly among the HIP performances.
V. Sarabande (3’37”)
I just appear to dislike Monica Huggett’s slow movements. Her Sarabande suffers from the same flaws as the Allemande, see above. Hard to listen to.
VI. Double (3’02”)
Together with few others, Monica Huggett keeps the pace in the Double relatively slow and close to the Sarabande. However, as the latter is so full of mannerisms, it is close to impossible to make the connection between the two movements. Mannerisms don’t affect the Double, though—at least to a far lesser degree.
I would describe Monica Huggett’s articulation in this movement as very gentle staccato. Along with the dynamics, she also varies the duration of the tones, and she forms long phrasing arches. At a local scale, though, the violinist uses very distinct agogics—extreme, actually. I have rarely encountered such pronounced swaying in most bars, throughout a piece. Interesting, at the very least. Bordering on mannerism, though.
VII. Tempo di Borea (4’01”)
Playing a chord on a violin is (very slightly) non-trivial, as the bow can’t touch more than two chords simultaneously. Unless excessive pressure is applied, which makes the sound rough, if not “scratchy”. So, violinists resort to an arpeggio, typically starting on the lowest chord(s), then rapidly moving the bow to the upper strings (leaving the lower strings alone). That alone is not difficult, but embedding chords in a musical flow may be somewhat tricky. At least if one wants to avoid an extra / unwanted accent from the extra pressure / effort.
It’s that latter point which causes hiccups with Monica Huggett’s interpretation. To avoid harshness, she approaches the arpeggio gently, performing it in a broad and mellow bow stroke—and with hesitation. That hesitation to me is the biggest “stumbling block”. The arpeggiated chords are not fitting into the rhythmic flow: she starts in time on the g and d’ strings, but then inserts a substantial extra interval to build up emphasis on the top strings. The result is an odd “belly accent that not only is late as such, but also delays and disrupts the rhythmic flow—throughout the piece. In parts, she compensates this in the remainder of the bar—but that just makes the flow more irregular.
The flow is suffering from further irregularities, as there are several periods with noticeable accelerando / rushing. Is this meant to be agogics? Or does the artist want to make up for the time lost in the arpeggiated chords?
VIII. Double (3’52”)
Extreme agogics, to a degree that totally disrupts the flow. Nice details in phrases, motifs, but little continuity in flow and “narration”—the tempo irregularities are distracting and fragmenting.
Total Duration: 29’52”
Rating: 2 / 3 / 3 / 4 / 2 / 3 / 2 / 3 = 2.75
Comment: Historically informed, but rather quirky, I’m afraid.
Rachel Podger, 1999
Instrument: 1739 “re-baroqued” violin by Pesarinius, Genoa; baroque bow. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
I. Allemande (5’47”)
Rachel Podger performs at virtually the same pace / timing as Amandine Beyer. However, even though both are clearly HIP performances, this sounds so entirely different! Podger uses vibrato more frequently. And where she does, it is heavier, stronger—however, it does remain an ornament, so I can “live with it”. There is a certain tendency towards “belly swelling” on longer notes, even occasional Nachdrücken. There is dynamic differentiation and a dance feeling / swaying at a quaver level. At the same time, at the scale of bigger phrases / arches, the interpretation also sometimes feels somewhat static, a tad plodding forward.
II. Double (3’34”)
Careful in the articulation—though a bit uniform. Short phrases, but little of a big arch (e.g., over each of the halves). The one thing that breaks the uniformity is the staccato on the non-slurred notes.
III. Courante (3’26”)
The same, moderate tempo as Alina Ibragimova—but so entirely different! Rachel Podger uses a short, acute staccato, though not without differentiation. And she applies detailed dynamics in every phrase. At the same time, she avoids sounding idiosyncratic or didactic.
IV. Double Presto (3’44”)
Clean, clear, fast (but not too much), virtuosic (especially on a period instrument), well-articulated, with differentiated dynamics: a very good HIP performance.
V. Sarabande (3’50”)
Also here, Rachel Podger performs at virtually the same pace / timing as Amandine Beyer. There are other similarities between the two interpretations. What differentiates the two is a slight tendency towards belly notes and occasional Nachdrücken with Rachel Podger, along with a smaller number of extra ornaments. Also, here, I noted that the sound in Podger’s recording is somewhat “covered”, slightly dull compared to Amandine Beyer’s.
VI. Double (2’33”)
Maybe slightly too regular? Some more agogics—without blowing up the music, though—would not hurt, I think. Rachel Podger primarily works with gentle dynamics to shape phrases, arcs, to a lesser degree with subtle variations in the articulation. Beautiful playing in general, keeping the Double simple, modest, while still “talking” in motifs and phrases.
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’41”)
To me, Rachel Podger is (as many others) struggling with this movement. The struggle is in rhythmic persistency across the arpeggiated chords (see below for a partial explanation). The chordic segments sound “square”, somewhat bulky. This contrasts with the more fluent linear segments. Yes, it’s played nicely—no objections about technique, articulation. However, the overall impression is that of a fragmented movement, with disruptions between chordic and linear segments. It lacks a persistent flow and “dance feeling”.
The Crux with the Tempo di Borea…
In coming from the slow, mostly traditional interpretations, this is #10 I’m listening to. I could not resist “looking ahead” by taking a peek at the interpretations by Viktoria Mullova, Amandine Beyer, and Isabelle Faust—to see what is possible with playing this movement. And I realized what makes this movement the most difficult in this Partita. It’s the danger of over-emphasizing those arpeggiated chords—not just in the initial phrase, but throughout the piece. Most artists fall into the trap of (rhythmically and dynamically) focusing on these chords. This easily makes the movement feel bulky, unwieldy, especially when the tempo is moderate rather than lively. In fact, for many years, the bulkiness of the Bourrée in traditional interpretations dominated my impression from this Partita. Consequently, I used to find this the least attractive of all the Sonatas and Partitas.
VIII. Double (4’04”)
One of the slowest Double movements, for sure. There isn’t much of a dance feeling, the flow is rather regular. On the other hand, the playing is nicely differentiated and careful in dynamics and articulation. The harmonies may remind of the Tempo di Borea, but there aren’t even distant memories of the latter movement’s wildness. A deliberate, stark contrast, I guess…
Total Duration: 30’38”
Rating: 3 / 3 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 3 / 4 = 3.63
Comment: A nice HIP performance—though I see this still in the tradition of the first-generation HIP pioneers (such as Jaap Schröder, maybe).
Gidon Kremer, 2001
Instrument: 1730 violin “ex-David” by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698 – 1744), Cremona.
I. Allemande (4’37”)
In the punctuated parts (e.g., the first two bars), Kremer keeps the long (punctuated) notes very, very short—such as to make them sound abrupt, rather brusque. Then, there are the non-punctuated segments, such as bar #3, which are softer, gentler—though by far not as much contrasting as with Thomas Zehetmair. Besides the dynamic differentiation, Kremer occasionally also softens the rhythm. One example: the last three notes in the second crotchet period in bar #3 mutates to a triplet.
My take: contrasting segments are OK. However the rhythmic harshness in the punctuated segments, as well as the stark change in rhythmic “attitude” between punctuated and legato / slurred segments defeats any persistent dance swaying / dance feeling.
II. Double (2’15”)
Virtually the same, fast pace as in his 1980 recording—even a tad faster, initially almost ghastly. The general approach has remained the same: very fluent, with highlighted notes and motifs every here and there. And also here, these spotlights don’t disrupt the flow or distract the listener. What has changed is the contrast. The Allemande has become more direct, emphatic, expressive. The Double, on the other hand, starts off far more restrained, all piano. Only for the broad climax in each of the two parts the dynamics expand, rise, up to a forte.
III. Courante (3’30”)
22 years after his first recording, Gidon Kremer takes a completely fresh approach! The pace is much calmer, the basic articulation now a short staccato—but highly differentiated, along with agogics and phrasing. Kremer sets clear rhythmic accents and also uses a subtle rubato to support phrasing. However, nothing really feels exaggerated or overdone. A performance in exceptional clarity that never feels overly didactic—a masterpiece in itself!
IV. Double Presto (3’23”)
In his second recording, Gidon Kremer, takes the Double Presto a tad faster even, and it does occasionally feel a bit pushed. It’s exceptionally virtuosic, agile and clear, though. There are passages / motifs that sound slightly gross. On the other hand around a climax, or in key segments, Kremer tends to broaden the pace very slightly, for extra clarity, emphasis and detail. Finally: where in the 1980 recording, the base pace Courante was faster than in the Double Presto, here, Kremer keeps the base pace, which of course brings the two movements into closer relationship.
V. Sarabande (3’16”)
Another version with distinct dance swaying almost throughout. For a few moments / passages, Gidon Kremer retracts into pp intimacy, and the dance swaying briefly pauses. This part of Kremer’s stark, expressive contrasts in this movement. None of the others is as expansive in his or her contrasts, the dynamics, the breadth of emotions and expressions. Also the vibrato varies between noticeable and total flatness. Interestingly, it never affects the intonation (absolutely flawless), but appears to consist of amplitude/volume modulation only.
VI. Double (3’08”)
Here (in contrast to the 1980 recording), Kremer keeps the tempo close to Sarabande. However, as in the few, similar performances, that tempo relationship (which is not implied in the score) does very little to help making the connection to the parent movement.
That aside: Kremer’s Double is subtle, gentle, light, intimate, yet expressive, especially as a phrasing arch nears its climax. After a climax, the tone retracts again, back into the finest pp. Despite noticeable (beautiful!) agogic swaying, the artist sticks to the fundamental pulse, never loses the calm. And his vibrato is hardly noticeable at all. Excellent!
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’31”)
Gidon Kremer’s chords are brief and dry—but fully integrated into the musical flow, they don’t disrupt the momentum, the flow. And yet, Kremer applies differentiated and distinct agogics (especially across longer phrases, e.g., at closures, or around focal passages), without ever losing a lively musical dance feeling, drive and momentum: excellent!
VIII. Double (3’23”)
Fluent (slightly faster than the average), but with notable dance swaying, differentiated agogics, dynamics, and “talking” in every motif, every phrase: excellent! Of course, Kremer does not aim at presenting a perfect, highly polished performance: the occasional buzzing e” string, articulation noise, etc. doesn’t irritate, but is the “spice in the soup”!
Total Duration: 27’01”
Rating: 3 / 4 / 5 / 4 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 4.5
Comment: A unique interpretation that demonstrates Gidon Kremer’s mature, strong personality and character. The level is not always quite consistent, but in most of the movements, he is up there, at the very top. Highly recommended!
Christian Tetzlaff, 2005
Instrument: 2002 violin by Stefan-Peter Greiner (*1966), Bonn.
I. Allemande (4’29”)
I like the fluent tempo, the light articulation, the intonation, the sound / tone with very little or no vibrato. However, I (almost completely) miss the dance swaying on the crotchet beats (let alone on the quavers). Even though the pace is ideal for 4/4 dance swaying. However, here, the latter is completely overridden by rather conspicuous “large scale” swaying, i.e., 1- or 2-bar phrases which accelerate towards the center (climax), then slow down again. This idea is certainly fine—but in such long periods / phrases, it defeats the Allemande dance character. Rather, it creates the impression of inconsistencies / lacking coherence in the tempo.
II. Double (2’21”)
I feel that Christian Tetzlaff somehow does a little “too much” in this movement. The tempo is fluent, but not rushed. But still, especially at this pace, doing too much in terms of articulation, in local dynamics & expression distracts from the simple, linear structure, which I’m sure Bach chose to build a contrast to the preceding Allemande.
The repeats are piano—both with several extra ornaments added in. The ornaments as such are “in style” (i.e., they feel “properly baroque”). However, in this movement with its simple, regular rhythmic structure, they are not just unnecessary—they even defeat the flow, distract, and let the listener “stumble”. A little overdone, really.
III. Courante (2’47”)
Among the faster performances, but still differentiated. Clear, clean and differentiated in articulation and dynamics, “talking” in phrases, never rushed—very good! Tetzlaff sticks to the idea of starting the repeats restrained, softly.
IV. Double Presto (3’02”)
Is this a race for speed? The fastest pace in this comparison no longer offers much of a chance to differentiate in the articulation, to let the music “speak” below the level of bigger phrases. Sure, Tetzlaff’s technical prowess is amazing—but shouldn’t there be more in this music than a furious chase for the fastest performance?
V. Sarabande (4’05”)
Slow, solemn, doesn’t really feel like a dance. Tetzlaff does many extra ornaments in the repeats. Some of these feel slightly peculiar. The fear of doing the same as others? The vibrato is omnipresent (not just ornament), but typically harmonious, relatively inconspicuous. What irritates me more is a rather prominent tendency towards belly notes—too much, too frequently, too predictably.
VI. Double (3’09”)
Restrained, simple, serene: Tetzlaff typically ties the second and third quaver in (most of) the triplets. Dynamic phrasing arches are discreet and gentle. The artist retains the calm, except for a few instances in the second part (especially towards the repeat), where the pace momentarily (and very slightly) appears to slip away.
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’12”)
Tetzlaff keeps the chords well-integrated in the musical flow, and there is differentiation in articulation and (particularly) dynamics. Unfortunately, the performance appears to focus on moving (if not rushing) forward rather than playing out the dance character, the swaying, or leaving some playfulness. And the arpeggio in the chords is rather uniform throughout the piece (the same, gentle move across the lower strings), which after a while starts feeling (a bit) like mannerism.
VIII. Double (2’56”)
I like Christian Tetzlaff’s playful attitude in this movement: the light, subtle articulation. And the extra trills inserted every now and then, even in the first passes—in this piece I feel that this is acceptable. There are some accelerations—but these don’t feel like run-away tempo, but they highlight the agility in the movements & ornaments. There is a pleasant swaying (agogics and dynamics), not so much in every bar, but across phrases. A pleasure to listen to!
Total Duration: 26’00”
Rating: 3 / 3 / 4 / 3 / 3 / 4 / 3 / 5 = 3.5
Comment: If you are interested in this artist’s interpretations, I’d recommend looking for his newer 2017 recording. For information see the comparison summary.
Viktoria Mullova, 2008
Instrument: 1750 violin by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786), Milan; gut strings; baroque bow by W. Barbiero. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
I. Allemande (4’31”)
The opening motif is maybe somewhat abrupt, also in the repeat and in some punctuated segments. However, that is barely objectable—it’s rather a means of opening a new phrase. And the tempo is ideal, the Allemande swaying (in crotchets) clearly present. The music is indeed dancing! I like the clear articulation & intonation (essentially devoid of vibrato), the agogics which also support larger (1- of 2-bar) phrases. The latter never create the impression of an incoherent or inconsistent pace (unlike with Christian Tetzlaff, but at the same base tempo).
II. Double (4’04”)
While Viktoria Mullova’s Allemande is among the most fluent ones, it’s interesting to see that her Double is the slowest among the historically informed performances (and the newer performances in general). Tempo-wise, she is not far from Yehudi Menuhin’s interpretation. However, this performance is so rich in details, light and careful in the articulation—and it is dancing! There is lively phrasing at the “local scale”, as well as in the big arches spanning each of the two parts. Beautiful!
And what I rate as just as important: Viktoria Mullova maintains the basic pace from the Allemande (in the harmonic progression, that is). This way, the listener can not only recognize the harmonic scheme from the parent piece, but one can feel and experience the relationship!
III. Courante (3’37”)
The same tempo as Monica Huggett—but what difference! The right amount of staccato, the slurred notes harmoniously embedded. The artist maintains a regular, calm dance swaying, supported by natural, organic, dynamic waves. Viktoria Mullova avoids exaggerations, yet exposes the rhythmic intricacies in Bach’s score.
And: this recording demonstrates that the right amount of reverberation does not irritate at all (as in Thomas Pietsch’s performance), but supports, even enhances Viktoria Mullova’s gentle staccato!
IV. Double Presto (3’26”)
Viktoria Mullova takes about the same pace as in the Courante, and her tempo is slightly above that of Amandine Beyer’s interpretation. However, unlike the latter, this performance does not feel “at the limit”. It is not only entirely controlled / never pushed, but it also retains sonority, and clear articulation throughout. And it features at least as much differentiation and detail in agogics, dynamics and articulation. True mastery, simply superb!
V. Sarabande (3’21”)
Another marvel! Viktoria Mullova performs with emphasis, with light articulation, with plenty of Klangrede and beautiful phrasing arches. One of the (if not even the) most dancing Sarabande movements in this comparison. Simply beautiful!
And then: the ornaments! Viktoria Mullova leaves the first passes alone. However, then, in the repeats, she lets a rich set of true fioriture bloom (pun intended)—simply breathtaking. Some of these resemble tiny cadenzas. Occasionally their style feels like pre-Bach. However, I just don’t mind at all. After all, Bach’s original is still present in the first passes. Moreover, they are simply too beautiful: true gems, all of them! I could listen to these on end!
VI. Double (3’07”)
In the Sarabande and the Double, Viktoria Mullova’s tempo choices are almost identical to Gidon Kremer in his 2002 recording. That’s the main similarity, though (apart from my ratings!). Mullova’s articulation is broader, often a broad portato / détaché that rises to gentle, wide dynamic phrasing arches. Absolute calm and serenity—marvelous! In the repeats, Viktoria Mullova discreetly and sparingly adds a few extra ornaments (mordents)—absolutely fitting!
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’21”)
Also here, there are similarities with Gidon Kremer’s 2002 recording—not just in tempo, but also in the way in which Viktoria Mullova integrates the chords into the musical flow, how she maintains flow and momentum while applying agogics to make the music live and dance—wonderful!
VIII. Double (3’34”)
Beautiful: baroque violin playing at its best! Careful and differentiated in dynamics and articulation. Viktoria Mullova plays out the contrast between the Tempo di Borea and its Double. She doesn’t focus on presenting the relationship between the two. But the Double by itself is already beautiful music! As for the “hair in the soup”: Viktoria Mullova’s interpretation would profit from some more dance character / swaying.
Total Duration: 29’00”
Rating: 5 / 5 / 4 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 4 = 4.75
Comment: An interpretation very close to my heart, strongly recommended!
Kristóf Baráti, 2009
Instrument: 1703 violin “Lady Harmsworth” by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona.
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001. Kristóf Baráti consequently leaves out all second repeats.
I. Allemande (4’25”, second repeat not performed)
Clearly a conventional interpretation, with broad portato and permanent vibrato. Baráti uses subtle dynamics (with limited bandwidth, though) to differentiate “call” and softer “answer” phrases. Overall, though, the performance appears dominated by frequent forte playing and a dense tone. As if the artist meant to demonstrate the esthetics of his beautiful, full tone / sonority.
The performance is technically perfect, but rhythmically static, devoid of dance character.
II. Double (2’10”, second repeat not performed)
Technical perfection, beautiful sonority, careful, if not perfect articulation. However, very uniform overall. There is some agogics, but little, if any dance swaying. There is also differentiation in dynamics. The main phrasing feature, though, are the big arches, each covering half the piece. Perfection, but (in my opinion) not enough Klangrede. A traditional interpretation, overall.
III. Courante (2’15”, second repeat not performed)
Flawless tone, articulation, and technique, phrasing mostly through dynamics & articulation (slight broadening of a generally gentle staccato)—Kristóf Baráti’s agogics are rather inconspicuous. Perfection, but traditional, and somewhat too smooth / polished, in view of recent HIP performances. Maybe also lacking Klangrede at the level of motifs?
IV. Double Presto (2’44”, second repeat not performed)
One (another one) of the technically near-perfect “modern” performances of this movement: flawless in intonation, articulation, tone / sonority—absolutely immaculate. OK, the closing ritardando is maybe exaggerated, the agogics / phrasing a little too predictable and regular. Too technical, too perfect in tone and sonority, perhaps even lacking life and emotion? Perhaps, but the technical achievement is still astounding.
V. Sarabande (1’53”, second repeat not performed)
Approaching from the slower performances, Kristóf Baráti opens the final group of four distinctly faster Sarabande interpretations. There is something to that faster pace, I concede: it brings the movement into the dance domain. However, Baráti seems a little too focused on the crotchet pace, which leaves a trace of breathlessness—even in this slow movement. The faster pace should make it easier to show 3/4 dance swaying. Kristóf Baráti doesn’t exploit that opportunity to full extent.
VI. Double (1’22”, second repeat not performed)
Flawless playing, of course, using a moderate staccato at a rather fluent pace (in comparison to most other recordings). Starting slightly restrained, it opens up in expression and dynamics, even shows dance swaying. There are many similarities with Gidon Kremer’s 1980 recording. Beautiful.
VII. Tempo di Borea (2’16”, second repeat not performed)
On average, Kristóf Baráti performs at the same average pace as Giuliano Carmignola. And his playing is technically perfect, as usual. However, there are virtually no agogics (except for subtle ritardando at the end of a segment or a longer phrase). In fact, (especially after Carmignola), Baráti moves through this movement as if it were a study, no more. Well played, not bulky, really, but also aseptic, if not boring.
VIII. Double (2’24”, second repeat not performed)
Beautiful playing, immaculate technique and tone, nice dynamic arches, careful articulation. Too bad there isn’t more in terms of agogic swaying, maybe more differentiation in articulation. And the last ritardando feels a little broad.
Total Duration: 19’29”
Rating: 3 / 3 / 3 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 3 / 4 = 3.5
Comment: If you are looking for a traditional interpretation, this one isn’t bad at all, though not the first one that I would recommend.
Alina Ibragimova, 2009
Instrument: 1738 violin by Pietro Guarneri (1695 – 1762), Venice.
I. Allemande (5’12”)
An interpretation with highly subtle dynamics in phrases and motifs—and (virtually) devoid of vibrato. The articulation is light, the phrasing fluent. Alina Ibragimova very much thinks in phrases (as opposed to crotchets or quavers!). Yes, there is swaying agogics, but at the level of phrases, rather than within a fixed underlying meter. A beautiful performance! My main quibble is that the climax of most phrases is a prominent belly note. A means which (I think) the artist uses a bit too prominently (and predictably) here.
II. Double (2’29”)
An interpretation not far from Thomas Zehetmair’s—both in tempo and attitude. However, Alina Ibragimova is more subtle and refined in her use of dynamics and “local expression”. In its subtlety, this fits the artist’s Allemande. The contrast to the Allemande is not so much in expression and dynamics, but more in the simplicity of the texture in the composition. An interpretation that puts the artist behind (into the service of) the composer / the composition.
III. Courante (3’28”)
Poignancy, extremes in tempo, articulation and dynamics are not necessary ingredients for an excellent interpretation! Alina Ibragimova performs this movement gently, with modesty, care and subtlety. For the non-slurred notes, her articulation varies between a gentle, light staccato and a broad détaché. The phrases often form rolling, dynamic waves. The one little quibble with this: the dynamic waves are maybe a tad too explicit, too predictable and regular, occasionally leaving a trace of didactic spirit…
IV. Double Presto (3’19”)
Very fast, but exceptionally clean in articulation, intonation and sonority. Devoid of exaggerations, never crossing technical limits. Careful in dynamics—breathtaking, excellent!
V. Sarabande (3’36”)
Extremely subtle in general, introverted, calm, and devoid of vibrato. Some might think that the intonation is sometimes critical. However, I’m certain that this is mostly that most listeners today are not used to vibrato-less violin playing and pure, Pythagorean intervals. Note that vibrato-less playing is often cruel, in that it reveals the tiniest impurities! As already in the Allemande, my main quibble here is that the belly notes and belly-like highlights are often a bit too prominent—and they appear too frequently, even predictably.
P.S.: There can’t possibly be a bigger contrast than Alina Ibragimova’s gentle, arpeggiated chords vs. Arthur Grumiaux’ resolute, comparatively aggressive ff strokes in this movement! I clearly prefer Ibragimova’s subtle, intimate view…
VI. Double (3’34”)
Alina Ibragimova’s Double is unique, in that it is the only one really matching the pace of the preceding Sarabande (♩= 3/8, or 3/4 = 9/8), yielding the slowest Double. However, the linear structure of the latter is a bad match to the chordic, partially polyphonic texture of the parent movement. Yes, the Double shows the harmonic backbone of the Sarabande, and the peak notes are mirrored here as well. However, …
Ibragimova applies utter care and subtlety to the chain of quaver triplets, carefully forming gentle broad dynamic arches. However, at this pace, the musical substance is highly diluted—to a degree that reminds me of the scarcity in pieces by Arvo Pärt (*1935). With this degree of abstraction and dilution, a first-time listener will barely be able to make the connection to the preceding Sarabande. But sure, the playing is utterly serene, beautiful—I just doubt that that’s what the composer had in mind. Still, I congratulate the artist for having the guts to take this consequent and extreme approach!
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’18”)
Close in tempo to Gidon Kremer’s 1980 and 2002 recordings, as well as to Viktoria Mullova—even a little faster, though never really pushing (really just for short moments), and even though Alina Ibragimova’s chords are not as short and dry as Kremer’s in 2002. She gives the chords time to apply a relatively gentle arpeggio, and the entire movement is much gentler, differentiated, subtle in dynamics and agogics. It does dance, of course, and the articulation is very detailed and careful. In comparison, I do miss some of the “Borea” rabidness that other performances are offering, though.
VIII. Double (3’15”)
Alina Ibragimova not only stays with exactly the pace of the Tempo di Borea. In her interpretation, the two movements are not so much contrasting complements, but they bear some similarities in the artist’s approach. Also here, a key feature is the gentleness in articulation, and in the dynamics, the long phrasing arches. The performance is highly masterful in every detail. However, in comparison to many others, the music appears almost too lightweight, subtle, and gentle. This fits my remarks on the Tempo di Borea.
Total Duration: 28’12”
Rating: 4 / 4 / 4 / 5 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 4 = 4.13
Comment: Alina Ibragimova is technically excellent and offering flawless intonation even without (essentially) any vibrato. She consequently takes her own, personal approach to these pieces. 12 years ago, that approach was maybe a little on the gentle, almost timid side. However, I have no doubt that she is one of today’s top violinists—I keep watching out for her recordings!
Sergey Khachatryan, 2009
Instrument: 1702 violin “Lord Newlands” by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona.
I. Allemande (7’42”)
No. I’m not just objecting to the obnoxious, permanent vibrato. The main problem with this performance is in the tempo, which is way too slow. The artist appears to think (& count) in quavers—the movement is in 4/4 time. With this, he loses all traces of dance character. Also, the listener is lost in trying to keep track of the overall structure and phrases. Then, there’s the articulation, which is devoid of any discharging of notes: at Bach’s time, the baroque bow made it impossible to play such “infinite” tones while maintaining sonority.
Moreover, there is a certain (discreet, but noticeable) amount of frequent “Nachdrücken” (“post-pressing” in direct translation). Even on a long modern bow, Khachatryan’s slow tempo forces the violinist to “save bow space”. This means that he needs to start at either end of the bow, and use the full length of the bow hair, in order to achieve the most sonority. The Nachdrücken often comes from an attempt to “rush to the end of the bow” in cases where a note didn’t use up its full length. Moreover, Khachatryan shows a tendency for such “explosive, little crescendi” also at the end of notes that clearly don’t fill the bow, e.g., in notes that are part of portato chains, sometimes (if I’m not mistaken) even within slurred figures.
II. Double (3’02”)
In contrast to the very slow Allemande, for the Double, Khachatryan selects a fluent (almost exactly average) tempo. The vibrato is inconspicuous, only noticeable on longer (closing) notes—it doesn’t hurt. Also, the artist’s phrasing, dynamics and agogics are just fine—they create a swaying dance in every half-note interval. And the second passes appear softer.
What I really object to, though, is that Khachatryan totally ignores Bach’s slurs, i.e., the composer’s articulation. In the first pass, every note is played portato (for more sonority?). In the second passes, the articulation is even often a clear détaché, occasionally softening to louré. Very rarely there is a clear legato. Why?
III. Courante (2’51”)
The “advantage” of the quaver-only texture in this movement is that (except for the notes at the end of each part) there is no chance to apply much vibrato. I find the articulation (and intonation) clean and clear. Khachatryan uses moderate agogics within the bars, but more so to support (2-bar and) larger phrases. However, there is dance feeling in this interpretation—though not really from beginning to end. Should the swaying be more regular? Or more explicit? In any case: one of Khachatryan’s best movements so far.
IV. Double Presto (3’37”)
In Khachatryan’s performance, the rating for this movement even beats the Courante. Excellent technique, clean, clear, differentiated, careful dynamics, agogics and phrasing. Sure, the basic pace in the Courante is clearly faster. But tempo equivalence here is “nice to have”, not necessarily a must.
V. Sarabande (4’37”)
As already with the Allemande, Khachatryan recorded the slowest Sarabande—not surprisingly. To me, the performance devoid of hints at being a dance. The tempo is not the real stumbling block here—but the permanent vibrato is. I find it hard to abstract this from the calm nature of this music. Moreover, there is a tendency towards Nachdrücken and belly notes. If I try “mentally subtracting” the vibration, the tempo—albeit slow—might still be perfectly acceptable. It would be challenging, though, given a desirable dance character of this music.
VI. Double (3’05”)
In the Double, Khachatryan uses a pace that is virtually identical to Viktoria Mullova’s. However, with his extremely slow Sarabande, the artist misses any chance to connect these movements via common (or similar) pace. And the tempo is the only commonality between the two artists. I’m at a loss as to why Khachatryan shapes every single tone (except for closing notes) as a crescendo. That’s indistinguishable from Nachdrücken. To me it is bad habit in first place (awful mannerism at best), let alone on almost every note. Horrible, sorry!
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’44”)
The contrast to HIP performances on period instruments could hardly be any bigger! There is this ear-piercing sound of the metal e” string, and the prominent, nervous and distracting vibrato on all notes except for the brief staccato chords. Khachatryan also tends to rush over many of the quaver notes, while broadening “heavy” / key notes. Excessively expressive (“belly”) dynamics. Maybe I’m distracted by dynamics and vibrato—however, I miss a persistent “dance feeling” in this interpretation. Also, to me, the articulation sounds inconsistent in this movement.
VIII. Double (3’19”)
Khachatryan applies a broad portato almost throughout. There are agogics, yes—but little, if any differentiation in articulation and dynamics, nor dance-like swaying. A lot of this simply sounds “loud”.
Total Duration: 31’57”
Rating: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 2 / 1 / 2 / 3 = 2.25
Comment: Even in the context of traditional / conventional (non-HIP) interpretations, I can hardly recommend this.
Amandine Beyer, 2011
Instrument: 1996 baroque violin by Pierre Jaquier; 2000 baroque bow by Eduardo Gorr. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
I. Allemande (5’48”)
Here’s how to do it—at a pace slightly below average! Amandine Beyer combines Grumiaux‘ moderate tempo with Carmignola’s light (slightly percussive, discharging) articulation. She lets key notes swell—but that remains a kind of ornament: it is used sparingly, never turns into an idiosyncrasy. And, of course, there’s plenty of agogic swaying, giving the piece a wonderful dance feeling (at a quaver level, obviously). Some beautiful, warm, melodic moments stand out, make one listen up. Subtle, very detailed, though certainly never feeling “smoothed out” for pure esthetics. I really like this—along with some faster, alternative (HIP) views.
II. Double (2’49”)
As in Viktoria Mullova’s interpretation, there is a tempo relationship with the Allemande. In Mullova’s Double the (slow) crotchet pace is about equivalent to the crotchet pace in the Allemande. In Amandine Beyer’s performance, however, the relatively fluent crotchets in the Double approximately correspond to the quavers in the substantially slower Allemande. This “factor of 2 divergence” is just one example for the huge spread in tempo selections in this Partita, which I referred to above. And needless to say, that Amandine Beyer follows Bach’s notation in every detail—though she keeps the articulation entirely natural, devoid of exaggerations.
Even though it is relatively fluent, Amandine Beyer’s Double is so rich in details, speaking in every phrase, every bar & motif through dynamics, articulation and agogics. And the artist even manages to insert one or the other inverted mordent / short trill. And at the same time, she forms arches across each of the two parts. My personal find is that here, the connection to the Allemande lives not so much through the equivalence in the harmonic progression, but through the common pulse in quavers and crotchets, respectively. Overall, definitely a revelation, marvelous!
III. Courante (2’47”)
Clearly in the same class as Isabelle Faust and Augustin Hadelich, also in terms of tempo / pace. However, Amandine Beyer’s interpretation almost bursts from richness and detail in articulation, agogics and dynamics. And yet the performance feels natural, never fragmented, nor overloaded. A true Courante, with the feel of an agile, joyful dance.
IV. Double Presto (3’32”)
Amandine Beyer interprets the Presto annotation as “as fast as a historical bow and gut strings” permit. Her performance is virtuosic, agile, astounding. And sure, there is tons of detail in her articulation, “talking” through dynamics and agogics. However, the tempo does feel slightly pushed, especially at the beginning. The performance appears to slow down a little bit during the second half. Yes, Bach certainly meant to explore the technical scope of the violin in his “Sei Solo“. To me, this does not imply restlessness and a pace right at the limit at which articulation “just still works”.
V. Sarabande (3’53”)
There is agogic swaying, for sure, but at this solemn pace, one doesn’t associate this music with a dance. However, at least, there is a steady basic (bar) pace and foundation. Articulation and phrasing / dynamics are marvelous. There are extra ornaments in the repeats—not just simple / trivial ones, but all well-adapted, and inconspicuous / natural. Also the occasional, very moderate, harmonious vibrato clearly is merely an ornament, and a means of highlighting key notes. Beautiful gut string sonority!
VI. Double (2’47”)
Amandine Beyer uses a gentle quasi-legato. Her phrasing is a combination of agogics and gentle, harmonious dynamics. After the rich, ornamented Sarabande, I very much like the idea of a more modest, simple and natural Double. It is both contrast and complementary illustration / comment. There is no point in having the Double compete with the parent movement in ornamentation, etc.!
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’00”)
Enthralling, yet harmonious in the musical flow, highly differentiated in articulation, agogics, dynamics and expression, in the Klangrede. Beautiful (lively, not polished!) sonority. And always playful and dancing, despite the very fluent tempo—hard to beat, really!
VIII. Double (3’20”)
Living in every phrase, every motif, distinct, harmonious dance swaying, Klangrede everywhere, joyful, serene—simply excellent! And as with Gidon Kremer’s 2002 recording: the occasional buzzing e” string, the sounds created by the baroque bow on gut strings—they are more than just the spice in the soup: I simply love that performance from beginning to end!
Total Duration: 27’56”
Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 4 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 4.88
Comment: I have nothing to add to my remarks above: in my opinion one of the very best recordings available, strongly recommended!
Thomas Pietsch, 2011
Instrument: 1672 violin by Hannß Khögl (1614 – 1680), Vienna; bow by Pierre Patigny (after an anonymous bow, early 18th century). Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
A Word on Reverberation
In the summary posting for Bach’s “Sei Solo“ I mentioned that Thomas Pietsch recorded the “Sei Solo” in a medieval monastery with typical church acoustics. This added a lot of reverberation—which again affects the listening experience. My reviews reflect the impact from such excess reverberation. Let me just insert a few general thoughts here.
In an ideal world, an artist performs (and records) in a venue with acoustics that make the artist feel “at home”, i.e., optimally “embedded” or “supported”. That does not necessarily mean that this will yield the best result for the listener. In other words: it is up to the recording technician to place the microphones such that the recording has the best, the ideal ratio between direct sound and acoustic feedback (a.k.a. reverberation). In my opinion, Thomas Pietsch’s recording is a failure on the part of the technician (i.e., the microphone placement).
The issue is non-trivial, though: a closer microphone placement would give more weight to the direct sound, and less weight to the reverberation. A potential pitfall is that close microphones tend to pick up sounds such as noise from the interaction of bow hair / rosin with the strings, which may be undesirable. These sounds usually don’t project well, so they are not heard at a typical distance in the audience.
Once a recording is made, it is impossible to “fix” excess reverberation. Conversely, if a (studio) recording sounds “too dry” (lacking reverberation / acoustic support), it is possible (though not necessarily ideal) to add reverberation electronically, i.e., to “simulate real acoustics”.
I. Allemande (5’08”)
Apart from what I stated in the section above about acoustics and excess reverberation, I like several aspects of Thomas Pietsch’s approach. The vibrato-less, baroque articulation obviously goes along with the baroque bow and gut strings. The extra ornaments (which some may find debatable) are mostly well-adapted and perfectly mold into Bach’s composition. The tempo is slightly above the overall average, and the artist clearly plays 4/4, not 8/8. One might say, though, that the piece deserves more agogic swaying above the level of motifs (where it is certainly present).
Still, I’m not happy with this recording. There is the excess of reverberation that I talked about above—which isn’t as detrimental as if might be with fast and polyphonic movements. My general suspicion is that such excess is more likely with microphones at a distance from the artist. However, here, at the same time there is a very noticeable amount of “technical noise” from the interaction of the bow with the strings, momentary buzzing of strings. This makes the performance sound very “rough”.
By no means I’m expecting a technically polished recording, but here, the noise is such as to make the performance sound crude and careless, too “straight”, lacking elasticity. That’s not just in the noises, but also in the articulation of longer notes. Furthermore, the articulation often feels marginal—it certainly is superficial in some of the short notes (demisemiquavers and hemidemisemiquavers). These short notes as such are often superficial, both in articulation and in intonation.
II. Double (3’16”)
The slurred motifs are very broad, forming a stark contrast to the non-slurred notes. Intonation, articulation and transitions between notes are often rather superficial. One might argue that the occasional portamento should be OK. Here, however, they often sound rather gross, they even stand out from the flow. The artist appears to make no effort in trying to “integrate” such transitions into the flow. Not much pleasure to listen to.
III. Courante (3’53”)
Very close in tempo to Christine Busch. The basic approach is also very similar. However, that’s where the equivalence ends. It’s not just the reverberation which irritates here (particularly with the staccato!). What irritates me more is the lack of subtlety, the superficialities in articulation and intonation, occasional local (minor) inconsistencies in the tempo. At times (often), these make the performance sound careless.
IV. Double Presto (3’55”)
Often superficial, if not careless in the articulation, noisy, sometimes coarse / rough, occasionally marginal in the intonation. The one positive aspect: Pietsch takes over exactly the base pulse from the Courante.
V. Sarabande (3’55”)
I might agree with Thomas Pietsch’s basic approach. However, I don’t like the idea of adding numerous ornaments (trills, mordents, transition notes, little fioriture) already in the first pass—no matter how much “in style” they are. And there are too many crotchets with crescendo. Most importantly: to me, the intonation simply isn’t clean (or clean enough). In the debate about Pythagorean vs. meantone or other baroque tuning schemes, there will never be a conclusive answer. To me, this is neither of these—or any of them, but simply not clean. Or is this (in parts) maybe in the sound characteristics of the instrument?
VI. Double (2’35”)
Pace and duration are identical to Giuliano Carmignola’s—but the result of course entirely different. The reverberation interferes with the simplicity of this movement. And it somehow defeats the staccato by filling the gaps. See also the movements above.
VII. Tempo di Borea (2’31”, second repeat not performed)
Isn’t this movement with its sequences of staccato chords the ideal example of music where a properly dosed amount of reverberation would serve as complement / enhancement? Without reverberation, those chords would sound very dry, “naked”, possibly blunt, or “empty”. Reverberation can serve to fill the gaps between the chords in a harmonious way.
Here, however, the reverberation lasts for more than a full bar, and the result is similar to the sound of a concert grand, when the pianist keeps the sustain pedal down all the time. Sure, there are cases where classic or romantic composers wanted exactly this. However, I can’t imagine that that’s what Bach had in mind for the violin. And the Partitas are not church music—so, why should there be that much reverberation?
In addition, many of those 3- and 4-string chords sound rather noisy. One may argue that this is the sound of a baroque bow on gut strings. True—however, these “technical noises” usually don’t project very well, and to the average listener in a mid-size or big venue, they merely add color, character to the tone, and they shouldn’t be as prominent as to the musician’s ear, a few centimeters from the strings.
VIII. Double (3’49”)
Here, it’s not primarily the reverberation that hurts, but the proximity of the microphones. Thomas Pietsch’s approach in his interpretation is just fine—however, the level of technical (bow / string) noise, the occasional buzz from gut strings is irritating. Pointing out these noises to such a degree doesn’t add value to the recording. And it doesn’t make it “historic” or “historically correct”. Even though this may be truthful to the impression in the artist’s ear.
Total Duration: 29’03”
Rating: 2 / 1 / 2 / 2 / 2 / 2 / 2 / 2 = 1.88
Comment: The acoustics with its excess reverberation, and the recording technique with the microphones picking up an unreal amount of technical noise from the nearby instrument are irritating. They defeat any pleasure that one might otherwise draw from this interpretation.
Christine Busch, 2012
Instrument: 18th century baroque violin, Tyrol. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
I. Allemande (6’01”)
Similar in tempo, but slightly more fluent than Giuliano Carmignola. Yet, the approach here is quite different. In contrast to Giuliano’s more percussive articulation (starting with an accent, letting notes fade), Christine Busch articulates the long notes more gently, letting the tone evolve towards the center (or the second half). I quite like this idea—however, the artist uses that almost all over the place, giving these notes the scent of “belly notes”. I think that this is a means that one should use with care, not as conspicuously as here. Ideally, the listener should not be aware of this “feature”.
The above type of articulation also defeats some (or most, even?) of the dance character. Apart from this (sticky) excess, I like the sound, the historically informed articulation in general. And of course, the very conscious, minimal use of vibrato, essentially limited to the last part of long notes. The vibrato does not follow the dynamic course (“center swelling”) of these notes.
II. Double (3’25”)
Light, detailed, and careful in the articulation, differentiated in the dynamics, breathing / blooming in the phrases. Christine Busch also presents a perceptible overall dramaturgy, in the big phrases. Maybe a little too predictable in how the artist carefully articulates / highlights peak (lowest and highest) notes in every phrase, as well as notes on empty strings. But the sonority is beautiful, no doubt!
III. Courante (4’00”)
The flaw in Joseph Szigeti’s interpretation is not the tempo: Christine Busch’s tempo is almost identical. However, her interpretation is devoid of all stiffness and rigidity, so very differentiated in articulation, dynamics, agogics and phrasing! The violinist is subtly highlighting the slurred motifs, as well as phrase highlights. Subtle, excellent!
IV. Double Presto (4’22”)
In absolute terms, it’s almost as slow as Szeryng’s—but how different it is! One of the slowest tempos in this comparison, which is no surprise after the Courante. Even though it has a calm base pulse similar to the parent movement, the light, subtle staccato articulation on the semiquavers offers a Presto feeling, while at the same time allowing for so much differentiation! Every bar, every phrase is “talking”, is alive, and nowhere there is uniformity—delightful!
V. Sarabande (4’07”)
Not too far from Giuliano Carmignola’s excellent interpretation. Christine Busch is more into refinement and subtleties in articulation and dynamics. Her Sarabande is slightly less intense / dense. She also adds extra ornaments in the repeats—slightly fewer, in line with the somewhat more fluent pace. The latter also allows the artist to maintain a (slow) dance swaying almost throughout the movement. There is a slight tendency towards belly notes, and occasional Nachdrücken—but not to a degree that really hurts.
VI. Double (2’50”)
I like that fluent pace, the light articulation, varying between détaché and a light, “airy” staccato. Expressive, building up to flourishing climaxes, using a combination of dynamics and variation in articulation. Very nice—except for the frequent and slightly too prominent Nachdrücken.
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’39”)
Christine Busch performs the arpeggiated chords gentler than most traditional interpretations. But still, she can’t avoid a certain bulkiness. And to me, she fails in maintaining rhythmic continuity (no, not evenness!), a persistent rhythmic flow and dance feeling. However, at least, there is more consistency in the articulation, albeit with some tempo inconsistencies (intermediate accelerations). The extra ornaments (inverted mordents, mostly) help distracting from the difficulties in this movement.
VIII. Double (3’53”)
Formally a tad slower than the Tempo di Borea. However, Christine Busch not only manages to keep firm ties to the parent movement. She also exhibits wonderfully detailed, differentiated, and careful articulation, full of Klangrede / agogics: lucid, joyful, serene. Beautiful.
Total Duration: 32’18”
Rating: 3 / 4 / 5 / 5 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 5 = 4.25
Comment: Mostly a wonderful, historically informed performance, careful, detailed, though maybe not quite with the persistence, the coherence of the very top interpretations.
Isabelle Faust, 2012
Instrument: 1704 violin “La belle au bois dormant” by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona. This is apparently the only Stradivari instrument that has not undergone modernization, i.e., it still features the shorter and flatter neck.
I. Allemande (4’52”)
Beautiful! The same tempo as Thomas Zehetmair, but without the extremes in expression and contrast. There is no vibrato, clear, clean and pure tones—and yet, Isabelle Faust’s playing is expressive, through agogics and subtle dynamics. Dance swaying in 4/4 time, calm playing, large phrases despite the dance swaying within a crotchet. The artist adds highly fitting, harmonious extra ornaments—but only in the repeats, leaving the first pass untouched.
II. Double (2’19”)
Excellent! Isabelle Faust performs this as “just a Double“—a comment to the preceding Allemande. It’s a comment without obvious linkage (apart from the harmonic scheme), totally taken back into piano, with a light, “airy” bow. The performance remains inconspicuous (not trying to be virtuosic), fast / agile, detailed in the articulation, and truthful to the score. And yet, the artist does not offer an ultra-polished interpretation—merely a short intermezzo. In line with this attitude, Isabelle Faust refrains from adding extra ornaments, leaves the text alone (with the one exception of a little, casual mordent on the last note in the first repeat).
I like this as much as other interpretations that read more into this movement—as long as they retain the simple backbone / structure of Bach’s score.
III. Courante (2’58”)
One of the most fluent tempi. Very clean in articulation and intonation, even in short staccato—but never aseptic or overly polished. Clearly from one of the top violinists of today—yet natural, with the appropriate / ideal amount of dance swaying, and always truthful to Bach’s notation. Needless to say: one of my top favorites, combining “local dance motion” with a clear sense for the overall structure.
IV. Double Presto (3’11”)
Moving towards the fastest recordings of this movement. Isabelle Faust is even a tad faster than Vito Paternoster’s blazing performance. However, in contrast to the cello, the violin doesn’t have the slightest issues in supporting such an extreme tempo—at least in Isabelle Faust’s hands, and with her light spiccato bowing. And the artist still manages to articulate, differentiate in dynamics, articulation, and sonority, to let the music talk, and to shape big phrases. Masterful!
One little remark: in this recording, Isabelle Faust was using a modern bow. It remains to be seen whether she can maintain such clarity and detail when using a baroque bow.
V. Sarabande (3’00”)
The tempo is identical to Kristóf Baráti’s fluent pace—but what a difference there is! Isabelle Faust thinks in bars, performs a delightful 3/4 bar swaying. In comparison to Baráti, this restores the calm nature of a Sarabande, makes the music breathe. At the same time, Faust’s phrasing arches are supported by diligent, delightful, and highly subtle dynamics.
Then, there are the artist’s added ornaments! These are (of course) limited to the repeats. They are highly original, clearly personal, yet totally fitting the style, rich, and of extraordinary beauty. Giuliano Carmignola and Viktoria Mullova perform a similar number of extra ornaments, but at a substantially slower pace. Miraculously, Isabelle Faust’s ornaments don’t cause the slightest unrest, even at this fluent pace!
VI. Double (2’10”)
It seems only natural that in Isabelle Faust’s interpretation, a fluent double follows a relatively fluent Sarabande. Unlike Kristóf Baráti or Gidon Kremer (1980), who both play at almost the same pace, Isabelle Faust keeps her Double soft, with a gentle staccato. However, without expanding into big volume or substantially broadening the articulation, nor adding ornaments (with very few, scarce exceptions), she can fill the movement with intimacy and warmth—with life and emotion. All through gentle agogics and subtle dynamics. Marvelous, really!
VII. Tempo di Borea (2’55”)
Capricious, playful, light, careful, and so differentiated in dynamics, articulation, agogics, phrasing—unbeatable! Devoid of rushed moments, seemingly relaxed—yet one of the fastest performances—a miracle…
VIII. Double (3’10”)
There are similarities between Isabelle Faust’s interpretation and Alina Ibragimova’s in their rather gentle, discreet approach. And they share the same tempo. However, Isabelle Faust’s is vastly more detailed in articulation and phrasing, and also more lively in dynamics and agogics. Masterful!
Total Duration: 24’34”
Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 5.0
Comment: My favorite recording! If she were to re-record these pieces now, I might find her even better, as she has since switched to using a baroque bow for these pieces, see my concert review from Isabelle Faust’s performance of Bach’s “Sei Solo“ in two recitals on the same day. My top recommendation.
Giuliano Carmignola, 2018
Instrument: 1733 violin by Pietro Guarneri (1695 – 1762), Venice; 2007 bow by Emilio Slaviero, after Nicolas Leonard Tourte, 18th century. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
I. Allemande (6’23”)
At a tempo almost as slow as Szigeti’s or Szeryng’s, Giuliano Carminola miraculously succeeds in making the piece dance! True, it’s dancing on the quavers, not on crotchets—but still! The performance lives! The artist does this by consequently (exception: the very first bar) discharging the long notes, and by slightly over-punctuating. The short notes remain ornaments: they are upbeats to the following note. However, they appear with emphasis and all necessary clarity. The advantage of a slow tempo!
The only moments where the dance swaying is lost are with the semiquaver triplets. I suspect that these can only be made “dance” if the piece is thought in crotchets? And yes: at Carmignola’s pace, it is very hard for the listener to keep track of the big phrases, the overall dramatic arch…
II. Double (3’38”)
Carmignola is close to Viktoria Mullova in the tempo. Yet, with his slower Allemande, he does not even try exploiting the close (harmonic) relationship between the two movements. One might see this as a (slight) disadvantage. On the other hand, the artist’s playing is so rich in dynamics, articulation and careful phrasing that the movement in itself is a revelation. And the breathing through dynamics and phrasing, as well as through prominent agogics creates a calm, stepping dance swaying. Excellent!
III. Courante (3’37”)
The pace is identical to Viktoria Mullova’s, the general approach very similar. Giuliano Carmignola is more expressive in the dynamics, his agogic swaying slightly more prominent. The artist supports the latter by subtly broadening the peak note in many of the short phrases. Carmignola’s tone is characterful, somewhat “grippy”: the gut strings, clearly. The few extra ornaments are fitting the style, but in my opinion are not necessary, if not even (occasionally) slightly distracting.
IV. Double Presto (4’00”)
A moderate pace (almost identical to Jaap Schröder’s), but virtually the same as that of the parent movement! In fact, the Double Presto may well have been the factor that determined the (moderate) pace of the Courante. The semiquavers appear at the limit of what is possible with a baroque bow and gut strings—they are at the point where the articulation starts to sound noisy. However, Carmignola masters the piece much better than Jaap Schröder.
V. Sarabande (4’21”)
Almost the slowest performance (behind Khachatryan). Giuliano Carmignola’s vibrato is minimal, discreet—really just more of an ornament for long, resting notes. Even at this slow pace, Carmignola manages to create a momentary dance feeling / swaying. However, between these dance moments there are periods that feel like little intermezzi, moments of contemplation. I picture a baroque dance scene with sequences of slow, measured steps. These could be separated by moments where the movement stops, the couples maybe look at each other, perhaps bow towards each other, before the next sequence of steps follows?
It almost goes without saying that in the repeats, Carmignola adds a rich set of extra, perfectly fitting ornaments. I mean, “rich” in this context. This isn’t one of those baroque composers such as George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) or Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 – 1767) who often only wrote a skeleton of a slow movement, expecting the artist to “fill the gaps” (long notes) with fioriture.
VI. Double (2’35”)
Fluent dynamic waves with distinct agogics: music full of inner life—simplicity and expression. My only quibbles: the dynamic waves are so explicit a little too predictable. And they feel somewhat short-breathed. And there is an odd interference with the acoustics / reverberation. At times it feels as if there was a second violinist (as second instance of Carmignola, that is) playing in background. An acoustic artifact, or did the sound engineer play dirty tricks??
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’36”)
#12 in the sequence from slow to fast performances of this movement—and maybe the first one that really feels appealing to me. Giuliano Carmignola doesn’t let the chords disrupt or slow down his flow, there is consistency and dance feeling, throughout “speaking” agogics and articulation. Ideally, one may wish for a slightly faster, livelier pace. However, Carmignola compensates this through his extra, highly original and personal ornaments that he adds to the repeats. Excellent, for sure!
VIII. Double (3’39”)
So natural, so highly differentiated, and subtle—excellent and simply beautiful. And the extra ornaments in the repeats are the icing on the cake!
Total Duration: 31’48”
Rating: 4 / 5 / 4 / 3 / 5 / 4 / 5 / 5 = 4.38
Comment: Excellent, historically informed performance, close to my top favorites. Recommended.
Mikhail Pochekin, 2018
I. Allemande — II. Double (8’01”)
Allemande: Tempo and attitude are not far from Tomás Cotik‘s—however, this interpretation feels much less rigid / strict. There is tempo continuity through the movement, transitions (dynamic, tempo, articulation) are far more fluent, harmonious. I really like this interpretation! The occasional vibrato is inconspicuous, and the (rare) instances of pungent empty e” string sound don’t hurt—to the contrary, they add color and vivacity. My only (minor) quibble is with “belly nature” of peak notes in some phrases, which occasionally feel a bit (too) prominent.
Double: Pochekin unites the Double with the Allemande in the same CD track. However, at least tempo-wise, there is no connection between the two parts. The pace here is fluent (one of the closest to the average). Articulation, dynamics, agogics and phrasing are careful and detailed. Again, my main quibble is the “belly swelling” on many, if not most peak notes. My personal preference would be for this to be more discreet, i.e., less conspicuous.
III. Courante — IV. Double Presto (6’59”)
Courante: Mikhail Pochekin diligently uses a broad spectrum from staccato up to a broad détaché as a means of carefully shaping phrases, together with moderate use of dynamics, of course. The rhythmic foundation clearly is the first note in every group of 6 quavers. And agogic swaying in every bar creates and supports the dance feeling. The latter is calm, measured—and yet, the chains of staccato quavers ensure a light, dancing attitude. Very nice!
Double Presto: Clean and clear both in articulation and intonation, virtuosic, yet careful, well-controlled, without rushing, and with detailed dynamics & excellent phrasing. Very good sonority, well-balanced, excellent technique.
V. Sarabande — VI. Double (6’15”)
Sarabande: Unfortunately, both the vibrato, as well as the “belly notes” are much more prominent than in the Allemande. And some of the dynamic outbursts defeat the serene, calm (let alone intimate) nature of this movement.
Double: The Double is not just on the same CD track as the Sarabande—it follows attacca. Very, very pronounced agogic swaying: I’m tempted to say that occasionally it is bordering on precipitando. That’s just a description, not criticism—even though it is close to being too much. I like the subtle, gentle dynamic waves that associate with the swaying. In this movement, the vibrato is mostly inconspicuous.
VII. Tempo di Borea — VIII. Double (6’19”)
Tempo di Borea: Same timing / overall tempo as Christian Tetzlaff. However, Mikhail Pochekin is far better at avoiding “run-away tempo”. He also keeps the chords in the musical flow, yet retains their rabidness. The agogics, the dance swaying are excellent, as also dynamic differentiation and detailed articulation. I like the wildness of this interpretation: excellent, congrats!
Double: Very nice, and at the level of the Tempo di Borea! Mikhail Pochekin’s interpretation exhibits beautiful agogics, dance-like swaying—maybe more than any other recording in this comparison. Careful and detailed dynamics and articulation / phrasing. Probably as close to a HIP interpretation as a performance on modern instruments can get. I like it!
Total Duration: 27’33”
Rating: 4 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 5 = 4.13
Comment: A remarkable recording for a young artist—aged 18 at the time of the recording: congrats, well done!
Atilla Aldemir, 2019 (Viola, E minor)
Instrument: 1560 viola by Pellegrino Micheli da Montechiaro (a.k.a. Peregrino Zanetto, ca. 1520 – ca. 1606), Brescia. Pitch: a’ = 433 Hz
I. Allemande (5’41”)
Tempo-wise, Atilla Aldemir is very close to the “golden middle” among the interpretations in this comparison. For an Allemande in 4/4 time, this may still feel on the slow side—in absolute terms. However, Aldemir reads the piece in quavers (as all slower interpretations). Plus, the moderate pace perfectly suits the character of the instrument, the apparent “added weight” of the lower pitch. So, the performance never feels slow and retains its dance character. Aldemir avoids the impression of a static performance, not the least through occasional, subtly, and deliberately faster segments.
With one (fitting) exception, Aldemir resists the temptation to add (unnecessary) extra ornaments. It’s an interpretation in service of the composer, of the music—without attempts to show off.
II. Double (2’26”)
Atilla Aldemir is at least close to Amandine Beyer’s “quaver / crotchet” equivalence between Allemande and its Double. The latter is agile, the articulation careful. In my view, the performance is somewhat hampered by fragmentation: consequent semiquaver pairs typically have the same weight / emphasis, and even within the slurred pairs, the two notes often appear nearly equivalent. This gives the piece a very “cellular” appearance and defeats larger scale phrasing, let alone big arches.
III. Courante (3’19”)
Here, Atilla Aldemir’s tempo is almost spot-on average among all the contenders. And it feels ideal for the character of this instrument! This is an excellent interpretation, careful and detailed in the articulation / staccato. Dance swaying (bars as rhythmic foundation) through agogics and articulation. What makes this interpretation particularly interesting is the added weight that the sonority offers to the notes (especially short staccato) on the lower (c and g) strings: marvelous!
IV. Double Presto (3’51”)
The base pulse is slightly slower than in the Courante—but one can still sense the connection. The moderation in tempo certainly (at least in parts) reflects the “heavier” character of the instrument. However, there are several slower interpretations on the violin. And Atilla Aldemir’s articulation, sonority and intonation are amazingly clean. In fact, cleaner than several of the slower violin performances: chapeau!
V. Sarabande (3’44”)
Maybe not the ideal movement for the (or this) viola. The key voices in this Sarabande fall onto the upper (d’ and a’) strings, i.e., into the more nasal segment of this instrument, while the beautiful, full sonority of the c and g strings doesn’t come to full bearing. But, of course, I like Atilla Aldemir’s highly selective, “targeted” use of a very moderate vibrato, and his diligent, careful dynamics and articulation.
VI. Double (2’31”)
An interesting idea: Atilla Aldemir mostly uses a gentle portato in a gentle flow of quaver triplets. For the repeat of the first part, he switches to a light spiccato. The one flaw with this: after the double bar line, when he returns to the portato articulation, that feels somewhat flat, less interesting. It seems as if in the portato, the flow of quavers is a little too regular. I suspect that a choice of one or the other (portato or staccato), combined with livelier agogics (and maybe dynamics) might have been the better option…
VII. Tempo di Borea (3’52”)
I’m listening to this immediately after Vito Paternoster‘s recording: the two interpretations feature virtually the same timing / pace. The viola clearly has an advantage over the cello here. The sonority of the chords is much clearer, and despite the challenge in playing these arpeggiated chords (which sound rather capricious on the viola!), Aldemir can maintain a dance flow. He makes the melodic elements sing, to play out long notes without disrupting the flow. And without a need for adding “bells and whistles” (distractions) in the form of extra ornaments.
VIII. Double (3’41”)
Did I blame Joseph Szigeti for playing this Double (mostly) staccato? Well, I guess that not all staccati are equal! Atilla Aldemir predominantly uses a light and gentle spiccato. However, for one, this articulation suites the characteristics of the viola very well in this piece. And then, the artist keeps it flexible, applies agogics and differentiation, subtlety in dynamics and articulation. OK, even though the tempo is quite similar, the relationship to the Tempo di Borea seems quite distant…
Total Duration: 29’04”
Rating: 4 / 3 / 4 / 4 / 3 / 3 / 4 / 4 = 3.63
Comment: I obviously would not recommend this as the first (let alone only) recording of Bach’s “Sei Solo“. But if you already have one or several good recordings on the violin, and you would like to hear this music from a refreshingly different viewing (listening) angle, I can warmly recommend this one: you won’t regret the investment!
Tomás Cotik, 2019
Instrument: 2000 violin by Marc de Sterke (*1948), Emmendingen bei Freiburg / Germany; baroque bow.
I. Allemande (5’11”)
At the same tempo as Alina Ibragimova, the first two bars sound radically different. No, it’s not that Tomás Cotik uses a traditional approach, but where Ibragimova is very subtle, gentle, Cotik is very poignant, even strict, decisive. Long notes (typically dotted) are so short as to sound abrupt. I also find some of the upbeat notes too strong, too conspicuous (often stronger than the note that follows). It feels like an overly demonstrative, didactic (even rigid) approach that almost puts me off. And some of the few slurred cantilenas accelerate into an open crescendo.
More importantly, I feel very little, if any dance swaying (merely momentary, maybe). And there is barely any persistent rhythmic continuity that brackets, carries through the entire movement. The latter may be a consequence of slight tempo alterations that go along with the switches from “rigid” to slurred passages, and vice versa.
II. Double (2’07”)
Hmmm … a very fast performance—undoubtedly virtuosic and masterful in the execution. The artist has no issues mastering the tempo. However, that pace barely gives the user time enjoy and follow the details. Overall, it even feels a bit specious, “l’art pour l’art“, even though Tomás Cotik puts “spotlight” on motifs and notes that he wants to highlight. Moreover, the interpretation barely leaves traces of a musical relationship to the preceding Allemande. To me, Double (“doubling up”) implies at least a relationship of some kind. Ideally a relationship that the listener can sense, if not even comprehend.
III. Courante (2’42”)
Tomás Cotik’s performance is fast, though not at the very top of the scale. Still, it often does feel (too / very) fast. That’s not necessarily due to the overall tempo. Cotik’s very short/sharp staccato on secondary notes, associated with very strong agogic swaying in every bar often causes such secondary notes (in the center of the phrases) to feel rushed, if not slightly superficial. The artist’s tendency to accelerate towards a climax often makes things even worse. Still, Tomás Cotik makes every effort to make each bar, every phrase “speak”. Maybe this is a tad overdone? A little more calmness, and more subtlety in the detail might have helped…
IV. Double Presto (3’24”)
Agile, very fast, virtuosic. I can’t say that the performance feels rushed / excessively pushed: Tomás Cotik retains control. However, the tempo is still such that differentiation in dynamics, agogics and Klangrede fall through the cracks. And the clarity in articulation and sonority is starting to suffer at this pace. A little too fast?
V. Sarabande (2’41”)
The fastest Sarabande, together with Vito Paternoster’s cello version. From his research article on Bach’s “Sei Solo“ I assume that Tomás Cotik has studied most of the interpretations on this comparison. So, the decision for a fast interpretation must have been a very deliberate and conscious one. Some may claim that they don’t recognize much of a Sarabande in this. However, as with Vito Paternoster’s version, I’m willing to accept unusual, even slightly peculiar views.
Unfortunately, Cotik’s interpretation is ridden by several idiosyncrasies. These include accents that are predictably and conspicuously delayed into the note (a.k.a. “belly notes”). And I think that there are often too many accents in successive notes. Also, the rhythmic swaying is extreme, exaggerated to a degree which makes the motion stop between the phrases. This way, the movement lacks rhythmic (tempo) continuity—and calm. One may argue that the Sarabande has indeed once been a fast dance—however, Bach’s Partita needs and deserves an intermediate period of reflection, enjoyment and (some) calm—and I’m sure the composer has conceived it as such.
VI. Double (1’52”)
Clearly the fastest of the violin performances in this movement (for a faster performance on cello see Vito Paternoster). Thinking of the several subtle interpretations that I heard so far, I can’t resist the thought that somehow, this feels like a study. Not only does it feel rather loud (apart from the closing decrescendi), but it also has some air of superficiality. It is fast, if not relentless, and in the latter part it even accelerates, as if the artist wanted to “get done with it”. Still: technically excellent playing, using a light staccato throughout, clear in the articulation and in the rhythmic structuring.
VII. Tempo di Borea (2’54”)
Virtually the same timing as Isabelle Faust—however, Tomás Cotik fails to avoid rushed / pushed passages, and the lack of free rhythmic swaying, the irregular rhythmic flow defeats any dance feeling. Clean execution, sure—but often a bit “square” in the articulation…
VIII. Double (2’42”)
To me, the best movement in Tomás Cotik’s interpretation of this Partita. Virtuosic, technically excellent, detailed in articulation, dynamics. But does it really have to be that fast? A tad slower, and in exchange more agogics, some dance swaying would make this even better.
Total Duration: 23’33”
Rating: 2 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 4 = 3.0
Comment: Should I feel bad about criticizing this artist and giving mostly mid-range ratings? After all, he asked me for a review… however, I stick to my opinion that artists are better served by a sincere judgement, truthful to my findings. And keeping in mind that these are my personal views, of course.
Two more thoughts crossed my mind, though. Maybe Tomás Cotik’s interpretations are affected by too much “intellectual ballast”? And/or, the artist may occasionally try beating the others by pushing for a faster / the fastest tempo? I try (also) listening with my heart, and faster does not automatically imply better…
Augustin Hadelich, 2020
Instrument: 1744 violin “Leduc, ex-Szeryng” by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698 – 1744), Cremona; baroque bow by Rüdiger Pfau.
I. Allemande (5’21”)
Moving from slow to fast(er) interpretations, Augustin Hadelich is the first one faster than average—just about. The difference to the closest slower ones (Podger, Aldemir) seems almost negligible. But lo and behold this is the first one that “feels in crotchets” (in an Allemande in 4/4 time)! The crotchets are slow, of course, so there is limited “dance feeling”. At the same time, the focus on the crotchet base pace causes an occasional, very slight feeling of rush at the level of motifs (say, within crotchets or half-notes). I don’t think it hurts, but to me, it is an indication for the substantial, musical challenges in this movement!
In terms of articulation, phrasing, and dynamics, though, Augustin Hadelich is very detailed, diligent, careful. And even the vibrato is often hardly noticeable. Very, very few extra ornaments / alterations—hardly noticeable to the average listener.
II. Double (2’21”)
A harmonious, well-balanced approach! Augustin Hadelich takes the slurred semiquaver pairs with agility, very clean—yet not “aseptic” or neutral. He maintains an excellent equilibrium between flow, phrasing and articulation: exemplary! The interpretation is devoid of exaggerations and unnecessary show effects, particularly in the dynamics. The one prominent feature in the latter is that he takes back the volume at the beginning of each repeat, then doing a gradual crescendo up to the next double bar. Very simple, but effective in keeping the listener aware of the structure.
One should note that (at least at the pace of the faster performances) the Double is by no means as simple as it sounds. Some of the performances in this comparison (even slower ones) are clear indications for this. Not Augustin Hadelich’s, of course. His technique is outstanding, and there is no indication for technical challenges in his performance. Quite fittingly, he succeeds in “sneaking in” a little ornament in the second repeat, in bar 18. It feels natural and is inconspicuous. Certainly, another excellent interpretation!
In the last bar, Hadelich opens the volume towards the fermata (without much of a ritardando at all), in preparation for the Courante.
III. Courante (2’40”)
Truly excellent! Whatever I stated about Isabelle Faust’s performance could also be said about Augustin Hadelich’s interpretation. The two are very close in approach and tempo. Hadelich is maybe a little more polished than Faust’s. And as in the first Double, he starts repeats with a distinctly softer volume.
IV. Double Presto (3’06”)
In this movement, the most recent recording is also almost the very fastest. He is faster even than Isabelle Faust’s—and he is performing with a baroque bow! There is no doubt that in his generation Augustin Hadelich is among the very best, technically. I must say, though, that Hadelich does not beat Faust in terms of clarity and detail—at least not throughout the movement. There are moments when Hadelich’s appears to reach, maybe slightly exceed the technical (instrumental) limits. In some (rare) passages, the articulation starts to sound (slightly) noisy, making it hard for the listener to grasp every detail.
V. Sarabande (3’42”)
In my listening sequence from the slowest to the fastest performances, Augustin Hadelich’s (at position 12 out of 25) is the very first that feels fluent throughout. And it offers a persistent (though slow, measured) dance feeling. Beautiful, serene, peaceful, subtle (especially in the dynamics, but also in the extra ornaments), careful, selective vibrato. Heavenly, pure pleasure!
VI. Double (2’05”)
In the Double, Augustin Hadelich obviously decided not to try relating to the Sarabande via identical pace (♩= 3/8). That’s something only one artist (Alina Ibragimova) manages—and I think that effort is not worth the effort. Rather, Hadelich chose a tempo that suits the Double best. This turned out to be close to doubling the pace of the Sarabande (which would be ♩= 6/8, or 3/8 = 9/8, Vito Paternoster’s cello performance). The relation to the Sarabande may not be instantly intuitive to the listener. Hadelich presents this as one of Bach’s intellectual exercises / playgrounds—artful in its simplicity, relative to the richness of the parent movement.
Hadelich’s interpretation is masterful in its simplicity! He refrains from adding “whistles and bells”. Rather, he performs with a gentle, soft portato, subtle in dynamics and agogics. The repeats (both, of course) mirror the first passes in a very light and gentle staccato (spiccato, rather). There is one single, inconspicuous added little trill in the second repeat—more is not needed here. Lucid and luminous!
VII. Tempo di Borea (2’49”)
With his vast technical reserves, Augustin Hadelich manages the fastest performance of this movement without ever allowing for superficialities, let alone rushing and tempo inconsistencies. Yet, I feel that the fast tempo occasionally goes at the expense of some lightness, playfulness. Sure, the articulation is careful and detailed, the dynamics differentiated. And there is dance swaying, but at the end of the three minutes, one really feels a bit out of breath…
VIII. Double (3’09”)
Here, Augustin Hadelich is pushing the tempo slightly less than in the Tempo di Borea. I can’t resist putting that next to Isabelle Faust‘s interpretation. Both share virtually identical timing. Moreover, they also resemble each other strongly in their basic approach, their articulation, the amount of detail, the phrasing—simply excellent, congrats!
Total Duration: 25’12”
Rating: 4 / 5 / 5 / 4 / 5 / 5 / 4 / 5 = 4.63
Comment: There is no doubt in my mind that Augustin Hadelich is among today’s top violinists, both technically, as well as musically. Highly recommended!
I’m happy to note that the conclusions for the individual performances of the Partita No.1 in B minor, BWV 1002 are consistent / almost identical to those for the Sonata No.1 in G minor, BWV 1001, see my separate review. And again, the table above, combined with all my comments, should be self-explanatory.
Other Review Posts on J.S. Bach’s “Sei Solo“, BWV 1001 – 1006
- “Sei Solo“, Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo — Comparison Summary
- Sonata No.1 in G minor, BWV 1001
- Partita No.1 in B minor, BWV 1002 — This review
- Sonata No.2 in A minor, BWV 1003
- Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV 1004
- Sonata No.3 in C major, BWV 1005
- Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006
- Atilla Aldemir’s recording was offered by Ms. Barbara Hoppe (NO-TE e.U.).
- Tomás Cotik sent me his CD set with an invitation to review it.
The author would like to thank for these submissions. In fact, they motivated me (after years of pondering the idea), finally to tackle this major project in earnest.