Bach: “Sei Solo” — Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001

Media Review / Comparison


2021-08-28 — Original posting


Table of contents


Introduction — The Recordings

This posting is about the Sonata No.1 for Violin Solo in G minor, BWV 1001, which Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) published under the title “Sei Solo” (see the title page above). In this posting, I am comparing the over 25 recordings in my collection:

RecordingFirstNameLastNameBornDeathWikiWebPitch HzReviewSummary
2019AtillaAldemir1975
WikiWeba' = 433ReviewArtist, Media
2009KristófBaráti1979
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2011AmandineBeyer1974
WikiWeba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
2012ChristineBusch


Weba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
2018GiulianoCarmignola1951
Wiki
a' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
2019TomásCotik


Weba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2012IsabelleFaust1972
Wiki
a' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
1961ArthurGrumiaux19211986Wiki
a' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2020AugustinHadelich1984
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
1997MonicaHuggett1953
Wiki
a' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
2009AlinaIbragimova1985
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2009SergeyKhachatryan1985
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
1926FritzKreisler18751962Wiki
a' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
1980GidonKremer1947
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2002GidonKremer1947
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
1934YehudiMenuhin19161999Wiki
a' = 433ReviewArtist, Media
2008ViktoriaMullova1959
WikiWeba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
1995VitoPaternoster1957
WikiWeba' = 443ReviewArtist, Media
2011ThomasPietsch


Weba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
2018MikhailPochekin1990

Weba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
1999RachelPodger1968
WikiWeba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
1985JaapSchröder19252020Wiki
a' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
1967HenrykSzeryng19181988WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
1956JosephSzigeti18921973Wiki
a' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2005ChristianTetzlaff1966
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
1982ThomasZehetmair1961
Wiki
a' = 440ReviewArtist, 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.

Media Information

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 Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001

Within the “Sei Solo“, the three Sonatas for Violin Solo formally are baroque “church sonatas”, following a four-movement scheme slow — (fast) — slow — fast. In all three Sonatas, the second movement is a fugue, with the complexity growing towards the third sonata. I don’t need to give a detailed introduction to these pieces, as they are all well-known. However, you do find some additional information on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001 in two of my concert reviews:


The Movements

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. The facsimile of Bach’s manuscript (as well as of Anna Magdalena’s copy) can now be downloaded from IMSLP.

In lieu of explanations on the individual movements, I’m just including short excerpts from that document, showing the first 2 – 3 lines of each movement. Note that Bach writes G minor as G dorian mode, hence with a single ♭.

I. Adagio

Bach: Sei Solo, Sonata No.1 for Violin Solo in G minor, BWV 1001, I. Adagio, score sample
Bach: Sei Solo, Sonata No.1 for Violin Solo in G minor, BWV 1001, I. Adagio, score sample

II. Fuga: Allegro

Bach: Sei Solo, Sonata No.1 for Violin Solo in G minor, BWV 1001, II. Fuga: Allegro, score sample
Bach: Sei Solo, Sonata No.1 for Violin Solo in G minor, BWV 1001, II. Fuga: Allegro, score sample

III. Siciliana

Bach: Sei Solo, Sonata No.1 for Violin Solo in G minor, BWV 1001, III. Siciliana, score sample
Bach: Sei Solo, Sonata No.1 for Violin Solo in G minor, BWV 1001, III. Siciliana, score sample

Note that some printed scores and CD track listings don’t even get the title right, calling this a Siciliano!

IV. Presto

The last movement, Presto, is the only one featuring two parts, both with repeat signs (AA’BB’ scheme).

Bach: Sei Solo, Sonata No.1 for Violin Solo in G minor, BWV 1001, IV. Presto, score sample
Bach: Sei Solo, Sonata No.1 for Violin Solo in G minor, BWV 1001, IV. Presto, score sample

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.

Bach: Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001 — comparison table
Bach: Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001 — comparison table (© Rolf Kyburz)

I have not corrected the timings for trailing or leading blank time, with the one exception of the Gigue (last movement), where trailing blank time is subtracted. One should read the timings in the above table with a grain of salt.

Repeats

On the other hand, not all artists perform both repeats in the last movement. In the cases where the second repeat was omitted (Grumiaux, Szeryng, Baráti), 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 second part 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

In media comparisons, especially reviews involving a large number of recordings, I tend to use a relative scale covering the full range of (close to) ★ … ★★★★★, in order to achieve more differentiation among the many ratings. My rating criteria are similar to the ones in concert, such as

  • 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)?

Personal Views

My ratings also reflect how much a recording offers to me, particularly as a listener with interest in historically informed (HIP) performances. 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.

Audiophile?

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 (1926) to the most recent one (2020). Note: for the artist’s life data, Website and/or Wikipedia entries please see the first table above.

Procedure, Technical Aspects

I listen to all recordings in full, typically even more than once. Note that the sequence of recordings below is not the sequence in which I listen to them. I have written about my comparison approach in an early blog post. In essence:

  • I go though 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 chose 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.

Beethoven / Mendelssohn: Violin concertos, Kreisler, Blech, CD, cover

Fritz Kreisler, 1926

Mono recording

I. Adagio (4’14”)

Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962) uses a vibrato that is very dominant, constant in speed and intensity, across all note values. It’s not as quite as nervous as others, but still… And there are of course a few portamenti. However, the latter don’t irritate nearly as much as the often rather “mechanical”, metric “spelling” of the score. True, Kreisler’s interpretation is devoid of romantic rubato and “sweetness” (if we ignore the occasional portamento), the articulation very clear. Actually, if we compare this with recent HIP performances, the interpretation here sounds very dry, and completely lacking all Klangrede. There is also very little dynamic variation, apart from diminuendi at the end of phrases or on the last note.

Rating: 2.0

Comment: A historic document, no less, no more.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Yehudi Menuhin (CD cover)

Pitch: a’ = 433 Hz

I. Adagio (4’23”)

Definitely a recording out of our current time: an omnipresent, rather strong and nervous vibrato, forte playing almost throughout, i.e., very little dynamic differentiation. Moreover, Yehudi Menuhin (1916 – 1999) tends to play out / emphasize every single note, using a full, dense tone, a tight bow. Yes, hemidemisemiquavers appear as ornament, but bigger note values appear all played out, as melody. This makes it hard, if not impossible for the listener to follow the harmonic progression in the chords on the major beats.

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’12”)

Almost exactly the same tempo as Grumiaux. At pre-war times, Klangrede, was of course not in people’s mind. Hence, just as with Grumiaux (25 years later), one cannot expect what we now understand as “proper baroque style playing”. However, to a large degree, Menuhin avoids Grumiaux’ mechanical “sawing”. Even if the artist keeps to his romantic articulation throughout. Menuhin is far more differentiated in dynamics, his playing is much more elastic and expressive. Sadly, there’s his prominent, nervous vibrato, which (to me) makes it hard to enjoy much of this recording. It even sometimes obscures the intonation.

III. Siciliana (3’02”)

Not surprisingly, I find Menuhin’s constant, intense tone and romantic vibrato, his broad portato and the “constant emphasis” on virtually every tone rather off-putting.

Notation Ambiguity?

In this comparison, there are two recordings that differ in the second quaver triplet (second period in 12/8 time) in bar #4. Along with Gidon Kremer’s 1980 recording, Menuhin is the only one where the last quaver reads c”. For details see my comments on Gidon Kremer’s performance below.

IV. Presto (4’00”)

Menuhin’s performance anticipates much of that by Henryk Szeryng, especially in terms of articulation and (lack of) agogics, as well as differentiation in articiation. In view of today’s performances, this feels like undifferentiated, relentless “sawing”. Not much pleasure: rather obstinate, like a finger & bowing study. The one (slightly) positive aspect is in the little dynamic alterations, in that the repeats are slightly softer. Hardly noticeable, though.

Total Duration: 16’33”

Rating: 2 / 2 / 2 / 2 = 2.0

Comment: A historic document with little relevance to today’s performances, no more, no less.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Joseph Szigeti (CD cover)

Joseph Szigeti, 1956

I. Adagio (5’12”)

I’m afraid there isn’t much pleasure to draw from the interpretation by Joseph Szigeti (1892 – 1973). Yes, there Szigeti’s big, dense tone. As if the artist were to suck out every millisecond that the length of the bow has to offer. But that’s about it: the performance offers little in dynamics. There is maybe a slightly softer tone in echoing phrases, but virtually no differentiation within a phrase.

However, that’s the least of my concerns. The worst aspect is the tempo. It is infinitely slow, static, to the point where the underlying meter is unrecognizable. Not just that, but Szigeti crawls along the demisemiquaver lines, as if these weren’t ornaments, fioriture, but rather the main melody. The interpretation could barely be any further from how artists play this movement today.

Yes, there is the advice to check the smallest note values, and derive from these how fast you can play the piece. And Bach uses values down to semihemidemisemiquavers, occasionally even smaller. However, the idea can’t really be that one needs to play these all metrically correct and straight! Rather, these are meant to be “flowing transitions” between the main beats / chords. And the “main content” of the movement is not melodic, rather in the harmonic progression in the chords. After all, the movement is in common time (C, i.e., 4/4), not 16/16 or the like.

Expectedly, Szigeti uses a persistent vibrato. It is not nervous, but rather strong, heavy, and often obscuring the intonation.

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’52”)

All chords are stiff, emphasized through harsh and rough staccato. The few long notes are unnecessarily romantic, with nervous vibrato. And occasionally, the tempo appears to run away. On the other hand, the final 8 bars are excessively broadened, romanticized.

III. Siciliana (3’51”)

Exceedingly romantic, a heavily swaying vibrato, broad portato with occasional portamento, and expressive swelling on almost every note. Sure, in its way, the interpretation is careful, considerate, and the artist shapes an overall, big arch. However it still feels overloaded, at least in “local expression”.

IV. Presto (3’45”)

All I can hear & feel here is a fairly heartless technical study, devoid of differentiation in articulation and dynamics. I can’t even say that there’s much esthetics in the sound.

Total Duration: 18’38”

Rating: 1 / 1 / 2 / 2 = 1.5

Comment: One should not attribute the bad rating to the artist and his abilities. Rather, it clearly shows that Szigeti’s technique (rather, his physis) was already in decline when he recorded the “Sei Solo“.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Arthur Grumiaux (CD cover)

Arthur Grumiaux, 1961

Arthur Grumiaux consequently leaves out all second repeats.

I. Adagio (3’44*)

Among the historic interpretation, Arthur Grumiaux (1921 – 1986) profits from the most fluent (above average) tempo. This alone makes his interpretation less mechanical, more fluent / flowing. Grumiaux’ tone is dense, the vibrato of course permanent and persistent, somewhat fast (bordering on nervous, maybe). And the articulation is a broad portato (or legato, where Bach asks for it). What I appreciate, though, is the big breath, the distinct, broad dynamic arche. Even though the term Klangrede barely appears to have entered the artist’s mind. An interpretation that lives from the possibilities of the modern Tourte-style bow. Hence the persistently dense tone throughout all phrasing arches.

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’14”)

Grumiaux’ playing is mostly a broad portato, sometimes almost legato with little accents (“percussive legato“), there are virtually no agogics, nor much local detail / variation in articulation. The long stretches of mechanical forte playing, along with a constant slight push leave the feeling of slight restlessness, and even more so of careless, undifferentiated, even mechanical playing. Hard to believe that Grumiaux was playing from a manuscript copy!

I remember some recordings with baroque music on LP with this artist, where he performed strictly the printed text. Prior to the second linear semiquaver segment, segment, there are six bars with parallel quaver lines and an underlying drone (d’, mostly). All other artists perform this as arpeggiando waves, touching the drone tone with every wave. Grumiaux touches the drone tone once per half note, then mechanically “sawing” the parallels. I would almost call this appalling!

III. Siciliana (2’26”)

A fast and permanent vibrato, the fastest tempo, and dynamics that rarely appear to fall below f. A violinist who wants to present his great, singing tone. It’s really intense, but I miss the aspect of intimacy: too “big”. Sure, in the realm of traditional interpretations, this artful in its own way. However, in comparison, this feels inflated, overblown. Shouldn’t this be a resting point in the sonata?

IV. Presto (2’44”, second repeat not performed)

Not nearly as sturdy as Szeryng, much more elastic in the bowing / articulation. Still, very little agogics, each of the two parts in just one single, relentless move. A well-played technical study, not much more.

Total Duration: 14’08”

Rating: 3 / 2 / 3 / 3 = 2.75

Comment: In general, to listen to Bach’s “Sei Solo“, I would barely ever turn to any of the historic (say, pre-1980) recordings. But still, among these, this is the one that I probably appreciate the most.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Henryk Szeryng (CD cover)

Henryk Szeryng, 1967

Instrument: 1744 violin “Leduc” by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698 – 1744), Cremona.

Henryk Szeryng (1918 – 1988, see also Wikipedia) consequently leaves out all second repeats.

I. Adagio (4’44”)

Not quite as slow as Szigeti. However, the artist is at least not treating the small note values in a strictly metric fashion.There are certainly segments (e.g., the first bars) where Szeryng uses metric flexible / agogics to form rhythmic arches between the big chords. But then again, there are equally (many) moments when the chord progression (almost) moves out of sight, and the “ornament lines / chains” turn into melodic cantilenas. Sure, these are nice, and the music isn’t really boring.

However, Szeryng uses rather little dynamic differentiation, most of the movement is simply legato and forte. And the entire movement feels like the artist was trying to present the music as something big, huge. That goes at the expense of refinement and Klangrede in gestures and small phrases.

Compared to Szigeti, Szeryng’s vibrato is more harmonious, less obtrusive—but just as persistent, in virtually every note.

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’47”)

Szeryng’s interpretation is traditional—expectedly. Maybe it’s on the slow side (considering Allegro in 4/4 time), but certainly, intonation and articulation are clear and clean. Szeryng’s articulation in the fugue theme is a broad portato with a little accent on every note (percussive articulation), the arpeggio on chords very short, though not excessively hard. There isn’t much (if any) Klangrede, the agogics hardly noticeable. However, the artist is working with dynamics, e.g., for echo effects in appropriate places. Sadly, melody lines are filled with noticeable, rather nervous vibrato.

III. Siciliana (3’49”)

Same tempo as Joseph Szigeti (and Thomas Pietsch), and also with prominent vibrato virtually everywhere. Szeryng forms beautiful, long phrases through dynamics. However, not just the vibrato sounds excessive by now, but also the persistent, broad portato articulation.

IV. Presto (3’04”, second repeat not performed)

Broad, robust portato playing throughout (observing the slurs, of course). Little differentiation in dynamics, let alone articulation. No agogics to speak of, giving the impression of very metric playing (almost like following a metronome). This movement is more than a study. Yes, Szeryng does try marking the hidden melodic elements—but the interpretation still feels rather (too) sturdy.

Total Duration: 17’24”

Rating: 2 / 3 / 3 / 2 = 2.5

Comment: Although back in the LP days, this was my very first encounter with Bach’s “Sei Solo“, I can definitely not recommend this recording.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Gidon Kremer, 1980 (CD cover)

Gidon Kremer, 1980

For Gidon Kremer’s 2002 recording see below.

I. Adagio (4’23”)

With a duration exactly as Menuhin’s, Gidon Kremer (*1947, see also Wikipedia) is not the slowest. However, his playing certainly feels slow. There is persistent vibrato, of course, prominent, but at least not nervous, and with some differentiation. Kremer puts lots of emphasis on the 3- and 4-stop chords, often very percussive, if not slightly aggressive. Between these “erratic blocks”, the small note values a flowing in individual arches, though not strictly, but rather metrically. In a way, the chains of small notes form phrases / arches through carefully crafted dynamics. They may occasionally link subsequent chords, but fail to let the chords form a harmonic progression / sequence.

II. Fuga: Allegro (4’26”)

This is the earliest one among the four “fast(er)” performances. The others are Isabelle Faust, Tomás Cotik, and the most recent one, Augustin Hadelich.

Already the opening fugue theme sets this apart from all others, including Kremer’s second recording. Here, Kremer uses a broad, but soft portato, starting every note with a percussive little accent. Together with his expressive (not nervous, though) vibrato, this creates an electrifying effect, full of tension. Kremer appears to strive for maximum expression, deliberately broadening key chords, which he executes almost crashingly by touching all strings almost simultaneously.

Then, there’s the passage preceding the second semiquaver segment, with the parallel thirds and sixths on the upper strings above a drone on the empty d’ string. Some artists resort to arpeggiando, others touch the drone just once every half note. Kremer manages this by playing the parallels “straight” on the upper strings, yet touching the drone on the d’ string with every note.

Downsides of this recording? Well, some of it may feel a bit “over the top”. Not just the excessive expression in the polyphonic parts, but also some fairly strong alterations in the pace (passages with decidedly faster tempo). On top of that, there are passages where the artist appears to get carried away, falling into accelerations. The performance is never superficial, though.

III. Siciliana (3’04”)

As mentioned with Kremer’s 2002 recording, the Siciliana track remained the same over 22 years. Yet, the recordings are quite different. For one, the tone in this older recording is more “covered”, a little dull. I attribute this to the recording technique, though.

There are of course also differences in the interpretation. Besides agogics, there are extra, local accelerations (e.g., in bar #2) that feel “spontaneous”, maybe a little arbitrary. And the vibrato is more prominent here. Overall, I sense that this recording can’t compete with the newer one in terms of stringency, in overall coherence. Despite obvious similarities in the general approach.

Notation Ambiguity?

In this comparison, there are two recordings that differ in the second quaver triplet (second period in 12/8 time) in bar #4. Here, the top voice in newer prints and in Bach’s, as well as Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript (see above) reads d”-c”-d”-e♭”-d”. Gidon Kremer’s 1980 recording, along with Yehudi Menuhin’s 1936 recording, is the only one where the above sequence reads d”-c”-d”-e♭”-c”. To do justice to these artists, one should note, though, that older prints have c”, too. And indeed, this is one of very few instances where Bach’s handwriting (not so his wife’s!) is a little ambiguous (see line 2 in the score sample above). The d” line is slightly above the midpoint of the quaver head. However, it pays to cross-check this with Anna Magdalena’s handwriting.

IV. Presto (3’15”)

Radically relentless and fast (beaten here only by Augustin Hadelich). It does not feel exceedingly pushed / rushed. The listener feels a little out of breath after this, though. And I must say, the articulation isn’t always careful down to the “bottom end”. The artist pushed the tempo to the point where the performance starts to sound gross. There are even occasional / intermittent superficialities in the intonation.

Total Duration: 15’08”

Rating: 2 / 4 / 4 / 3 = 3.25

Comment: Good, but Kremer’s 2002 recording is definitely preferable.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Thomas Zehetmair (CD cover)

Thomas Zehetmair, 1982

I. Adagio (3’15”)

From the timing, Thomas Zehetmair (*1961) offers clearly the shortest / fastest interpretation. It doesn’t necessarily feel that way. There is no actual rushing through the score. What I can say, however, is that Zehetmair’s agogics, the agogic swaying (if not rubato) is the most extreme in all of the recordings in this comparison. There are no belly notes, but the dynamics in the phrasing is as extreme as the agogics.

And the artist is fairly liberal in the articulation. Just one example: Bach puts most small notes under (legato) slurs. At the beginning of bar #10 there is an ascending sequence of tree demisemiquavers (g’ – b♭’ – d”). Zehetmair plays these in a rapid, “sporty”, accelerating staccato (almost spiccato!). Bach would probably have used staccato dots if this had been the idea. Also other demisemiquaver (and shorter) motifs (many of the fast note passages in general) feature extreme acceleration, often supported by dynamic swelling.

A gutsy interpretation—slightly over the top, maybe. Zehetmair was 21 at the time of the recording. The character of the performance made me think of the artist’s interpretation of the 6 Sonatas for Solo Violin, op.27 by Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931).

Zehetmair uses a relatively fast and prominent vibrato. However, it is selective and consciously placed, hence does not irritate.

II. Fuga: Allegro (4’47”)

1982 was still the early days of the HIP movement. At that time, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 – 2016), one of its pioneers and key exponents, was often close to sounding patronizing, overly demonstrative in highlighting Klangrede, HIP dynamics and articulation, etc. The same thing seems to happen here. Thomas Zehermair’s agogics, his articulation, his dynamics in motifs and phrases all appear exaggerated, if not at times extreme. Occasionally, his broadening of accents goes as far as to “swallow” small note values. Also his tempo variations often go way beyond agogics, into the domain of tempo rubato, up to explosive outbreaks.

Of course, Zehetmair’s technical mastership is out of question. And one thing is certain: this interpretation never is boring. Despite the exaggerations, the performance does not feel like a caricature. One can sense Zehetmair’s genuine and sincere effort to bring this music to life. Note that at the time of the recording, the artist was just 21.

III. Siciliana (2’36”)

The most striking feature in this interpretation is the contrast between the melody line and the chordic interjections. The melody is presented in the first bar. The beginning consists of an ascending, punctuated B♭ major triad, followed by a legato descent back to B♭. That is a kind of idée fixe throughout the movement. The continuation of that melody consists of isolated notes only, soft and with light articulation. In Thomas Zehetmair’s interpretation, that voice is a constant, subtle, gently begging plea: heart-warming, indeed!

The chordic “interjections” are responses in the other voices & strings. They are broader in the articulation, f, shining, often with pressing intensity. A beautiful and serene dialog, forming an intense, close interaction. And the entire movement forms a single, broad dramatic arch. The tempo is one of the fastest in this comparison. However, the artist manages to make this feel absolutely natural. And the ending is calm, so peaceful.

IV. Presto (3’27”)

I’m listening to this after Gidon Kremer’s 2002 recording. The tempo is very close, and Zehetmair is technically excellent, the interpretation very lively, with lots of “local talking / variation / differentiation”. However, over the course of the movement, not every phrase is getting the same amount of attention and care in the articulation

Total Duration: 14’02”

Rating: 4 / 4 / 5 / 4 = 4.25

Comment: Recommended, close to the very top performances.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Jaap Schröder (CD cover)

Jaap Schröder, 1985

Instrument: Dutch baroque violin; baroque bow. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz

I. Adagio (3’25”)

Jaap Schröder (1925 – 2020) offers an interpretation that feels harmonious in the scarce, selective use of vibrato, in phrasing and articulation. Certainly, this is one of the better HIP performances. It is among the fastest in this comparison, though. Probably in an attempt to realize Adagio in the 4/4 (C) meter, the phrasing on the small notes yields a certain restlessness. An ever-so-slight feeling of being pushed / pulled…

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’50”)

Jaap Schröder’s articulation is light, often gentle, and it largely avoids roughness in chords. Needless to say that I’m pleased to note that Jaap Schröder plays without vibrato. It does sound, though, as if the variations in bow pressure in polyphonic passages (chords alongside melody notes) affect the cleanliness in the intonation. And there is no vibrato to obscure or hide such issues!

III. Siciliana (3’00”)

Although the timing is almost identical to Rachel Podger‘s, Jaap Schröder’s performance feels more fluent. It definitely has more focus on the overall development and arch. Also, the dynamics are more subtle, support the overall, big phrase. Not an interpretation that tries making something “big” out of this intimate movement—rather subtle, and with harmonious rhythmic swaying. An artist who puts himself into the service of the music.

IV. Presto (4’01”)

Jaap Schröder’s tempo is virtually the same as Henryk Szeryng‘s—yet, the interpretation sounds so much lighter, more lively, more differentiated. And it’s fun to listen to Bach’s rhythmic switching between 2×3 and 3×2 semiquaver bars!

Total Duration: 16’15”

Rating: 4 / 3 / 4 / 4 = 3.75

Comment: By all means a valid and valuable HIP performance from one of the pioneers of historically informed playing on the violin.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Vito Paternoster, cello (CD cover)

Vito Paternoster, 1995 (Cello, C minor)

Instrument: 1792 cello by Lorenzo Carcassi (1737 – 1775), Florence. Pitch: a’ = 443 Hz

Expectation: By intuition, one would expect the cello to be even heavier than the viola in character, agility, and response. Some of this is certainly true, and the dark, full-bodied sound often dominates the performance. However, relative to the viola, there are substantial differences other than just the octave in pitch. For one, the cellist can use his left-hand thumb to help covering large stretches. Also, the cello can easily cover the viola’s “singing register” through playing in higher positions. And the “reversed orientation”, the more comfortable / natural position of the cellist’s right arm offer the potential for agility that at least matches that of the viola.

I. Adagio (4’05”)

Vito Paternoster (*1957, see also Wikipedia) chooses virtually the same tempo as Atilla Aldemir, and he makes one forget the heavier nature of the instrument. In fact, this is a true HIP performance, in that Paternoster uses very light articulation throughout, discharging notes, Klangrede not just in phrases, but down to figures. The dynamics are lively and detailed, differentiated down to motifs. In attitude and agility, Paternoster’s performance often reminds of baroque viola da gamba playing, and as viol players, the artist often adds extra, “curly”, “viola da gamba style” ornaments at appropriate points, such as longer transition notes.

I also find Paternoster’s distinct, “speaking” agogics remarkable. Every phrase (i.e., typically every bar) appears to go through a swaying motion. An interesting, exciting interpretation, indeed! If one wanted to look for the “hair in the soup”, one could argue that other interpretations fare better at putting the movement under fewer, bigger arches. However, the fascination of hearing this music on the cello prevails. At least in this movement, I did not note any simplifications. If there were any (I don’t have access to the score of cello transcription), they are more than compensated by Paternoster’s extra ornaments.

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’47”)

Hmmm … where Atilla Aldemir‘s viola performances may be hinting at intonation issues from technical limitations, here, these are often rather obvious. Overall, Paternoster doesn’t quite reach the performance level of the Adagio. Arpeggi on the cello take their time, as the artist does not try using as much pressure as to sound 3 or 4 strings simultaneously. Rather, he performs far-spreading chords more sequential. With this, polyphonic passages often sound somewhat strained. As occasionally does the intonation.

It also seems that the instrument isn’t as good as the viola at keeping voices on the C and G strings separate from the higher ones. As in the Adagio, Vito Paternoster uses distinct, lively agogics to let the music “speak”. In polyphonic passages, though, the agogics are defeated by the somewhat strained execution of the arpeggiated chords. Another quibble: in the intermittent semiquaver passages, it feels as if the artist was let off the leash. And he tends to accelerate noticeably. This negatively affects the coherence of the movement.

III. Siciliana (2’46”)

A challenge on the cello! Not technically, but musically. Paternoster may have tried compensating the very dark sonority, brightening up the performance by using very light articulation. However, to some degree, that breaks down cantilenas / melodies, and it fragments the movement, the flow. Often, the result is somewhat short-winded. Of course, the interpretation remains in the realm of proper HIP. This includes the extra baroque ornaments, such as inverted mordents and short trills. However, I feel that these ornaments are a little too predictable. If one “knows ahead” when / where they will appear, that defeats some of their purpose.

IV. Presto (3’30”)

The thought to compare this with Atilla Aldemir’ viola recording is self-evident. And indeed, the two performances bear similarities. Both artists are technically astounding. Both offer viable HIP performances, and both instruments can’t play out their full strength, i.e., their warm sonority.

Apart from the difference in pitch (an octave), how do the two performances (or the recordings, respectively) compare? I feel that the cello recording has a slight advantage in terms of articulation noise (which is a little less prominent). Both artists offer similar amounts of detail in articulation, dynamics, agogics. However, Vito Paternoster chose a noticeably faster tempo. He performs at the technical limits, to the point where his performance occasionally (momentarily, particularly in slurred figures) sounds a tad superficial. And the performance overall feels restless, leaving the listener out of breath, and unable to follow the music in the last detail.

Total Duration: 16’07”

Rating: 4 / 3 / 3 / 3 = 3.25

Comment: Among the two recordings with alternative / non-standard instruments, I have a slight preference for the one with Atilla Aldemir on the viola.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Monica Huggett (CD cover)

Monica Huggett, 1997

Instrument: 1618 violin by Antonius & Hieronymus Amati, i.e., Antonio Amati (1540 – 1607) and Girolamo Amati (1561 – 1730), Cremona. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz

I. Adagio (4’11”)

Monica Huggett (*1953) starts with a peculiarity. Traditional interpretations open the movement with a strong arpeggio accent probably first holding g-d’ for a moment, then moving over momentary d’-b’♭, to b♭’-g”, which is then held for the remaining duration of the crotchet. Here, however, the artist plays a gently swelling g, then quickly moves on to d’, b♭’, and g” in sequence, never really sounding two strings together. Few artists approach the first arpeggio this way. Here, only Giuliano Carmignola goes that far in breaking up the opening arpeggio, all others play at least one two-stop interval.

It’s a gentle interpretation, in general. Monica Huggett uses a subtle vibrato, especially on longer notes, often swelling and fading, and also often supported by similar dynamics. Overall, this results in a tendency towards “belly notes”. A little too prominent, in my opinion. Sadly, once I noticed this, I found it hard to ignore!

On the other hand, there is of course Klangrede down to small figures and motifs. Unfortunately, the belly notes tend to make the articulation sound exaggerated, at times.

Following Bach’s Notation

Interesting: along with Alina Ibragimova and Isabelle Faust, Monica Huggett seems to be one of just three artists in this comparison playing the e’ on the third beat in bar #3 (see the beginning of the second line in the manuscript sample above, or in the score pages in the header gallery) as written. All (23) others play e♭’. For detail see the comments on Alina Ibragimova’s recording below.

II. Fuga: Allegro (6’49”)

I don’t claim that playing this fugue is easy. However, I don’t need a demonstration showing how difficult it is. Monica Huggett’s base tempo is Allegro only if one thinks 8/8, not 4/4 (C). On top of that, every arpeggiated chord is holding up the flow, as if the instrument painfully needed to choke out the multi-stop chord. The music is fluent only in pure semiquaver segments—relatively, in a framework of strong agogics.

III. Siciliana (3’29”)

Monica Huggett carefully executes all slurs, including the one between notes 2 & 3 in the top voice. That latter is often omitted, hardly visible in the manuscript (and forgotten in Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy). However, why did the artist decide to use staccato articulation for all but the slurred notes? Despite careful articulation otherwise, swaying agogics, that frequent staccato makes the movement feel static. And the predictable “belly dynamics” also don’t help creating a feeling of musical flow.

IV. Presto (4’20”)

Very careful in articulation and dynamics. However, with all the attention to detail, the big lines, as well as the hidden melodies (often the first semiquaver in every second bar) are getting lost. Yes, the movement is Presto in 3/8 time—however, the notation undeniably suggest reading full bars (even groups of two bars). Hence, this interpretation lacks the Presto feeling, unless one “reads” it in semiquavers. And it’s not 6/16 time!

Total Duration: 18’48”

Rating: 3 / 1 / 3 / 3 = 2.5

Comment: Unfortunately, this falls short against most other HIP performances.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Rachel Podger (CD cover)

Rachel Podger, 1999

Instrument: 1739 “re-baroqued” violin by Pesarinius, Genoa; baroque bow. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz

I. Adagio (3’43”)

The first movement is a real challenge. Not technically, but musically. On the one hand, the lines are filled with small and smallest note values. Yet, one must observe the annotation Adagio (calm)! On the other hand, the time signature is 4/4 (C, whole time). Many of the quarters are marked with an (arpeggio) chord. Ideally, the listener should be able to follow the harmonic progression in these chords, i.e., “feel” the underlying 4/4 meter.

One can see the challenge in the interpretation by Rachel Podger (*1968, see also Wikipedia). She carefully “spells out” the written-out ornamentation, but at the same time wants to keep the music flowing, only allowing herself resting points at the two fermatas. This leads to a certain restlessness, where one sometimes feels pushed, or dragged along. The artist’s distinct tendency towards “belly notes” only increases this unrest. I really miss the use of agogics to let the music breathe across the smaller phrases (e.g., within a quarter note).

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’39”)

I like that second movement much more than the first one. Rachel Podger articulates carefully and does phrasing using differentiated dynamics. Unlike in the Adagio, there is little, if any “pushing”. At most, there is a certain (deliberate) relentlessness in the fugato parts. One may wish for a performance with more agogics, though. Predominantly, one finds those in the linear semiquaver segments. These are also the most expressive parts, with lively dynamics.

Despite baroque bow and gut strings, Rachel Podger successfully manages to avoid scratching noises in chords / polyphony. Her instrument exhibits beautiful, radiant, smooth and clean sonority.

III. Siciliana (3’03”)

Beautiful, dark sonority on the g string, shining sound on the upper strings. Careful and conscious articulation. Still, this interpretation leaves me slightly dissatisfied. For one, there is this uniform emphasis of “local climaxes” in just about every phrase, using “belly dynamics” over the key 2 – 3 notes (often also on single notes on the g string). Some of these “highlights” feel overly demonstrative, somewhat exaggerated. And this ends up as a constant (and relatively uniform) dialog of emphasized notes on the g string and emphasized motifs on the upper strings. On the whole, one does not feel much of an overall evolution or arch.

IV. Presto (3’51”)

One in a group of three HIP recordings (together with Christine Busch and Giuliano Carmignola) that are fairly close to each other, in terms of tempo and general approach (articulation, dynamics, agogics, etc.). Looking for a unique feature—”Rachel Podger’s signature”, so to say? The extra inverted mordent in bar 8 of the second part (second instance)…

Total Duration: 16’16”

Rating: 3 / 4 / 3 / 4 = 3.5

Comment: I like Rachel Podger’s fast movements more than her slow ones. Good, but not my preferred HIP performance / recording.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Gidon Kremer, 2001 (CD cover)

Gidon Kremer, 2002

Instrument: 1730 violin “ex-David” by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698 – 1744), Cremona. For Kremer’s 1980 recording see above.

I. Adagio (4’06”)

In his second recording, Gidon Kremer (*1947, see also Wikipedia) has softened the contrasts. The tempo is distinctly more flowing, and the garlands of small notes now appear like a continuation of (i.e., being attached to) the preceding chord, forming one single phrase. The movement forms much more of a closed entity, one can sense and follow the harmonic progression between the arpeggiated chords. Also in the use of vibrato, Kremer now is not only far more moderate, but also selective. He often plays entire sequences, or parts of a phrase with virtually no vibrato.

II. Fuga: Allegro (4’50”)

Overall just very slightly faster than Viktoria Mullova. Still: so entirely different in his approach! In reality, the actual base tempo is distinctly higher, though. The faster pace is mostly compensated by the extra time that Kremer allows for highlights in his expressively broadened chord accents. Highly expressive in general, in dynamics and agogics. Strong contrasts between arpeggiated accents (often almost explosive) with grippy tone (even earthy on the G string) on the one hand, and the smoother flow in the semiquaver passages. The latter are restrained in dynamics, but are expressive nevertheless, never dropping the tension.

It’s masterful how Kremer manages to shape and articulate the fugue theme on one string while performing his explosive chords. The latter often feature just a minute arpeggio (often downwards). Just as often, Kremer manages to touch three or four chords simultaneously—without sounding brutal. Gripping, for sure!

III. Siciliana (3’04”)

Gentle in the articulation, careful in phrasing, while giving the top notes on the e” string a radiant shine. Swaying agogics, big arches, and a harmonious dialog / exchange between the lower & upper strings. Excellent at keeping the entire piece under one big arch: masterful! Interestingly, after 22 years, the track duration is exactly the same as in the 1980 recording.

IV. Presto (3’30”)

Virtuosic and fast, to the point where all of the notes are still audible, but not all of them can be articulated with the same care. Some of the spiccato tones start to sound rather rough. Emotion clearly has higher priority here than cleanliness in articulation. Still a really excellent interpretation.

Total Duration: 15’31”

Rating: 4 / 5 / 5 / 4 = 4.5

Comment: I’m not sure whether Kremer used a baroque bow and/or gut strings here. However, to me, this is still one of the best historically informed performances.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Christian Tetzlaff (CD cover)

Christian Tetzlaff, 2005

Instrument: 2002 violin by Stefan-Peter Greiner (*1966), Bonn.

I. Adagio (3’51”)

Listening to the performance by Christian Tetzlaff (*1966) after Kristóf Baráti: in his 2005 recording, Tetzlaff is still very close to a conventional / traditional interpretation. Yet, he offers far more dynamic differentiation, agogics, detailed articulation and “rethoric” phrasing. Yes, the vibrato is sometimes spread rather (too) evenly, the details maybe a little too polished?

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’11”)

A few thoughts on this performance. Already in the first bars, Tetzlaff’s soft, over-cautious articulation (feeling like a “flying bow”) is surprising—and somewhat odd. To me, it creates the impression of slight superficiality. Or maybe fear of excess attack, of engaging excessively? Is this maybe the “antithesis” to harsh, traditional performances? It’s almost as if the artist was “flying over the notes”. The tempo is only slightly above average. No reason to rush. And yet, I sense a constant danger of the tempo running away. The articulation in the fugue theme may contribute to this.

In the polyphonic segments, Tetzlaff performs all 3- and 4-stop chords as slightly broad, “round” arpeggio. Maybe a little too uniform across the fugue? Again, Tetzlaff may have intended to avoid the “crushing” 3- and 4-stop chords in older interpretations? From today’s view, the performance is maybe a little too smooth overall.

III. Siciliana (3’16”)

Nice, harmonious, and warm sonority. Careful in the articulation, dynamics, the agogic swaying, the phrasing arches. Just too much “vibrato sauce” everywhere.

IV. Presto (3’17”)

Highly differentiated dynamic shaping of the phrases. Tetzlaff doesn’t work much with variation in articulation (“local language”, Klangrede), or with agogics in this movement, except for occasional broadenings of a key tone, on the g’ string. Virtuosic, clear in the articulation, despite the past pace, clear also in the highlighting of hidden melodic elements (often sequences of bottom notes on the g’ string).

The one quibble I have is with the intonation. I can’t really say that Christian Tetzlaff’s intonation is “off” (it may even be consistent throughout the movement). But still, to me it feels very slightly tinted (too much equal temperament?)—in a way that causes a hint of discomfort. Maybe it’s just my personal taste? One should keep in mind that a violinist has the liberty (& the chance) to play pure, pythagorean intervals (thirds, fourths, fifths), half tones with more or less lead tone character, etc., as (s)he sees fit.

Total Duration: 15’35”

Rating: 4 / 4 / 3 / 4 = 3.75

Comment: Solid, technically superb, careful—a good non-HIP interpretation, with some idiosyncrasies. Can’t quite reach the top performances, though—especially the historically informed bunch.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Viktoria Mullova (CD cover)

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. Adagio (3’35”)

Listening to Viktoria Mullova (*1959, see also Wikipedia) after Rachel Podger. At virtually the same tempo, this is so much more relaxed, with harmoniously breathing phrases by subtle use of agogics. Viktoria Mullova is careful in the articulation and dynamics, and in the (scarce & selective) use of vibrato: a joy to listen to! An excellent balance between “formulating out” the small notes, yet keeping an eye over the large-scale harmonic progression. One of the faster interpretations. However, it absolutely does not feel that way!

II. Fuga: Allegro (4’59”)

An excellent, masterful interpretation! At a fluent tempo, Viktoria Mullova keeps the Allegro feeling, maintains the flow without ever rushing, retaining all details in the notation. Grand gestures, detailed and rich in articulation, dynamics and agogics. A gripping, expressive tone, beautiful sonority, never feeling excessively polished. What an instrument—a true marvel!

III. Siciliana (2’43”)

An interpretation in one single, big breath! The pace is relatively fluent. However, this fits the character of a Siciliana, which really has its origin in a baroque dance. And Viktoria Mullova avoids any feel of rushing. She retains the serenity of this music, and she can really play out the beauty of the melodic lines. This swaying, the flow, the subtle, harmonious dynamics, the careful articulation—simply masterful!

IV. Presto (3’32”)

Also here, the artist chose a relatively fluent pace—justified by the Presto annotation. I’m comparing this to the nearest contestant, Amandine Beyer. The overall timing / tempo is virtually identical between the two. However, the focus, the approach to differentiation is not the same. Amandine Beyer uses more / stronger agogics, more “local talking” through articulation, while Viktoria Mullova works more with dynamics and larger scale articulation changes to make the music talk in big phrases. Both are valid & truly excellent approaches.

Total Duration: 14’48”

Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 5.0

Comment: One of my favorite recordings, strongly recommended!


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Kristóf Baráti (CD cover)

Kristóf Baráti, 2009

Instrument: 1703 violin “Lady Harmsworth” by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona.

Kristóf Baráti (*1979, see also Wikipedia) consequently leaves out all second repeats.

I. Adagio (3’53”)

This recording proves my previous notion of Baráti being a sound esthete with a perfect tone. Yes, perfect execution—but what else? I can’t complain that the vibrato is obtrusive. It is harmonious, “natural”. However, it also is omnipresent, persistent, too regular, lacking differentiation. There is barely any Klangrede: the tempo is inconspicuous, almost devoid of agogics, the small note passages between the chords far too regular and metric. The same applies to dynamics. Yes, it may be technically perfect. However, it is also conventional. And bordering on being boring, at least for those who appreciate the rich world of HIP performances.

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’28”)

Also here: perfection in execution and sound esthetics. Baráti does use differentiated dynamics, his tone is impeccable. He even manages to play most 3- and 4-stop chords with virtually no arpeggio. And yet, there is no scratching noise, nor substantial distortion in the intonation. Again, the concept of Klangrede seems almost absent here, in one of the technically most perfect performances. With this, I can’t say that I find the performance gripping. Certainly not in comparison. Technical perfection along does not touch me as a listener. And why should one use vibrato in polyphonic passages?

III. Siciliana (3’04”)

Instrumentally perfect, as expected, intense in the tone (intense vibrato, too!). However, (luckily) the articulation is lighter than with some of the “big”, traditional interpretations. There is an inconspicuous, slight and gradual tempo increase towards the climax. Thereafter, the performance returns to the initial tempo. The articulation is careful, if not perfect, controlled. And there is some differentiation in the dynamics. However, I miss the subtle, intimate moments from other interpretations. Too perfect, too polished, lacking warmth?

IV. Presto (2’39”, second repeat not performed)

A polished, technically perfect study, no less, no more.

Total Duration: 15’05”

Rating: 3 / 3 / 3 / 3 = 3.0

Comment: One of the technically most perfect among the traditional interpretations. Too bad that the idea of Klangrede and other insights from performances on historic instruments haven’t entered the artist’s mind!


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Alina Ibragimova (CD cover)

Alina Ibragimova, 2009

Instrument: 1738 violin by Pietro Guarneri (1695 – 1762), Venice.

One, minor reservation I have about this recording is that its volume setting is rather low. It is distinctly lower than all others. Wherever switching to or from this recording, I find myself changing the volume setting on my equipment.

I. Adagio (4’33”)

Another one of the “slow” approaches, not too far in the tempo from Szeryng, and also close to Augustin Hadelich‘s approach in terms of phrasing and general dynamics. However, 11 years prior to the latter, Alina Ibragimova (*1985, see also Wikipedia) is vastly more radical in her HIP approach, using essentially no vibrato at all.

Some may see her playing as “raw”, maybe “too simple”. However, I think there is much more to it: first and foremost, I’m convinced that vibrato-less playing was largely the reality at Bach’s time. In some places violinists may have applied vibrato at the time. However, if so, it is unlikely that vibrato was applied in continuous fashion, as it became customary in the first half of the last century. More likely, it was seen as a means to highlight specific notes. I do think, though, that Alina Ibragimova’s approach (essentially no vibrato at all) is “closer to HIP reality” than persistent vibrating.

One should note that playing without vibrato isn’t easier. Quite to the contrary! Vibrato in moderate form obscures / hides minor intonation impurities. The absence of vibrato reveals the slightest impurity in intonation, in chords and intervals. I must say: I’m in total awe of the artist’s “guts” to confront the audience with “vibrato-less reality”. Even more so, I admire her ability to maintain perfect intonation throughout her interpretation.

Raw?

The terms “raw” and “simple” above just refer to the absence of vibrato. In fact, Alina Ibragimova applies utmost subtlety to phrasing, agogics, and dynamics. Her articulation is careful at all times, she avoids buzzing sounds, and “rough” tones from bowing, etc. Every phrase is “talking”, and the distinction between ornamented transition and the melodic / harmonic framework remains clear at all times.

Revealing a False Relation — or a Bach Typo?

Interesting: Along with Monica Huggett and Isabelle Faust, Alina Ibragimova seems to be one of just three artists who plays the e’ on the third beat in bar #3 as written. All (23) others play e♭’.

Bach’s handwriting (as well as Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy) shows e’. One might argue that this conflicts with the preceding e♭” in the second quarter (third note) of the same bar, see the beginning of the second line in the manuscript sample above, or in the score pages in the header gallery. This e’ even creates a false relation (cross-relation, non-harmonic relation, Querstand) with the subsequent e♭” demisemiquaver in the same quarter. An error by the composer? Wouldn’t Bach have noted at least when looking over his wife’s copy? True, the published versions have e♭’, and it’s only a quaver. However, it’s one that stands out! Upon consideration, I’m now convinced that Bach placed this e’ deliberately / on purpose.

At first (in Monica Huggett’s recording), I ignored the deviation (“a minor mishap that artist and recording team didn’t find worth correcting??”). However, with the clarity and purity of Alina Ibragimova’s performance, this “false (actually: correct!) note” really could not be overlooked, so I started investigating carefully! It’s remarkable that here, so many artists simply ignore Bach’s notation. Many of these explicitly state that they play from the manuscript “because this avoids editing artifacts and additions / alterations”!

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’05”)

Flawless in the intonation—yet devoid of any vibrato! Alina Ibragimova is very detailed and careful in her dynamics (a few “accidental outbursts” in unexpected moments are not irritating at all. Quite to the contrary! They give the impression of spontaneity. And there is nothing machine-like in this performance. Ibragimova uses rich, but never excessive agogics. Interestingly, the artist sets highlights not primarily though accents or by adding momentary vibrato. Rather, she subtly broadens such notes, maybe adds a slight swelling. Overall, the fugue may well be an “intellectual genre”. However, this performance is anything but “heady”. It retains plenty of spontaneous elements.

III. Siciliana (3’30”)

See the opening Adagio above. Of course, the intonation is again impeccable. Peace, serenity and simplicity. My only quibble: the dynamic swelling in most phrases (“belly phrasing”) is a bit too predictable.

IV. Presto (3’24”)

At a very fast pace (Presto, really), Alina Ibragimova manages to remain careful and detailed in the articulation, while diligently shaping the dynamics, maintaining the flow. Upon launching the movement, she is a tad faster than at the beginning of the second part. I assume this is deliberate (and not from the combination of different takes)—it actually fits the idea of “digging a bit deeper” after the double bar. There’s actually more to the artist’s tempo management: she uses subtle tempo alterations that go along with the dramaturgy in her phrasing.

Total Duration: 16’33”

Rating: 4 / 4 / 4 / 5 = 4.25

Comment: Alina Ibragimova is an artist not only with excellent technical and musical skills, but also consequent in her HIP approach—one of the most consequent, if not radical in this comparison. Highly recommended.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Sergey Khachatryan (CD cover)

Sergey Khachatryan, 2009

Instrument: 1702 violinLord Newlands” by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona.

I. Adagio (4’05”)

Frankly, upon listening to this movement, I felt that this purchase was a mistake & disappointment. The Adagio tells me that Sergey Khachatryan (*1985, see also Wikipedia) uses esthetics that live in the realm of the big artists from the middle of last century, such as Jascha Haifetz (1901 – 1987), David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974), and others. These are artists with highest merits, people that I admire. However, not for Bach’s “Sei Solo“, obviously. And certainly not in the 21st century, at a time when HIP performances prevail. Concrete: Khachatryan uses a nervous, prominent and constant vibrato, just about everywhere, and without much differentiation. And where occasionally there is little vibrato there is a tendency towards belly notes, sometimes even Nachdrücken. Not much joy, frankly.

II. Fuga: Allegro (6’23”)

The second-slowest fugue, after Monica Huggett. The flow here is much, much better. If only there wasn’t that obnoxious vibrato on every single quaver (and longer notes, of course). I wouldn’t even call this vibrato. It’s rather a rapid, nervous trembling that completely distracts from the fugue structure and texture. Still not much joy.

III. Siciliana (3’21”)

Sadly, Khachatryan’s nervous, permanent and very prominent and permanent vibrato “shakes the pleasure” from this music. To me, all care invested in dynamics, articulation and phrasing is defeated by this.

IV. Presto (3’27”)

Little chance to complain about vibrato, as this only applies to the last bars of the two parts, respectively. About as perfect as Baráti, but noticeably faster. Yes, the artist’s technical abilities are obviously superb. His playing flawless, and Khachatryan does not stress the tempo to the point where he would lose details in the articulation. To me, the Presto is the best movement in this interpretation. However, I still think that there’s more in Bach’s music than what this interpretation offers.

Total Duration: 17’16”

Rating: 2 / 2 / 2 / 3 = 2.25

Comment: One should read my low rating with a grain of salt. It primarily reflects my aversion against strong vibrato, and against the artist’s preference to stay within the realm of mid-20th century esthetics. I do think, though, that this recording is not for listeners who like historically informed performances.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Amandine Beyer (CD cover)

Amandine Beyer, 2011

Instrument: 1996 baroque violin by Pierre Jaquier; 2000 baroque bow by Eduardo Gorr. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz

I. Adagio (3’47”)

Naturally, I relate the recording by Amandine Beyer (*1974, see also Wikipedia) with that by Alina Ibragimova and by Isabelle Faust. This doesn’t (just) reflect my personal preferences, but primarily the (similar) radicality and consistency, with which the three artists pursue their chosen approach. Ibragimova fascinates through the persistence in non-vibrato and utmost intonation purity. Amandine Beyer, on the other hand does use vibrato. However, it is highly selectively, just to highlight a few key notes. Here, vibrato is not a tool for expressivity.

Still, Amandine Beyer produces highly expressive playing. She achieves that through dynamics, through articulation, phrasing and lively, “speaking” agogics. And she can be radical in how she does not shy away from “raw”, almost rough tones from (occasionally whirring) empty gut strings, or bow attacks for “percussive” articulation. Truly fascinating! Isabelle Faust takes up an intermediate position between Alina Ibragimova’s and Amandine Beyer’s approaches.

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’25”)

Here now, Amandine Beyer performs with virtually no vibrato at all. I’m listening to this after Christine Busch. Both are excellent, indeed—yet quite different! In a comparison I would say that Christine Busch’s focus is on careful and detailed (and clean!) execution. Amandine Beyer, on the other hand, is not so much concerned with perfection, or with the ultimate sound esthetics. She does not exaggerate, but she does risks one or the other rough tone in complex fugato passages.

The key point here is, that Amandine Beyer is absolutely uncompromising in her HIP approach, and in her focus on expression. Every phrase is breathing through expressive dynamics and agogics, the articulation is of course light, and at the same time, the artist manages to create a single, big arch across the entire fugue. Captivating!

III. Siciliana (2’51”)

Beautiful! There is nothing demonstrative about this recording! Just intimacy, intense expression, reflection, harmonious articulation and phrasing. Beautiful arches, and an interpretation that talking to the listener at all times!

IV. Presto (3’35”)

Excellent, virtuosic, lively—and alive in every detail! There’s agogics, starting with the brief start-up acceleration at the beginning of each part & pass, on to subtle tempo alterations to support the phrasing. And there are rich, but diligent dynamics in every phrase, agility in the bowing. The latter is of course light and “speaking”, with a détaché, or rather spiccato that sometimes approaches martelé—and of course all on a baroque bow: amazing!

Total Duration: 15’38”

Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 5.0

Comment: Highly recommended—the above comments speak for themselves!


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Thomas Pietsch (CD cover)

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

I. Adagio (3’34”)

The recording by Thomas Pietsch differs from most others: for one the microphone must have been really close to the instrument, revealing whirring string sounds, the interaction of the bow with the gut strings / articulation sounds. This is not what a listener in a live performance would experience, no matter how close to the artist. Then, there’s the church acoustics (over-acoustics, I should rather say): there is a vast (excess) amount of reverberation, often even distinct echoes. Clearly, to me, this is too much. Added to this, in contrast to recordings such as Alina Ibragimova‘s, the volume setting here is rather too strong. Overall, one tends to pay more attention to acoustics than to the performance.

The “recording proximity” over-emphasizes the sensation of highly expressive playing. However, the “excess expressivity” is mostly caused by strong dynamics in phrasing. In addition, Thomas Pietsch adds numerous extra ornaments. This certainly was common practice in music by many baroque composers. I strongly feel, though, that Bach already formulated out all necessary ornamentation. There is no need to add more of it here. In addition, while the ornaments are all in “proper baroque (though not necessarily Bach’s) style”, Pietsch’s extra ornaments not only are unnecessary, but also often too predictable, such as trills on notes ending a phrase. Hence they are sometimes bordering on mannerism.

II. Fuga: Allegro (6’00”)

Yes, the fugue is difficult to play, and the baroque bow and gut strings may not make things easier. The latter I actually doubt, but that’s the impression which this performance transpires. The problem isn’t in lacking musical flow. Rather, it feels as if the polyphony makes intonation and proper articulation much more difficult. I can’t say that the intonation is really off, though. However, the varying bow pressure in polyphonic passages still appears to interfere with the cleanliness of articulation and intonation. Such passages often sound painfully rough, both in articulation, as well as the quavers themselves. Sometimes it sounds as if the violin has a need to “clear its throat”. Maybe also the proximity of the microphone is to blame?

III. Siciliana (3’50”)

The same, slow tempo as Joseph Szigeti, though of course almost devoid of vibrato. Calm, resting, reflective in attitude, with careful phrasing through dynamics. And at this pace, the reverberation does not interfere with the performance. To the contrary: it harmoniously “assists” the interpretation. Beautiful sonority, cleanest intonation. I like the buzzing sound of the empty gut strings! My main objection here is that at this slow pace, the piece feels very static. And more local “swaying” would not hurt.

IV. Presto (3’55”)

Highly differentiated agogics, detailed dynamics, and I like those rapid accents on the hidden melody, nicely standing out with the warm sonority of the lower strings. There are details / moments where the articulation appears slightly superficial—or should I rather say careless? Maybe that’s not due to careless playing, but rather through close microphone placement that reveals articulation noise. Was the close microphone placement an attempt to cope with the church acoustics?

In a concert hall, a normal listener would barely notice articulation noise. Even more so in the (over-)acoustics of this church, of course. The reverberation as such does not necessarily hurt in this movement—though I think it also does not help the overall result.

Total Duration: 17’18”

Rating: 3 / 2 / 4 / 3 = 3.0

Comment: A good HIP performance overall, with a few questionable features, such as ornamentation, acoustics and recording settings in general.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Christine Busch (CD cover)

Christine Busch, 2012

Instrument: 18th century baroque violin, Tyrol. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz

I. Adagio (3’59”)

Christine Busch uses a gentle approach, not unlike Monica Huggett, though her initial chord feels more like a soft arpeggio. Also her approach to vibrato is slightly different—gentle, harmonious, mostly inconspicuous. In addition, there is much less of a tendency towards “belly notes”.

However, one might speak of “belly phrases”, as phrases have a distinct dynamic arch, often with extra emphasis on the peak note. The regularity at which that extra emphasis appears creates a certain monotony in this interpretation. However, that is more of a “hair in the soup”, given the careful articulation, the harmonious way in which the breathing phrases link the chords, support the underlying melodic-harmonic foundation (in the “bass”, so-to-say).

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’35”)

Excellent performance! I like the natural (mid-range) tempo, the no-frills approach to arpeggiated fugato, the rich and detailed dynamics, the careful phrasing through dynamics and agogics. Interesting: in the semiquaver segments, the echo parts aren’t just p, but also lighter in articulation, often almost staccato.

III. Siciliana (2’57”)

As with Rachel Podger (but not quite as strongly), I sense a certain tendency towards “demonstrative highlighting”. See also my remarks to the Adagio above. However, I do like the articulation, the general approach, the overall dynamics. And the sonority is marvelous.

IV. Presto (3’57”)

Careful and detailed in articulation, phrasing, dynamics, and agogics. Considerate, yet lively. If I were looking for a “hair in the soup”, then it would perhaps be the occasional, slight loss in momentum in moments where the rhythmic pattern changes from 2×3 to 3×2?

Total Duration: 16’27”

Rating: 4 / 5 / 4 / 4 = 4.25

Comment: Excellent HIP performance, commendable.


Isabelle Faust, Bach Sonatas & Partitas, vol.2 (CD cover)

Isabelle Faust, 2012

Instrument: 1704 violinLa 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 remember a (written or video) interview in which Isabelle Faust explained that she is “on a constant move” with her interpretation of Bach’s “Sei Solo“. At the time of her recordings (2009 and 2012), she had long left behind conventional interpretations, now playing with little / very selective vibrato. However, she apparently felt “not quite ready yet” for a public performance with baroque bow. In her 2019 concert performance(s), she had finally made that (crucial) step.

I. Adagio (3’50”)

The performances by Isabelle Faust (*1972) and Alina Ibragimova are very close in their basic (HIP) approach: both are very, very selective in the use of vibrato, essentially playing without altogether. The key differences are: Isabelle Faust uses a distinctly more fluent tempo (almost 20% faster), which not only gives her performance more plasticity (shorter phrase duration), but also helps in keeping an eye on the overall structure. Alina Ibragimova is more radical in her “naked”, vibrato-less approach, highlighting the perfection in her interpretation. Isabelle Faust is somewhat more expressive and detailed in her dynamics.

Following Bach’s Notation

I know that Isabelle Faust is an artist who meticulously checks all available historic sources. With this, I’m not surprised that together with Monica Huggett and Alina Ibragimova, she is one of just three artists who play the e’ on the third beat in bar #3 (see the beginning of the second line in the manuscript sample above, or in the score pages in the header gallery) as written. All (23) others play e♭’. For detail see the comments on Alina Ibragimova’s recording above.

II. Fuga: Allegro (4’33”)

Four of the recordings of the fugue exhibit a noticeably faster tempo than all others. Isabelle Faust is one of them. The others are Augustin Hadelich, the early recording with Gidon Kremer, and Tomás Cotik. One might argue that these artists try realizing Allegro (= joyful) in a 4/4 meter. And Isabelle Faust’s base pace of ♩= 90 indeed is close to Allegro (just barely). However, the movement is almost entirely in quavers and smaller note values. With this, the result is more of a Presto feeling. So, is it worth trying to approach an Allegro in crotchets?

Sure, Isabelle Faust’s performance is immaculate, the execution of articulation, phrasing, agogics and dynamics careful, considerate (& controlled). And always truthful to Bach’s autograph, down to details in motifs. I don’t mean to say that the interpretation is exceedingly polished. However, it does feel a little fast. And I do think that a slightly more moderate pace would have allowed for more Klangrede, “local expression”. If not in the execution, then in what the listener is able to perceive.

III. Siciliana (2’31”)

Very similar to Thomas Zehetmair in the tempo, even a little faster. Unlike Zehetmair, Isabelle Faust does not use strong dynamic contrasts. Together, melody and chordic responses form a single, dynamic arch. The artist obviously wants to avoid romantic excesses, rather building upon the swaying character of a dance in 12/8 time. Next to Zehetmair, this approach appears modest, if not simple (intellectual?). However, one should not compare the two: these are entirely different approaches, and both are equally valid, I think. Even without drama and contrast (or the artist impressing his/her own character on Bach’s music), the movement is impressive, and touching in its own way.

IV. Presto (3’11”)

One of the fastest performances in this comparison—and at the same time the one with the (maybe) the clearest and cleanest sonority. Isabelle Faust is meticulous in every detail in articulation and dynamics. At her blazing speed, she manages to give highlighted notes a little “accent bite”

Total Duration: 14’05”

Rating: 5 / 4 / 5 / 5 = 4.75

Comment: Isabelle Faust is and remains one of my top favorites among the violinists. Highly recommended. And as she continues to evolve towards “complete HIP”, she even still has potential for further advances. After all she has since performed with a baroque bow (see her recent concert). Maybe she will also consider using gut strings on her beautiful and unique Stradivari?


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Giuliano Carmignola (CD cover)

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. Adagio (3’53”)

Expectedly, Giuliano Carmignola (*1951) offers a highly viable HIP approach. In my listening sequence, I’m looking back at the performances by Monica Huggett and Christine Busch. There are obvious similarities in articulation, phrasing, and dynamics. There are distinct differences in the vibrato. For most parts of a phrase, there is none at all, but then, when Carmignola wants to highlight a long note, he often uses a vibrato that is a tad heavy. The contrast to the rest of the phrase at times makes it almost feel a bit odd.

Giuliano Carmignola treats the small note values with considerable liberty. He often adds extra ornaments, such as trills, mordents, inverted mordents, transition notes. Needless to say that these ornaments are of course all properly “baroquish”. However, does the artist really feel that these are necessary? In this movement which already largely consists of ornamented lines / passages? I also feel that some of the brief swellings border on arbitrariness. Carmignola often ties an ornamented passage to the preceding, arpeggiated chord, where Bach writes a separate slur. On the other hand, Carmignola splits the bow on the final (full bar) chord. Why?

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’56”)

Giuliano Carmognola’s tempo is just a tad faster than that of Thomas Pietsch. However, Carmignola’s sound is much, much cleaner, the articulation more careful. A more distant microphone placement might have helped here as well. More important: the dynamics are much more differentiated, diligent. As the listener is able to follow the fugue theme through the polyphonic textures.

Here, Carmignola resists adding his own ornamentation. The only exception is the extra, arpeggiated fermata prior to the hemidemisemiquaver “cadenza” in the penultimate bar. I can certainly live with that!

III. Siciliana (3’32”)

Beautiful, full of expression / Klangrede, down to the smallest motif. So serene, peaceful, yet never static. A lucid, singing voice from a world beyond! Swaying in every single bar / motif. And despite the moderate pace and all the care given to local expression and articulation, Carmignola manages to shape the big phrases, to keep an eye on the overall structure. I particularly like swaying execution of the two demisemiquaver scales in the first half. Unlike in the first movement, the artist keeps the movement, the expression simple, resisting the addition of extra ornaments.

IV. Presto (3’52”)

Not unlike Christine Busch‘s interpretation, though a little more consistent in the flow, and with a tad less focus on details in the articulation. A little smoother, at least in parts, one might say.

Total Duration: 17’14”

Rating: 3 / 3 / 5 / 4 = 3.75

Comment: Excellent HIP performance—though not necessarily my preferred one. The Siciliana is a highlight, for sure.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Mikhail Pochekin (CD cover)

Mikhail Pochekin, 2018

Instrument: 1720 (modernized) violin by Francesco Gobetti (1675 – 1723), Venice, with metal strings; Tourte-type modern bow by Eugène Sartory (1871 – 1946).

I. Adagio (3’49”)

Mikhail Pochekin (*1990) uses virtually the same, fluent tempo as Isabelle Faust and Amandine Beyer. Different from these, however (and unfortunately), in this movement, his vibrato feels rather prominent, omnipresent, even sometimes nervous. I do like the differentiated, “speaking” dynamics and agogics (the latter through appropriate liberty in the execution of the short notes). Excellent phrasing arches, in an interpretation that I would certainly call non-HIP.

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’14”)

Listening to this movement after Kristóf Baráti. Mikhail Pochekin offers a technically truly excellent performance, though fortunately not as polished to perfection as the former. I find his performance more detailed and richer in articulation, dynamics and agogics. 3- and 4-stop chords are not forced into a single “accent”, but executed as brief arpeggio. Also, Pochekin’s vibrato is typically less conspicuous than Baráti’s (exception: the last bars). My only quibble is a slight tendency to accelerate in the semiquaver passages.

III. Siciliana (3’06”)

As in the opening movement, the vibrato is somewhat (too) nervous and omnipresent. However, apart from that (sticking point, sorry!), I really like the interpretation, it’s calm flow, the harmonious, broad dynamic arches, the agogic swaying, the careful and detailed phrasing.

IV. Presto (3’45”)

A careful, detailed interpretation. It maintains the flow, yet differentiates every phrase through dynamics and agogics. Similarly, the artist manages to put little highlights (like “micro-fermatas”) on key notes or key parts of a phrase, without disrupting the flow. Virtuosic, smooth in the tone. The light détaché articulation and the differentiation shows that even though he is using modern instrumentation, the artist has not ignored the influence of recent HIP developments.

Total Duration: 15’54”

Rating: 3 / 4 / 3 / 4 = 3.5

Comment: A very good interpretation by a promising, young artist with thorough and solid technique. One should keep in mind that he did this recording at the same age when Menuhin only just started his pioneering recording. Yes, it’s non-HIP—but for those out there who don’t feel comfortable with radical HIP performances, this is a very viable, recommended recording.


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Atilla Aldemir (CD, cover)

Atilla Aldemir, 2019 (Viola, C minor)

Instrument: 1560 viola by Pellegrino Micheli da Montechiaro (a.k.a. Peregrino Zanetto. ca. 1520 – ca. 1606), Brescia. Pitch: a’ = 433 Hz

Expectation: By its very nature, the response of the viola instrument is “heavier” than that of the violin (longer, thicker strings, longer, heavier bow, larger arm movements). Also, the longer strings imply that the left hand must support larger stretches (in multi-stop passages, arpeggi, etc.). Overall, one might expect reduced agility in viola performances.

I. Adagio (4’07”)

A piece as if it was originally written for the viola! Amazingly, Atilla Aldemir (*1975, see also Wikipedia) chooses a tempo that is just slightly below the average among violinists. The performance does not feel heavy, let alone exceedingly slow. Rather, Aldemir lets the ornamented transitions “speak” naturally (Klangrede in the best sense of the word!). And he is able to retain the connection between the chords, even without putting a lot of effort, or extra emphasis on them. The arpeggiated chords appear fully integrated into the local phrasing arch, the music breathes with every phrase. A really harmonious, affectionate interpretation!

Sound Advantage?

In my early days as a music listener, the viola often “fell through the cracks”. Over the past years, however, I really learned appreciating that—often underestimated—instrument. And this movement permits the artist to play out the advantages of the viola! For one, the lower pitch, the warm, full-bodied, singing tone emphasizes, even highlights the melancholic, if not elegiac character of this Adagio.

Moreover, on this instrument, notes on the C-string appear to offer more contrast in color to the higher strings. With this, they provide a stronger foundation / bass line. And, as every violist will state, the instrument is closer to the human voice, hence has the ability to “talk to the listener’s heart” more directly.

II. Fuga: Allegro (5’50”)

Already on the violin, Bach’s solo fugues are a huge challenge. The viola is clearly not as agile as the violin, hence adds to the difficulty in this music. One can sense that increased challenge mostly from the ever so slightly slower / broader execution of some 4-stop arpeggi in polyphonic (fugato) passages. However, that’s also because Atilla Aldemir does not force arpeggi. There is no constant forte as in some traditional (especially older) performances. Rather, Aldemir uses highly differentiated dynamics. He keeps the bow light, the articulation gentle and careful. And the polyphony remains transparent. The strong contrast between the upper and the c’ / g’ strings is of course of great help in separating the voices.

As far as I can tell, the simplifications in the viola arrangements are absolutely negligible. One either needs a score and/or excellent familiarity with the piece to notice these at all. The above is not to say that the performance sounds as easy as on a violin. Atilla Aldemir performs with little or no vibrato, which of course adds to the intonation challenge, especially with “stretched” multi-stop chords. I think it is fair to say that the artist does not achieve the ultimate purity in intonation. However, one can safely say that the performance is as clean as it can possibly get for a viola arrangement.

III. Siciliana (2’56”)

Somehow, I feel that Atilla Aldemir wasn’t fully able to bring forward the advantage of the viola for this music. Is it maybe because non-slurred notes typically appear as staccato? Did the artist try hiding the heavier nature of his instrument (compared to the violin)? In any case, the staccato seems to stand in the way of a more harmonious flow. That said, the sonority is still beautiful. And I like the unconspicuous vibrato. It is often hardly noticeable, and it never affects the intonation.

IV. Presto (3’42”)

Atilla Aldemir’s agility on the viola is amazing, and his performance is technically excellent! I do find, though, that in this busy Presto, I end up paying more attention to “how does he do it?” than what the music is telling me. One might say that in this movement, the viola can’t play out all of its beautiful sonority. Especially in the détaché semiquavers (at this tempo) take up much more “room” (relative to the actual note) than on a violin. The result is “more bite” than on the original instrument.

Total Duration: 16’34”

Rating: 4 / 4 / 3 / 3 = 3.5

Comment: A highly interesting recording! The viola is not equally suited for all movements, but it still can compete with most performances on the original instrument. Of course, I would not recommend this as the only recording, even not maybe as the only HIP recording. But if you are looking for contrast with two or more HIP recordings: go for it!


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Tomás Cotik (CD cover)

Tomás Cotik, 2019

Instrument: 2000 violin by Marc de Sterke (*1948), Emmendingen near Freiburg im Breisgau / Germany; baroque bow.

I. Adagio (3’23”)

Tomás Cotik performs the opening chord as arpeggio, starting with g-d’, then b♭’ alone, then g”, then re-engaging the b♭’ (b♭’-g”), before moving on. Why? For a recording, one would assume that this is deliberate and done consciously. Yet, the impression is rather accidental. In a live concert performance, this goes unnoticed. Not so in a recording, let alone on the very beginning. Should this create an “al fresco” effect, the sensation of a live experience?

The artist’s vibrato is not nervous, but fairly prominent, and close to omnipresent, at least in longer notes. Luckily, it has little effect on the intonation. What irritates me more is Tomás Cotik’s tendency to set highlights through belly notes. Not discreetly, but with an almost explosive swelling at the beginning of a note. It’s not so much the tempo (only Thomas Zehetmair is faster), but this excess of emphasis (in combination with the vibrato) which creates a feeling of unrest.

I also find that the artist “over-articulates” the fast notes. A more liberal rhythmic execution, more “breathing” (a “more human breath”) through agogics would help the listener in “living in and with the music”.

II. Fuga: Allegro (4’25”)

At virtually the same overall tempo as Kremer’s 1980 recording, this is the fastest of the fugues. Tomás Cotik is careful, considerate and detailed in the articulation throughout. Nevertheless, the performance feels restless, relentless in its “forward pull”. The artist pays attention to detail, the performance is technicalls near-perfect. However, I think that the performance falls a bit short in local Klangrede and agogic leeway. After this fugue, I feel out of breath. Doesn’t Bach’s manuscript suggest more “local swaying”, baroque richness?

III. Siciliana (3’05”)

I’m comparing this to Mikhail Pochekin‘s interpretation with which it shares the overall duration. As Pochekin, Tomás Cotik uses vibrato, though by far not as evenly spread. It primarily marks its presence on the lower strings. On the a’ and e” strings, vibrato appears far more sparingly (maybe also because of the frequent use of empty strings). There is nice, harmonious swaying in bars & motifs. One quibble I have is that even though the artist often ties phrases under the same arch, the interpretation appears slightly static, even a tad short-winded at times.

Certainly, the baroque bow has had its influence on the (light) articulation and the phrasing. I don’t attribute the slight short-windedness to the baroque bow, though. The bow may have contributed to the slightly “grainy” tone on the g and d’ strings. However, that is not just governed by the bow tension and pressure, but equally (or even more so) by the choice of strings, and the type of rosin on the bow hair.

IV. Presto (3’19”)

Virtuosic, fast—at the border of feeling breathless. The latter sensation may also be caused by the fact that each of the two parts are performed under one single arch, respectively. To the listener, the attempt to catch every detail is a challenge. Albeit technically excellent, some of the slurred notes are in danger of being “swallowed”—if not from the performer’s view, then certainly in the listener’s perception.

Also here, the baroque bow does indeed play out it’s advantages for this music, giving the performance distinctly more character, and helping in giving key notes a “grippy accent / highlight”. For a true HIP performance, however the sound is often rather (too) clearly that of metal (or metal-clad) strings.

Total Duration: 14’12”

Rating: 3 / 3 / 3 / 3 = 3.0

Comment: I would say that the baroque bow gets Tomás Cotik a long way towards “proper” (or “complete”) HIP performances. However, I don’t think that this is quite the end of the journey…


J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas — Augustin Hadelich (CD cover)

Augustin Hadelich, 2020

Instrument: 1744 violin “Leduc, ex-Szeryng” by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698 – 1744), Cremona; baroque bow by Rüdiger Pfau.

I. Adagio (4’45”)

Augustin Hadelich (*1984, see also Wikipedia) not only performs on Szeryng‘s violin. His Adagio also has almost exactly the same duration. The tempo therefore is virtually the same. However, it does not feel that way at all! It’s of course more than just the use of a baroque bow (which precludes persistent forte and legato playing in that piece). Rather, Augustin Hadelich’s playing uses infinitely more differentiation and subtlety, especially in agogics and dynamics: already the first long notes may briefly swell to forte, but then, the artist lets the tone fade away, to give way to an equally soft and subtle beginning of the arch that he forms from the small notes, leading into the next chord.

And despite the slow pace, each of the “transition arches” (chain of small notes) uses distinctly swaying agogics, accelerating and swaying out, into the next chord. It’s amazing how Hadelich manages to retain the ornament / transition character of the small notes, which indeed form links between the arpeggiated chords.

Hadelich’s vibrato is relatively persistent, but often inconspicuous. Also here, the artist is subtle and differentiated, letting vibrato evolve harmoniously over long notes.

II. Fuga: Allegro (4’33”)

This is one of the four recordings of the fugue exhibiting a noticeably faster tempo than all others. The others are Isabelle Faust, the early recording with Gidon Kremer, and Tomás Cotik. For comments on that faster pace see my notes on Isabelle Faust’s performance above.

Hadelich’s fugue track has exactly the same duration as Isabelle Faust’s. The average tempo therefore is the same. Also in terms of technical mastership, the two recordings are comparable. However, Hadelich’s performance still shows noticeable differences to Isabelle Faust’s. I don’t think this has to do with Hadelich’s use of a baroque bow. But he tends to use a little more “local expression” (dynamics and agogics), e.g., in the head of the fugue theme. Maybe also a broader / richer scope in dynamics.

On the other hand, there are also passages exhibiting an ever so slight rush / pull. This makes them feel a little more summary. I’m mostly thinking of some of the groups of identical 3- or 4-string chords, where I see no reason to accelerate. Also some of the sequences (successive instances of identical, but transposed motifs) tend to accelerate.

III. Siciliana (3’25”)

Serene, expressive, harmonious, devoid of excess romanticism. Broad dynamic, swaying arches. Beautiful!

IV. Presto (3’05”)

Amazing technique, indeed! This is not only the fastest performance, but also one of the cleanest in articulation and sonority. Augustin Hadelich is a superb violinist! The performance is very close to Isabelle Faust‘s in various aspects: the latter maybe offers a little more detail / differentiation in dynamics and articulation, but the differences are minute.

Total Duration: 15’49”

Rating: 4 / 4 / 4 / 5 = 4.25

Comment: This is highly recommended to listeners favoring “conventional” recording. It certainly is not a “strict HIP” recording. Nevertheless, it should be interesting also for the HIP community. Technically and musically, I rank it very close to the top recordings in this comparison.


Conclusions

The table above should be self-explanatory, especially in combination with the detailed comments above. Keep in mind that the ratings reflect my personal opinion. I have stated that I have a preference for historically informed performances. To some degree, this has of course influenced the results above. More so, my aversion against strong vibrato has had its effect on my ratings. And, of course, my preference has “not helped” the rating of traditional performances by artists such as Kristóf Baráti, Arthur Grumiaux, Sergey Khachatryan, Yehudi Menuhin, Mikhail Pochekin, Henryk Szeryng, and others.

Nevertheless, my strong recommendations, primarily for Amandine Beyer, Isabelle Faust, and Viktoria Mullova should be valid for most, if not all listeners, HIP and non-HIP. In addition to these, I certainly can also recommend the recordings by Christine Busch (HIP), Augustin Hadelich (partially HIP), Alina Ibragimova (HIP), Gidon Kremer (2002, partially HIP), and Thomas Zehetmair (partially HIP). Close up: Giuliano Carmignola (HIP), Jaap Schröder (HIP), and Christian Tetzlaff (non-HIP).

If you think you already have the violin recording(s) you like the most: why not expand and enrich your experience: why not venture listening into performances on alternative instruments, such as Atilla Aldemir’s performance on the viola, maybe even Vito Paternoster’s performance on the cello?


Other Review Posts on J.S. Bach’s “Sei Solo”, BWV 1001 – 1006

  • Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo — Comparison Summary
  • Sonata No.1 in G minor, BWV 1001 — This review
  • Partita No.1 in B minor, BWV 1002 Comparison review planned
  • Sonata No.2 in A minor, BWV 1003 Comparison review planned
  • Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV 1004 Comparison review planned
  • Sonata No.3 in C major, BWV 1005 Comparison review planned
  • Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006 Comparison review planned

Acknowledgements

Some of the media / recordings were kindly supplied by agencies and artists for the purpose of this review:

The author would like to thank for these submissions. In fact, the latter two submissions motivated me (after years of pondering the idea), finally to tackle this major project in earnest. At the time of this writing, I have no idea how long this set of comparison postings will take (months, if not years). So, please, be patient!


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