Bach: “Sei Solo” — Sonata No.3 in C major for Violin Solo, BWV 1005
Media Review / Comparison
2022-10-10 — Original posting
Table of contents
- Bach: “Sei Solo” — Sonata No.3 in C major for Violin Solo, BWV 1005
- Media Review / Comparison
- Introduction — The Recordings
- About the Sonata No.3 in C major for Violin Solo, BWV 1005
- The Interpretations, Overview
- A Note on Ratings
- The Interpretations, Detail
- Procedure, Technical Aspects
- Yehudi Menuhin, 1934 – 1936
- Joseph Szigeti, 1956
- Arthur Grumiaux, 1961
- Henryk Szeryng, 1967
- Gidon Kremer, 1980
- Thomas Zehetmair, 1982
- Jaap Schröder, 1985
- Vito Paternoster, 1995 (Cello, F major)
- Monica Huggett, 1997
- Rachel Podger, 1999
- Gidon Kremer, 2002
- Christian Tetzlaff, 2005
- Viktoria Mullova, 2008
- Kristóf Baráti, 2009
- Isabelle Faust, 2009
- Alina Ibragimova, 2009
- Sergey Khachatryan, 2009
- Amandine Beyer, 2011
- Thomas Pietsch, 2011
- Christine Busch, 2012
- Sebastian Bohren, 2017
- Giuliano Carmignola, 2018
- Mikhail Pochekin, 2018
- Atilla Aldemir, 2019 (Viola, F major)
- Tomás Cotik, 2019
- Augustin Hadelich, 2020
- Other Review Posts on J.S. Bach’s “Sei Solo”, BWV 1001 – 1006
Introduction — The Recordings
This posting is about the Sonata No.3 for Violin Solo in C major, BWV 1005, which Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) published under the title “Sei Solo” (see the title page above). I am comparing the over 25 recordings in my collection:
|2019||Atilla||Aldemir||1975||Wiki||Web||a' = 433||Review||Artist, Media|
|2009||Kristóf||Baráti||1979||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2011||Amandine||Beyer||1974||Wiki||Web||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|2017||Sebastian||Bohren||1987||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2012||Christine||Busch||Web||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|2018||Giuliano||Carmignola||1951||Wiki||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|2019||Tomás||Cotik||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2009||Isabelle||Faust||1972||Wiki||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1961||Arthur||Grumiaux||1921||1986||Wiki||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2020||Augustin||Hadelich||1984||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1997||Monica||Huggett||1953||Wiki||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|2009||Alina||Ibragimova||1985||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2009||Sergey||Khachatryan||1985||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1980||Gidon||Kremer||1947||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2002||Gidon||Kremer||1947||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1934||Yehudi||Menuhin||1916||1999||Wiki||a' = 433||Review||Artist, Media|
|2008||Viktoria||Mullova||1959||Wiki||Web||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|1995||Vito||Paternoster||1957||Wiki||Web||a' = 443||Review||Artist, Media|
|2011||Thomas||Pietsch||1955||Web||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|2018||Mikhail||Pochekin||1990||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1999||Rachel||Podger||1968||Wiki||Web||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|1985||Jaap||Schröder||1925||2020||Wiki||a' = 415||Review||Artist, Media|
|1967||Henryk||Szeryng||1918||1988||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1956||Joseph||Szigeti||1892||1973||Wiki||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|2005||Christian||Tetzlaff||1966||Wiki||Web||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
|1982||Thomas||Zehetmair||1961||Wiki||a' = 440||Review||Artist, Media|
Explanations on the Table
- You can sort the table by any specific column (in ascending or descending order) by selecting the respective title field.
- The first field is the year when the respective recording was completed (not necessarily identical to the ℗ or © years).
- The birth year is not known for all artists.
- The fields “Wiki” and “Web” are links to the respective artist’s Wikipedia entry and/or personal Website.
- The highlighted column “Review” contains links to the respective entry in the comparison section (The Interpretations, Detail) below.
- The green column “Summary” contains links to the respective entry in the comparison summary, featuring detailed Media information, as well as notes on artist, instrument, recording, etc.
Details about the media (CDs) are available as part of the Comparison Summary posting on Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo. That information includes cover image, title, artists, technical media information (label, label-number, booklet info, barcode, amazon link, where available, plus additional information, as deemed relevant). That summary also features an overall comparison table.
About the Sonata No.3 in C major for Violin Solo, BWV 1005
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.3 in C major for Violin Solo, BWV 1005 in the review from 2019-06-02, when Isabelle Faust performed all Sonatas and Partitas, BWV 1001 – 1006, in two recitals on the same day.
Bach completed his “Sei Solo” around 1720 in Köthen (Anhalt). Bach’s original manuscript (see the three images in the header section) survived to this day. There is also a beautiful manuscript, now identified as being a copy dating from 1727–32 by Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena Bach (1701 – 1760). The facsimile of Bach’s manuscript (as well as of Anna Magdalena’s copy) can now be downloaded from IMSLP.
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.
A serene movement, peaceful, calm (Adagio). The main challenge consists of having to combine the calm undulations of the punctuated line with arpeggiated chords on every (or most) beats. Te flow of punctuated motifs is interrupted by two recitative- or cadenza-like (depending on the interpretation) segments. These again can be interpreted as integrated alterations (as in most traditional performances), or as contrasting “scenes” / “interventions”. The score leaves these options open—there are no annotations on dynamics.
II. Fuga: Allabreve
The fugue is in three voices, featuring four main expositions. The first two are with the recto theme shown in the score sample above, the expositions #3 and #4 are with the inverted theme (al riverso).
With its 354 bars, this is the longest and most complex of the fugues in the Sei Solo—it is technically extremely demanding, with polyphony full of (arpeggiated) 3- and 4-stop chords. Many of the passages are impossible to play exactly, note by note. Examples are the second bar on line #3 in the above excerpt, or actually the majority of the long notes in 3- and 4-voice passages. It would take an organ to realize the notation exactly as written.
A beautiful, slow (rather: broad!) movement in 4/4 time, in chained, long melodious phrases. The art here is to make the music “breathe” without disrupting the flow. It can’t be too slow, though, given the 4/4 (common time) signature. The closing bars feature an interesting move:
After an ascending “cadenza“, the piece appears to close in F major. However, in lieu of the expected F major chord, Bach inserts a surprising diminished seventh chord b – a♭’ – d” – f” (third beat in the last bar on the first line above), before the final bar returns to F major. Some artists emphasize that surprise chord with a sudden f, while others keep it inline, maybe even make it softer—the surprise remains. Bach did not add any dynamic annotations in this movement. Hence, either option appears viable.
IV. Allegro assai
In Sonata No.3, only the final movement, Allegro assai, features two parts, each with repeat signs. It’s fast, even virtuosic movement, essentially all in semiquavers. Yet, it is in 3/4 time—and with an Allegro assai pace in crotchets it definitely is virtuosic. One challenge is maintaining sound and sonority atr the fast pace. And a fast pace is mandated not only because of the 3/4 time signature, but also in order not to lose the listener in all the fast notes, but to highlight the melodies hidden underneath the fast figures.
The assai in the tempo annotation is usually taken as a reinforcement, “fairly joyful”. A strict translator may also read it as “joyful enough“. In any case, it is not meant to be read as Presto, i.e., no reason to aim for a world record tempo.
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.
Not all artists perform all repeats. In the cases where repeats were omitted in the last movement (Baráti, Grumiaux, Menuhin, Szeryng, Szigeti), the track durations can’t be used as indicator for the tempo. Therefore, I corrected these durations in the table (adding the time for the repeat parts to the track duration). In that sense, the overall duration (second-to-last column) is to be read as “if the artist had performed all repeats“.
I have not corrected the timings for trailing or leading blank time (the latter is often found with the first movement). Therefore, the timings in the above table should be read with a grain of salt. The one exception is the last movement (Allegro assai), where the durations in the above table are not only corrected for missing repeats (see above), but also don’t include trailing blank time.
For the actual track and overall durations please see the section below. These may differ from the numbers in liner notes: I’m ripping the recording into Apple Music and use the times in the player software, which may use different rounding algorithms.
A Note on Ratings
First and foremost: all my ratings reflect my personal opinion, hence are inherently subjective. I use a 1 – 5 star rating scheme—simply because that’s what my player software (Apple Music) offers. I use the same scheme for concert reviews. You will note that for these, there are rarely reviews below a 3.0 (★★★) rating. That’s largely because I try to avoid concerts where I anticipate a marginal performance. And I stick to an “absolute” scale, where results below 3.0 are negative.
Ratings in Media Comparisons
- does the performance reflect the notation, i.e., the composer’s (perceived) intent?
- does it present the character of the piece (e.g., in the dance movements in Partitas)?
My ratings also reflect how much a recording offers to me, 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.
I should also mention that audiophile arguments play a secondary role in my ratings. My primary focus is on the interpretation, not perfection in recording technique. The latter comes into play mainly where it affects the audibility, clarity and transparency, e.g., through excess reverberation. And for newer recordings, blatantly dull, “muffled” sound should also have an effect on the rating.
The Interpretations, Detail
The review comments below are sorted by recording year, from the oldest (1934) to the most recent one (2020). Note: for the artist’s life data, Website and/or Wikipedia entries please see the first table above. Note: in the artist segments below, the pitch is mentioned only where it deviates from a’ = 440 Hz.
Procedure, Technical Aspects
- I go 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 choose a sequence that does not put subsequent recordings at a disadvantage. Typically, I start with slow performances, progressing to faster ones. At the same time, I try using a suitable sequence of historic vs. “conventional” vs. HIP interpretations.
- Especially in large comparisons, such as this one, the sequence will typically vary from movement to movement.
- In the sequence in which I listen to the tracks, I typically “just” move forward. If I relate to other interpretations, I refer to recordings I listened to previously, irrespective of the time of the recording. In other words: for older recordings I may may use comparisons to interpretations of artists who may not even have been alive at the time of the early version. That may occasionally sound strange. However, in the interest of efficiency, I can’t risk “jumping around” to amend comments that I have already written.
- Naturally, my comments will mostly refer to the recordings immediately preceding the one I’m writing about—in the listening sequence for that given movement (it is impossible to memorize all performances in detail). However, I try my very best to make the ratings absolute, not relative.
It is a few months since my last review in this series. I try not to delay these reviews too much. However, the delay has the advantage that I can approach this review without bias from the preceding ones. I apologize for duplication with earlier reviews. One benefit of the text duplications is that they help making each review readable by itself, without an excess of cross-links to other postings.
Yehudi Menuhin, 1934 – 1936
Pitch: a’ = 433 Hz
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001.
I. Adagio (4’51”)
#3 in my listening sequence from slow to fast, a tad faster than Khachatryan. It is faster and less static than Szigeti‘s performance, the vibrato much less heavy, though still strong. The vibration is less nervous, the dynamic arches not as exaggerated as Khachatryan’s. However, it remains a romantic interpretation, also with the extreme ritardando in the final bars. The sound quality of the recording (or its restoration) is amazingly good—but sadly, it makes the instrument sound rather sharp. This is of course also due to the use of metal (or metal-clad) strings, and probably due to a very close microphone placement.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (10’21”)
In my listening sequence from slow to fast(er), Menuhin’s fugue follows immediately after Amandine Beyer’s (both perform at almost exactly the average pace). Needless to say that this was a “rough landing”, a shock! OK, also Menuhin’s performance features “percussive articulation”—but that remains the only common element between the two recordings.
In fugato segments, particularly with the fugue subject, Menuhin plays a very broad portato: dynamically flat tones, but of course all filed with vibrato (especially in f / expressive segments). The latter isn’t quite as intrusive and nervous as others, though. There is some elasticity in the ones, but not in the pace, which steadily goes ahead like a steam locomotive (OK, there are others, who are worse at that).
Expositions are “pulled through”, episodes and expositions follows each other without interruption or hesitation—no time for breathing throughout the piece. There are very few exceptions to this: for the beginning of the last episode (bars 245ff), and for the transition to the last exposition (bars 288ff), Menuhin does allow for a very slight ritardando. At least, the episodes are lighter in the articulation, an livelier / more differentiated in the dynamics. Sure, Menuhin’s technique is astounding—but it’s obviously an interpretation from a past era.
III. Largo (4’28”)
I’m sorry to say: I think this is not what Bach had in mind. The principal problem is that Menuhin’s tempo is way too slow—and he is performing in quavers, not in crotchets, as mandated by the Ｃ (4/4) time signature. With this, the music is typically crawling along in half-bar phrases. Yes, the music does breathe in these phrases, through agogics and dynamics—but apart from that, the overall “crawling” is very uniform, and at this slow pace, the listener loses all feeling for larger scale structures.
Menuhin offers an excessively romantic interpretation, loaded with vibrato that is too nervous for such as low movement. Yes, the artist puts all his soul into this music, and there will be people out there who like indulging in this “vibrato bath” and the calm, “endless” breathing—but, as stated, this is not Bach, not baroque music in general.
IV. Allegro assai (3’56”, second repeat not performed)
Performed with verve and emphasis—and strong vibrato, wherever there is an opportunity (like: every quaver). Not surprisingly, there are no agogics to speak of. The one noticeable tempo variation is the pronounced ritardando at the end. The performance is restless, and mostly played with the regularity of a sewing machine. Menuhin differentiates in the dynamics—for echo effects, and for occasional p sections. The articulation is careful and clean—but devoid of emotion / expression.
Total Duration: 23’37”
Rating: 2 / 2 / 2 / 2 = 2.00
Comment: Simply put, a performance from 80 – 100 years ago. It’s not really romantic, but feeling technical and emotionless, especially in view of recent, historically informed performances.
Joseph Szigeti, 1956
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001.
I. Adagio (5’57”)
No surprise after the preceding reviews of this recording: the one attribute that comes to mind is “romantic”. An absolutely static performance with all punctuated motifs in broad quasi-legato, with Szigeti’s abundant, heavy vibrato. The “static” not only refers to the flat dynamics or the absence of tempo variations. Rather, it refers to Szigeti’s slow pace (by far the slowest) and the broad articulation in the melody line. These defeat all inherent rhythmic tension within the punctuated motifs. The only, tiny amount of structure (apart from the cadenzas in bars 12ff, 39ff, and for the closing bars) comes from the impulses added by the arpeggios (bars 3ff), especially the ones covering 4 strings, or 3-stop arpeggios where the melody line is in the middle.
The cadenzas themselves or the bars without punctuations don’t add new impulses. They rather act as disruptors in the flow. Dynamically, the performance remains in steady, flat f, except for the p in bars 34 – 36.
All I can say is that it’s far from Bach’s original, even though Szigeti plays all notes in the score. Even as romantic interpretation, it’s static and lacks atmosphere and expression. It’s definitely not baroque music. Actually, an attempt to perform this interpretation using a (much shorter) baroque bow would sound absolutely dreadful.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (11’37”)
Also here: no surprise: firm, resolute, often stiff, rigid (I’m tempted to use the attribute “military”), even harsh, with the usual, heavy vibrato. Szigeti does stick to the notation, though: the ties in bars 8 – 10 are observed. The first exposition slows down towards the climax in bar 19. In bar 38, the artist switches to very short spiccato quavers, accelerating until the fugue theme reappears (bars 44/45). Some of the arpeggi are fairly rude, and where the fugue gets technically really demanding, the artist often slows down blatantly. Also the first episode is mostly spiccato.
In fugato polyphony, Szigeti goes very far in holding long notes. Basically a commendable effort—but it makes the interpretation sound even heavier, often also somewhat inconsistent / fragmented.
Despite the extreme, irritating vibrato, the arbitrariness, the extreme spread in the articulation, the extreme tempo alterations: Szigeti’s performance still gives an idea of the artist’s technical and artistic prowess, back at the height of his career—the recording just is late by decades!
III. Largo (3’58”)
Henryk Szeryng and Joseph Szigeti perform at almost identical pace. Both respect the 4/4 time signature, with Szigeti allowing for a little more breath between (some of) the phrases. What stops me from enjoying this interpretation is not primarily the ubiquitousness of the vibrato, but its excess, epic strength (amplitude), its heaviness, which often makes it feel whining.
IV. Allegro assai (3’44”, second repeat not performed)
Momentarily very resolute, even stiff. Segments with pronounced accents, clean, but occasionally also stretches with (slight) superficialities. In general, however, the performance is technically clean, differentiated in articulation and lively in the dynamics. Maybe Szigeti’s best movement so far: here, I prefer his interpretation over the ones by Arthur Grumiaux and Yehudi Menuhin! One of a few glimpses into (remainders of) Szigeti’s artistry!
Total Duration: 25’16”
Rating: 1 / 2 / 2 / 3 = 2.00
Comment: The last movement is a highlight in Szigeti’s interpretation of Bach’s “Sei Solo“. For the rest, unfortunately, I can only state that the recording should have been made years earlier, at a time when Szigeti still was at the height of his technique.
Arthur Grumiaux, 1961
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001. Arthur Grumiaux consequently leaves out all second repeats (here: both repeats in the last movement).
I. Adagio (4’05”)
Tempo- and vibrato-wise (frequency, strength) very close to Kremer’s 1980 recording (very close to the overall average pace). Here, however, the vibrato is very evenly spread over the entire piece—to the point where I find it boring. The articulation is uniformly broad and even, quasi-legato. Grumiaux avoids rough edges not just in the tone, but also in rhythm, which tends to be a tad softened (e.g., in the punctuations), in favor of displaying a nice tone down to every semiquaver. Devoid of agogics and differentiation in articulation.
An interpretation that focuses on smoothness in sound and dynamics (seamless dynamic arches) and perfection in the tone. The arpeggios are short, but never harsh. Not surprisingly, bar 18 is done with rapid downward arpeggio. Esthetics of perfect sound, rather than local expression. Boring by today’s standards.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (10’46”)
Grumiaux proclaimed that he is playing from manuscript copies. He does indeed observe all slurs—but these are also present in most practical editions. And that’s about as far as I can confirm “truthfulness to the composer’s notation”. Apart from that, Grumiaux’ interpretation is mechanical, devoid of agogics: the most I hear is a little ritenuto, or a minimal ritardando at the end of an exposition or of an episode. There are broad dynamic build-ups, but in general, the performance lacks all life, the articulation (albeit technically flawless) is schematic, stiff and uniform, the pace rigid, relentlessly moving (occasionally pushing) forward. True, the sonority is great—but the interpretation is dead (and dead boring).
III. Largo (2’58”)
Arthur Grumiaux takes only slightly less for this movement than Kristóf Baráti, his vibrato is just as omnipresent, even somewhat stronger and more nervous, and also hist semiquavers are almost as regular and uniform as Baráti’s. Grumiaux’ tone and sonority may be near-perfect—and yet, his performance falls off even against Barári’s (let alone the majority of the HIP performances).
The basic pace is not exceedingly fast (noticeably faster than the average, though, for sure) and still theoretically a Largo on the crotchets. However, Grumiaux performs in quavers! I don’t think the fact that Bach often uses slurs to form pairs of semiquavers means that one should perform this as 8/8 meter. Grumiaux’ performance feels like an Andante, not like a Largo. Together with the nervous vibrato (and certainly in comparison to the vast majority of the other performances), this interpretation feels restless, too fast—not like the slow movement between a fugue and a fast Allegro assai.
IV. Allegro assai (2’48”, no repeats performed at all)
As stated above, Grumiaux proclaimed that he is playing from manuscript copies. However, in view of his machine-like performance, I wonder what the artist was reading from Bach’s handwriting. To me, the performance is devoid of dynamic and tempo variations (apart from the pronounced slow-down at the end of either part). Sure, the tone, the sonority is nice & clean—but this performance seriously lacks agogics, dynamic variation and expression! And: leaving out both repeats does not speak for the artist, either.
Total Duration: 20’37”
Rating: 3 / 2 / 2 / 2 = 2.25
Comment: nothing I can recommend.
Henryk Szeryng, 1967
Instrument: 1744 violin “Leduc” by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698 – 1744), Cremona.
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001. Henryk Szeryng consequently leaves out all second repeats.
I. Adagio (4’43”)
Very close to Menuhin’s tempo, though with ubiquitous, but surprisingly moderate vibrato (only occasionally, the vibration is rather prominent). Broad dynamic arches (not as exaggerated as Khachatryan’s), harmonious musical flow with integrated arpeggios. Trying to make the piece sound “great”. The pace is rather regular / static, though, with very little, if any agogics.
If I remember correctly, then this may well have been the movement that Henryk Szeryng performed as encore in a concert in Zurich (1975-06-17), in memory of his late friend David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974). See the comparison summary for more detail.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (11’27”)
Broad portato, broad dynamic arches—actually dynamically fairly differentiated, a long build-up through the exposition, with stupendous technique that allows Henryk Szeryng to perform more long notes as written than many others. The tempo is not static: the artist accelerates across the first exposition. To me, this does not make sense. Besides these large-scale tempo variations, there isn’t much in terms of (local) agogics, not even traces of Klangrede. The intonation is not always impeccable—but this could also be a consequence of the artist’s prominent vibrato.
Apart from occasional, large-scale tempo alterations, the episodes feel a bit like studies—and actually, also the expositions feel rather didactic, “ex cathedra”. Then, there are two-stop passages such as bars 111 – 121, where Szeryng demonstratively plays out all long notes. By itself it is a commendable effort—but it just causes fragmentation if long notes in 3- and 4-stop passages are forcibly abbreviated. As in the Adagio, Szeryng uses falling (often brutal) arpeggio, where he wants to continue on the bottom note. Astounding technique, but sadly dry and devoid of expression / emotion: Bach’s music is more than a study.
III. Largo (4’00”)
Interestingly, Szeryng performs virtually the same pace as the most recent interpretation in this comparison, the one by Augustin Hadelich. Yet, I definitely prefer the latter’s performance. Szering’s performance is careful and intense (and in proper 4/4 time), but it suffers from some deficiencies, of which the ubiquitous, romantic vibrato is the least one. It’s too uniform in the pace. Szeryng does form long phrases using dynamics, but declines the use of agogics, e.g., between phrases, or for broadening at climaxes. It often feels relentless in its move forward. And occasionally, there is even a hint of Nachdrücken.
IV. Allegro assai (4’10”, second repeat not performed)
Henryk Szeryng’s pace is almost identical to the one in Monica Huggett’s interpretation—for remarks about the choice of tempo see there. One may call this “fast” in reference to the semiquaver movements, which Szeryng often performs with the regularity of a sewing machine. Luckily, there are the occasional quavers, of course performed with vibrato. Szeryng does articulate carefully and cleanly, though with a tendency towards broad détaché strokes, with further broadened peak / highlight notes. The latter serve to highlight hidden melodic elements. However, here, they are too predictable, too prominent (and emphasized with vibrato, of course). Rolling along with too much regularity. Too polished.
Total Duration: 24’20”
Rating: 3 / 3 / 3 / 3 = 3.00
Comment: Traditional, conventional, technically (unnecessarily) perfect, musically not very interesting, in view of more recent performances.
Gidon Kremer, 1980
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001.
I. Adagio (4’06”)
Kremer starts pp, with a nervous vibrato, which makes the tone feel shaky—almost. The vibrato remains rather nervous and ubiquitous throughout, also when Kremer shapes impressive dynamic arches. These integrate contrasting segments, such as the “recitative” in bar 12. In other words, Kremer focuses on the dynamic arches rather than local expression and contrast / differentiation. The arches are supported by broad (though elastic) articulation in long bow strokes, structured by brief, often violent arpeggios. Not surprisingly, Kremer uses vehement downward arpeggio in bar 18.
A presentation of the Adagio as “great / grand” piece—which it undeniably is, although I don’t think Bach intended to write a showpiece. An interpretation that is still bound to the tradition in which Kremer grew up.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (8’36”)
For the fast pace of this second-to-fastest recording in this comparison, Gidon Kremer’s 1980 performance is amazingly clean and essentially devoid of superficialities. Kremer’s technical prowess is simply astounding. Sure, it is more conventional than the artist’s 2002 recording: the articulation is broader, often approaching legato, there is more vibrato (not intrusive, though). Clearly, the artist has no problem mastering the fast pace. However, in the fugato parts with its many 3- and 4-stop chords, these chords appear to slow down the performance: it simply seems technically impossible to perform these ultra-fast arpeggios at this pace. The net result are conspicuous tempo variations / alterations in fugato parts. I should say, though, that Kremer isn’t nearly as radical in the harshness of the 3- and 4-stop chords as in his later recording.
In the episodes, the performance resembles a violin study, lacking agogics and expression. In addition, it feels as if Kremer meant to compensate for the slow-down in fugatos (from the multi-stop chords), accelerating or switching to a distinctly faster pace in some of the episodes. The execution remains clean, though. It is often restless, but does not feel rushed. Still, it has aspects of a virtuosic showpiece.
III. Largo (2’14”)
In 1980, Gidon Kremer’s interpretation was even substantially faster than in his later one in 2002—and much faster than anyone else (exactly twice as fast as Yehudi Menuhin!). Yet, the very beginning feels relatively calm and relaxed—for a moment. Soon enough, though, it turns out that all oddities of his 2002 interpretation were present already back in 1980. Yes, the articulation is a tad more fluent—but on the other hand, the tempo is even faster. Largo? 4/4 time? No, Allegretto and 8/8 time at best!
IV. Allegro assai (4’37”)
Very close in tempo (and also in the general approach) to Christian Tetzlaff—though slightly more eruptive / percussive with the accented melody notes. Fewer superficialities, but also some pushing especially towards the end of the second part. Good, but too “busy”, too Presto?
Total Duration: 19’33”
Rating: 3 / 3 / 3 / 4 = 3.25
Comment: In all movements (except perhaps the Largo) I find Gidon Kremer’s 2002 interpretation / recording better / preferable.
Thomas Zehetmair, 1982
I. Adagio (3’31”)
Thomas Zehetmair’s interpretation features a timing & tempo that is virtually identical to Mikhail Pochekin’s. This performance feels calmer, though, more moderate in the expressive segments. And: different from Mikhail Pochekin, Zehetmair limits the vibrato to f / expressive segments. Another similarity is the sudden f in bar 12, and the instant, rhythmically free retraction to a subtle p. As stated, Thomas Zehetmair’s dynamics are expressive—without belly notes, though, and not nearly as wild, if not ferocious as in some of his other recordings.
At the soft end, there are passages where the artist performs with an almost whispering pp. In bars 34ff, the violinist starts with such pp, each of the three long notes in the top voice with a subtle accent, followed by an absolutely flat decrescendo, while the punctuated second voice remains differentiated, carefully articulated. The demisemiquavers in bar 39 appear as buoyant acciaccaturas.Interestingly, the chords in bars 40 – 42 are all pp subito. The subsequent, fast figures (two ascending lines, one descending) are rhythmically free, crescending and accelerating. Also bar 43 starts pp (subito). Only on the last semiquaver, Zehetmair seizes a sudden, expressive f for bar 44—while the remaining three bars are totally subtle, intimate.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (9’46”)
A performance with extremes in expression, technically astounding! In the expositions, Zehetmair’s objective is not to present the subject as nice melody (certainly not in most instances, and with the exception of the gentle, soft beginning). Rather, the artist focuses on the broad, expressive arpeggio chords. In other words: it feels as if Thomas Zehetmair puts the chords, i.e., the harmonic progression into the center of his fugue performance. The subject of the fugue (or its inversion) rather appears as “idée fixe” in the various voices.
The articulation is short enough for the subject to retain its presence. At the same time, the chords / arpeggios are broad / expressive, also the often expansive agogics, both in the form of momentary broadenings, as well as accelerations. Some may call these momentary tempo variations exaggerated. In the episodes, Zehetmair’s freedom in expression isn’t in dynamics, but in the even more extreme tempo alterations.
Also in the fugue, Thomas Zehetmair limits the use of vibrato to expressive moments. And the sonority is rich, marvelous, as often with this artist. Overall, the interpretation shows strong artistic individuality. Some may call it idiosyncratic, opinionated—I cannot deny that I’m still fascinated by Zehetmair’s performance!
III. Largo (2’39”)
The one objection that one might raise here is that Thomas Zehetmair’s performance feels like alla breve (2/2) rather than 4/4, as per Bach’s time signature. In fact, only Gidon Kremer (2002 and 1980) chose a faster tempo. However, the interpretation as such is wonderfully calm, breathing in every phrase (with room to breathe between the phrases!): beautiful, serene, carefully articulated (no unnecessary extras!), gentle in the dynamics, retracting to pp prior to the diminished seventh chord in bar #20. And: with the faster tempo, Thomas Zehetmair is able to shift (partially) away from the exclusive focus on the semiquaver figures, towards the larger scale melodic pattern / movements. Excellent!
IV. Allegro assai (5’02”)
For once, Thomas Zehetmair isn’t among the fastest performers—fast / faster than average, but still in the “mid-field”. Technically excellent / superb, of course, detailed in articulation, agogics, and dynamics. I should say, though, that many of the “belly swellings” in the center of the 1- or 2-bar phrases are exaggerated (if not overblown) and too predictable, also how many of the phrases retract to pp at the end. Trying to make more of the piece than there is in Bach’s composition?
Total Duration: 20’59”
Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 4 = 4.75
Comment: Among the first five of Bach’s “Sei Solo” (BWV 1001 – 1005), this clearly is Zehetmair’s best, most outstanding interpretation—strongly recommended!
Jaap Schröder, 1985
Instrument: Dutch baroque violin; baroque bow. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
I. Adagio (3’55”)
A natural, stepping, calm pace, a limited, harmonious vibrato. Natural, appropriately percussive articulation, the arpeggios well integrated into the flow. Gentle, broad dynamic arches, avoiding added dynamic contrasts (neither p, nor sudden f or added accents, etc.). Warm sonority, not hiding the occasional roughness of gut strings, or the buzzing of the e” string.
The “recitative” in bar 12 does stand out, but not as prominently as with Isabelle Faust and Sebastian Bohren. The performance, including the “cadenza bars” (39 – 42), is swaying, but remains relatively metric—much more than, e,.g., with Amandine Beyer. The one exception is the descending figure in bar 42, which is rhythmically free, accelerating.
An early / pioneering, but still very nice and valid historically informed performance.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (11’53”)
Here, the vibrato is largely inconspicuous. It does not appear to affect the intonation, but may contribute to the slight shakiness of the first bars. In the polyphonic parts, for sure, the articulation is firm, determined. Occasionally (rarely), especially in multi-stop chords, the intonation is not quite perfect. However, Jaap Schröder remains truthful to the text, the articulation is careful and detailed, Klangrede / agogics contribute to “speaking” phrases. To a much, much lesser degree than with Monica Huggett, the many arpeggiated chords in polyphonic parts often affect the musical flow. Especially in the episodes, the artist is able to shape impressive, long arches.
The pace is one of the slowest, but the performance still permits “capturing” the entirety of the fugue. There are some slight tempo alterations that feel like instabilities, maybe also from combining takes. One example is early on, the switch to a slightly faster pace in bar 20. It appears to happen most often when coming out of an exposition / complex fugato into a (simpler) episode. Conversely, the beginning of an exposition / fugato sometimes associates with a slight slow-down. It’s not really severe, but noticeable.
III. Largo (3’03”)
Beautiful tone, agogic swaying in every phrase, care- and truthful in the articulation. Some minor (tiny, really) question marks about intonation, especially in some (few) of the chords. My main (still minor, though) quibble is with a slight unrest / urge in some of the phrases. The calm nature of a Largo movement and the need to accommodate semiquaver lines into Bach’s 4/4 time signature: a compromise that may not have been 100% successful here?
IV. Allegro assai (5’59”)
Jaap Schröder’s pace is almost identical to the one in Monica Huggett’s interpretation—for remarks about the choice of tempo see there. Jaap Schröder’s agogics are OK, though could be more pronounced. The tone is a tad thin, “papery” on the a’ and e” strings, the articulation not always entirely clean (occasional superficialities). In passages without slur, Jaap Schröder tends to use (almost) staccato articulation (does not apply to bars with string alternation). I don’t see a need for this, except that it avoids the danger of the piece sounding like “beginner’s détaché sawing”.
Total Duration: 24’51”
Rating: 4 / 3 / 4 / 3 = 3.50
Comment: A fair HIP performance—can’t quite compete with more recent HIP recordings, though.
Vito Paternoster, 1995 (Cello, F major)
Instrument: 1792 cello by Lorenzo Carcassi (1737 – 1775), Florence. Pitch: a’ = 443 Hz
I. Adagio (3’16”)
To some extent, this cello performance faces problems with sonority, similar to the ones mentioned with Atilla Aldemir’s interpretation on the viola: the arpeggiated chords are too low in range to reach sufficient clarity and definition (relative to the top voices) over their short duration. Of course, performing the violin part on a cello comes with substantial challenges, and if I’m not mistaken, there are indeed arpeggios with marginal intonation.
Similar to Gidon Kremer 2002, Vito Paternoster uses double punctuation, ignoring the slurs in the punctuated motifs. In other words: the interpretation ignores the articulation in Bach’s notation. The one plus with this: it avoids the need for falling arpeggios in bar 18.
The interpretation is among the fastest two—faster than Kremer’s: it definitely does not feel like a proper Adagio. Moreover, there are several, relatively prominent belly notes and tones with unnecessary swelling, as well as notes that oddly stand out from the melody line. Are these maybe instances of Nachdrücken?
The cadenza (bars 39 – 42) falls apart into bar units. And finally: the Coda (starting with the second quaver in bar 45), albeit played very nicely, appears separated off. It lacks connection to the preceding bars, like an extra “intermezzo“. Why?
II. Fuga: Allabreve (10’06”)
For this piece at least, both cello and viola (see Atilla Aldemir’s recording) are facing substantial extra challenges relative to the violin. Violists and cellists may debate whether the use of the thumb on the fingerboard fully compensates for the cello’s even larger challenges in left-hand spreading. I’m not the person to judge on this. However, here, the fugato creates the impression that on the cello, this is much more difficult. The intonation in many triple- and quadruple-stop chords (and also elsewhere) is often marginal.
Vito Paternoster performs at a very fluid pace (faster than half the violinists in this comparison!). At this pace, the response of the C and G strings seems too slow. Maybe, the listener’s ear requires more time to “read” the pitch, in particular chords and harmonies on these low strings? Often in the fugato, the sonority in the low register is just “dark”, “deep”, while the intonation / the intervals are unclear. For the listener to “comprehend” the polyphony on this instrument, the pace would need to be slower.
Sure, Vito Paternoster is a highly virtuosic, agile cellist, as one can hear in most other movements. He is able to maintain the musical even in complex polyphonic passages. His articulation is light, and I really do like the rich agogics, the Klangrede in the episodes—and, of course, the singing sonority in the middle and high registers. Still, the overall impression is mixed.
III. Largo (3’11”)
Vito Paternoster’s playing is excellent, and in contrast to other movements, the cello sonority suits this movement well—beautiful! I particularly like how the artist just touches the lower, accompanying strings, keeping the texture light, transparent, while still allowing for defined pitches / chords. There is beautiful phrasing in long arches, distinct agogic swaying, and the lively (but not extreme) dynamics support the phrasing, the Klangrede.
Still, I don’t give a top rating here—not because of deficiencies in the performance! True, it is beautiful, baroque music. In my view, this may well be an original Bach movement—however, not in a sonata, but in a Partita / dance suite: Vito Paternoster uses light articulation to the extreme, making the last note in slurred motifs, as well as many notes at the end of a phrase very short / light. The effect is that the piece feels like a dance movement—beautiful, but not quite following the Largo annotation. The numerous, playful extra ornaments (inverted mordents, short trills, jeu inégal) further emphasize the dance character of the interpretation. Truly beautiful, and a joy to listen to—but very likely not the composer’s intent!
IV. Allegro assai (4’28”)
No surprise with this artist: he once more wants to be among the fastest. Why, really? Just to prove that he can do it? The basic approach is good and can compete with top HIP interpretations. However, why should a cello be the (almost) fastest among so many performances on the violin? Yes, some artists state that performing music should be a matter of life and death—the artist should give everything in order to achieve a truly compelling performance. Everything—but not more, not too much! One may debate whether (even on a violin) this is already Presto—this here is clearly too fast. For one, quite often parts of (semiquaver) motifs get “swallowed”, quite a few notes (especially in jumping motifs) are simply off in the intonation, and the bass sequences in bars 21 – 24 and 69 – 72 (and the final bars) degenerate to indistinct, fuzzy grumbling.
Towards the end of a part, as well as in some other passages in-between, Vito Paternoster even accelerates. In bars 89 – 91, the initial (peak) notes in the original are g”’, f”’, and e”’. On the cello (F major), this should translate to c”, b♭’, and a’. However, Vito Paternoster plays c”, c”, a’. A difference in the anonymous transcription? Or maybe a change for technical reasons? It’s not a mishap, as Paternoster does it in both passes. It’s too striking to be ignored.
Total Duration: 21’02”
Rating: 3 / 3 / 4 / 3 = 3.25
Comment: Performing Sonata #3 on a cello is definitely a severe challenge. Vito Paternoster adds to the general difficulty by (apparently) wanting to beat the violin in tempo. He is an amazing artist with astounding technical abilities—but here, he definitely got carried away. Listening to this is a fascinating experience, nevertheless.
Monica Huggett, 1997
I. Adagio (4’35”)
In earlier reviews, I have already written about Monica Huggett’s tendency towards “belly notes”. Here, this becomes into a rather obnoxious “feature”: the vast majority of the quavers, punctuated quavers and longer notes is shaped as “belly accent”, often even with added Nachdrücken. Disturbing, distracting, and defeating the beauty of the instrument’s sonority, the sound of gut strings, etc.—a pity!
II. Fuga: Allabreve (12’49”)
No. Simply not: disturbing, even! I don’t want to duplicate my comments from the artist’s fugues in Sonata #1 and Sonata #2—but honestly, I find this performance just dreadful. In all three of the fugues, Monica Huggett offers the slowest of the performances (typically by a substantial margin), and in all three fugues every single arpeggio disrupts the musical flow, making it impossible to follow the polyphony (as, e.g., the theme is dissected by the arpeggios). Even in non-polyphonic segments, the flow extremely fragmented into small phrases. And in all these performances, the intonation is often marginal, to say the least. And there are all the belly notes—a pain to listen to.
In polyphonic segments (e.g., bars 116ff), the artist simply abandons the long, accompanying notes (half notes, ligatures, etc.). I dare to question whether the artist really masters Bach’s fugues for solo violin. The best (most acceptable) part is the quaver segment in bars 244 – 273.
III. Largo (3’18”)
Monica Huggett’s timing is very close to Rachel Podger’s and Alina Ibragimova’s. And as these two, the artist has a tendency towards belly dynamics and Nachdrücken. In that aspect, it is actually the strongest and most irritating of the three: this “feature” defeats all phrasing arches and the underlying “breathing”. Once I note such a strong feature, this captures all my attention, I can no longer focus on phrases and melodies. Too bad!
IV. Allegro assai (6’03”)
Carefully played and articulated, playful, with appropriate agogics—one of Monica Huggett’s better movements, for sure (no chance “belly dynamics”, Nachdrücken, or the like!).
My main objection: as a piece in 3/4 time, it definitely isn’t Allegro assai. I presume that the artist simply ignored the 3/4 signature, assuming that the fast semiquaver movement would already create the “Allegro feeling”. Undeniably, this is the case. However, it completely shifts the attention towards the semiquaver motifs, while distracting from the larger scale structures / harmonic progression. At a local scale, Monica Huggett certainly and carefully plays out the underlying melodic components. It’s just not Allegro assai—also because the artist in addition has a tendency to broaden the pace to highlight key parts of a (bigger) phrase.
Total Duration: 26’45”
Rating: 2 / 1 / 2 / 3 = 2.00
Comment: An early HIP performance with (very) few highlights—and (major) shortcomings, compared to more recent HIP interpretations.
Rachel Podger, 1999
Instrument: 1739 “re-baroqued” violin by Pesarinius, Genoa; baroque bow. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
I. Adagio (4’19”)
Similar to Monica Huggett, Rachel Podger has a strong tendency towards using “belly notes” and notes with a distinct crescendo. To her benefit, I should say that these are not quite as ubiquitous and obnoxious, though, and often less conspicuous. However, Rachel Podger’s articulation is typically very (exceedingly) mellow, making me long for a more “percussive” playing. Yes, vibrato is used sparingly (and in the sense of an ornament), and there are the occasional, added (fitting) ornaments. However, in the end, the impression from the belly notes prevails.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (9’54”)
Rachel Podger’s pace is fluid—maybe a tad too fluid? I quite like the articulation on the initial fugue subject, up to and including the addition of the second voice, where the artist plays out the tied notes in bars 8 – 10.
I soon also noted (“stumbled over”) some idiosyncrasies in articulation and dynamics. This issue is subtle / hard to pin down. One aspect may be that the articulation sometimes is too demonstrative and predictable, e.g., in how specific notes are portato / broadened. In the fugato parts, the artist does apply agogics (swaying within the barlines)—though somehow, it feels too regular / repetitive, if not schematic.
Another aspect is with rhythm / dynamics: Rachel Podger’s arpeggio chords are impulsive accents. Not all are the same—some are simple sfz, others appear ahead of the beat (to accommodate regularity in the melody), others are delayed (“belly”) eruptions. Especially the second exposition also features rather odd “swelling accents” on longer notes. Some arpeggios are broad enough to affect the rhythmic flow, especially combined with the irregularity in their timing (delayed vs. ahead). In an otherwise melodious performance the arpeggios feel too prominent and too regular in strength. I think it is better to integrate the arpeggios into the overall flow.
I like the episodes much better. They are light in the articulation, lively in agogics, detailed in the articulation. In the first and third episodes (bars 67, 69, bar 251), Rachel Podger adds small ornaments (inverted mordent on the second to last quaver). I think it fits well and suits the music, though some may argue that Bach already added ornament-like features with the semiquaver motifs. Others may ask: why only these three?
III. Largo (3’20”)
Rachel Podger’s timing is identical to Alina Ibragimova’s. Sadly, Podger’s tendency towards “belly dynamics” (rather: belly notes) is even stronger than Ibragimova’s. The recording shows a “bigger” tone (which could be a matter of the recording setup). However, the belly notes distract from the phrasing (typically in 1-bar phrases). Not surprisingly, Rachel Podger adds a few extra ornaments. I don’t think these fit the simplicity of Bach’s melody lines—rather, they are unnecessary distractions.
IV. Allegro assai (4’59”)
Rachel Podger’s Allegro assai is fast, technically clean, virtuosic, lively in tempo and agogics, also in the differentiated dynamics. Quibbles: there are occasional, slight exaggerations (excess stretching of peak notes or highlighted passages), occasional musical superficialities (and rare instances of marginal intonation of individual notes). I don’t quite like the idea of almost dropping the final note (in either part). And I think the addition of an inverted mordent to the fifth semiquaver in bar 4 (repeat only) is unnecessary and futile: one must listen very carefully even just to notice it. There may be one or the other additional ornament, even harder to notice—if so, what’s the point?
Total Duration: 22’32”
Rating: 3 / 3 / 3 / 4 = 3.25
Comment: A HIP performance with few highlights—and oddities in articulation and dynamics.
Gidon Kremer, 2002
Instrument: 1730 violin “ex-David” by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698 – 1744), Cremona.
I. Adagio (3’23”)
In his second recording, Gidon Kremer consequently applies over-punctuation, which fits his vehement arpeggio style. This adds extra dynamics and tension to an interpretation, which already is among the fastest in this comparison. It also creates an extra, rhythmic contrast to the few non-punctuated bars.
To me, it seems debatable whether the performance still fits the Adagio annotation. However, to the artist’s benefit, I must say that I’m delighted to note that in remarkable contrast to his 1980 recording he now applies vibrato very sparingly.
Together with the D major chord in bar 11, the jump to b♭’ in bar 12 is highlighted with a f. The subsequent c♯’ (a diminished seventh relative to the b♭’, after all!) receives an even more prominent accent. The remainder of the bar is not presented as recitative, rather as acciaccaturas. Kremer shapes broad dynamic arches, though without exaggerating the expression. One long arch / build-up begins in bar 15, rapidly picks up expression. Kremer is among a minority of artists (along with Menuhin, Szeryng, and Grumiaux) applying vehement downward arpeggios in bar 18 (and in a few additional instances). After that, the build-up continues up to a first maximum in bar 29, then further continues on to the G major chord in bar 34.
The final build-up begins with expressive p in bar 34, culminating in a highly expressive cadenza in bars 39 – 42. The “coda” (bars 43 – 47 is beautifully light: no ritardando, and no ornament on the final note, retracting into modesty and intimacy. Marvelous!
II. Fuga: Allabreve (9’07”)
In his 2002 recording, Gidon Kremer takes half a minute more than in his earlier 1980 performance. Yet, he is distinctly faster than Viktoria Mullova’s already fluid 2008 recording. Kremer starts off with what one might define as “mellow, almost gentle portato“. The sonority is a tad nervous, be it from a subtle vibrato, or from a (deliberately) loose, light bow (little pressure on the strings). In the two stop passages (e.g., bars 8 – 10), he plays out long notes—naturally, not demonstratively.
With the advent of 3- and 4-stop chords, however, the articulation suddenly turns explosive, occasionally like violent axe blows: Kremer does not need to resort to arpeggio for 3-stop chords, and even in 4-stop chords he appears to touch all strings almost simultaneously. Well, he typically plays the first (bottom or top) string as a kind of acciaccatura. Polished sonority is not Kremer’s “thing”—untamed expression is what he wants. One should keep in mind that this is with a modern bow and on a modernized violin.
In the episodes, however, Kremer’s articulation suddenly turns agile, light, playful—initially gentle, then with progressively vivid dynamics. In the episodes he is progressively and gradually accelerating, particularly towards the climax of the third episode. Yet, these accelerations appear natural, following the expression, without excessive push or urge. A stark contrast to the fugato. And within the latter, a similar contrast exists between 1- and 2-stop passages and polyphony involving 3- and 4-stop chords. The contrary to Isabelle Faust’s “integrated” approach—still internally consistent, though.
III. Largo (2’38”)
In his 2002 interpretation, GIdon Kremer takes almost exactly the same time as Thomas Zehetmair—however, I prefer the latter, by far. We are at the “fast end” of the comparison for this movement anyway; however, while Zehetmair manages to keep the calm Largo atmosphere (by approaching alla breve playing), Kremer’s interpretation feels almost Allegretto, as the meter is almost 8/8, i.e., the rhythm is dominated by the pairs and triplets of slurred semiquavers. Moreover, Kremer tends to use portato articulation even for slurred semiquavers. He even decomposes the successive quavers in bars 6 & 7 into portato semiquavers. That’s all too bad: I don’t think that this was the composer’s intent.
But yes, Kremer’s playing is technically superb, careful and clean (albeit “wrong”) in articulation and dynamics. The one striking feature with the latter: Kremer retracts to pp towards bar 20, then, the diminished seventh chord is an almost explosive eruption. After this, a gradual decrescendo leads towards the pp ending.
IV. Allegro assai (4’50”)
Just a tad faster than Viktoria Mullova—yet rather different. Highly virtuosic, of course. Kremer of course highlights the “hidden melodies” (accentuated, often vehement peak notes), just as the other top performers. The main differentiator, however, is in Kremer’s pronounced dynamic contrasts, separating expressive, “bright” segments from “distant echo responses”—sometimes from bar to bar, then again for longer (pp) passages. In the latter, he of course entirely retains the clarity of the articulation and in the dynamics (highlighting of melody notes). Stunning, excellent
Total Duration: 19’58”
Rating: 5 / 4 / 3 / 5 = 4.25
Comment: An excellent interpretation in general, though (in my opinion) not always at the high level of the outer movement, due to some idiosyncrasies.
Christian Tetzlaff, 2005
Instrument: 2002 violin by Stefan-Peter Greiner (*1966), Bonn.
I. Adagio (3’48”)
To me, Christian Tetzlaff’s performance feels a tiny bit “fast”, i.e., overall, there is some latent unrest. I can’t decide whether this is due to the slightly nervous (and fairly ubiquitous) vibrato. Maybe, it’s because in the artist’s agogics, the center of every regular (punctuated) bar is an almost unnoticeable trace faster than the first and the last beats? The pace per se is calm, but there is this slight “underlying” nervousness…
Christian Tetzlaff’s arpeggios are gentle, integrated, never harsh, the dynamic arches harmonious, natural—maybe with the exception a few short phrases with “belly dynamics”. Occasionally, there are also punctuations where the semiquaver is overshooting, like a little eruption. It’s not too bad, but why? It does create the slight impression of lacking bow control.
The “recitative” in bar 12 is more of a casual bridge between segments—not much in the limelight, nor particularly narrating. In contrast, Tetzlaff turns bars 40 – 42 (especially the beginning with its sudden forte) into a recitative (very similar to what Isabelle Faust and Sebastian Bohren do in the “recitative” in bar 12). In bars 41 and 42, the recitative gradually returns to the character of the casual transition in bar 12 of this interpretation.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (9’18”)
In the fugue, Christian Tetzlaff is clearly faster than the average of the 26 recordings (substantially faster than Isabelle Faust). However, the absolute pace does not matter that much. Yes, the beginning of the subject does feel fluid—still OK, though. However, why does the artist start accelerating already within the first 3 bars. That’s not the end of it: throughout the fugato, there are some tempo variations. The dominant impression is that the artist keeps pushing / accelerating / “catching up” (with what?), even though the overall tempo gain is limited. The playing is clear, well-articulated, careful in the dynamics—but as a listener, I feel constantly pushed (or pulled).
Also in the episode I get the feeling that I don’t have the time to enjoy the details. The second exposition starts with a very slightly slower pace—and in fact, there is more calm, less pushing ahead—the performance feels more considerate. That ends with the second episode, which again has a tendency to feel fast or accelerating. The al riverso exposition (inverted subject) again starts calm, careful—but again starts pushing, as it builds up to the climax, and this continues in the third episode.
Too bad: I like many aspects of Christian Tetzlaff’s interpretation (the limited / minimal vibrato, for example, or the articulation, the diligent dynamics). I just wish I was given more time to enjoy (and maybe, that there was more Klangrede). As stated, I don’t think that the problem is with the absolute tempo—it’s more with the handling of the pace within.
III. Largo (3’37”)
I like the tempo here. Christian Tetzlaff articulates carefully, following Bach’s notation in every slur. The basic pace / attitude is calm, the phrases, the breathing harmonious. Sadly, the slightly nervous (though not exceedingly strong / intrusive) vibrato doesn’t quite fit into this picture. What hurts more is the strong tendency towards “belly dynamics” in every motif / note / bow. The best part is the introverted, intimate, pp ending (starting in bar 18): nice!
IV. Allegro assai (4’36”)
Almost exactly the same pace as Isabelle Faust—but not quite as clean, technically: there are occasional superficialities (mostly left-hand), such as improper tone transitions, like “too legato“, or “smeared out legato“, rushed (slurred) motifs, slight pushing towards the end of a part, even a few fast notes with marginal intonation. A tad too fast? Apart from this, the artist’s basis concept is excellent, following a “philosophy” similar to Viktoria Mullova, in terms of dynamics and Klangrede. A double mordent on the vanishing final note: why not, feels like a nice baroque closure!
Total Duration: 21’18”
Rating: 4 / 4 / 3 / 4 = 3.75
Comment: Good, but not quite at the top. Recommendation with caveats / reservations.
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 (3’43”)
Very close to Christian Tetzlaff’s tempo—but quite different, indeed! Much more selective and restrictive in the use of vibrato. A very harmonious and “integrated” approach, natural in the articulation, the arpeggios rounded. There is beautiful swaying in every beat, every punctuation. Bar 12 is more of a casual transition than a recitative. The same holds true for the “cadenza” (bars 39 – 42), which is kept rhythmically free, flowing,
An interpretation with beautiful, warm sonority (a’ = 415 Hz!) that avoids harshness. At the same time, it is far from pure sound esthetics: there is the occasional buzzing of the empty e” string, and the non-vibrato lets Bach’s dissonances stand out: beautiful, characterful sonority and articulation! The strength of Viktoria Mullova’s interpretation isn’t in prominent, dominating individuality, but in the naturalness of her expression and playing.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (9’18”)
Viktoria Mullova’s timing is identical to Christian Tetzlaff’s. Her playing indeed feels fluid—but interestingly, it does not create the sensation of rush, of being pushed. She certainly doesn’t let the pace fall behind (especially in the fugato). There are agogics and Klangrede, yet, she does not allow for substantial resting points. However, there isn’t this feeling of constant pulling or acceleration as with Christian Tetzlaff. The episodes are fluid as well, but playful and light—and beautiful. Always after an episode, she “seizes the pace” again with the beginning of the next fugue exposition. That’s OK: it is a momentary switch in pace, not continuous push or acceleration.
Viktoria Mullova’s playing is refreshingly natural, so far from polished perfection! She does not make attempts to hide the poignant (sometimes buzzing) sound of the empty gut e” string. The artist is truthful to the score—as much as humanly possible: she does play out long notes in two-stop passages—though naturally, not demonstratively. A “down to Earth”, living, characterful sound and performance: fascinating even just through its naturalness and the absence of show effects!
III. Largo (2’52”)
As Atilla Aldemir (on the viola), Viktoria Mullova is very close to Isabelle Faust’s timing. Among these three, Viktoria Mullova’s interpretation is closer to Isabelle Faust’s. Both are truly excellent / outstanding—yet, there are distinct differences. For one, Viktoria Mullova applies a subtle (harmonious, inconspicuous) vibrato in most quavers and longer notes. And her articulation / phrasing is more flowing, always with “space to breathe” in-between. The swaying is wonderfully harmonious, and even though the pace is a tad faster, it feels calmer, more relaxed (amazing, given that this is one of the “faster” performances!).
One remarkable difference is in the rhythmically free, fast(er) demisemiquaver cadenza in bar 19. Overall, the entire interpretation feels exceptionally rounded and harmonious. And the sonority is absolutely beautiful, gorgeous, needless to say!
IV. Allegro assai (4’55”)
Viktoria Mullova’s pace is close to Thomas Zehetmair’s and Gidon Kremer’s (2002). Exceptionally clear in articulation and dynamics—at the same time natural, devoid of extremes in dynamics, agogics, and articulation (such as Zehetmair’s), beautiful in sonority (as usual). The ideal combination of a calm (larger scale) base pace and the appropriate Allegro assai feeling. A feast in joy and jubilation! Can it be any better? Hardly! Masterful, stunning!
Total Duration: 20’48”
Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 5.00
Comment: Once more, Viktoria Mullova comes out at the forefront, at the very top of my favorite performances: strongest possible recommendation—go for it! That said: of course, I don’t claim that this is the “one and only best possible performance”!
Kristóf Baráti, 2009
Instrument: 1703 violin “Lady Harmsworth” by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona.
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001. Kristóf Baráti consequently leaves out all second repeats.
I. Adagio (3’59”)
Constant flow, pure sound esthetics, absolute rhythmic regularity, note by note exactly as written in the manuscript (except for the trill on the final note). Absence of all agogics / rhythmic tension. The recitative in bar 12, as well as all semiquaver and demisemiquavers in bars 39ff (in particular bars 40 – 42) are performed with metronomic precision, devoid of all tension. Even the ubiquitous vibrato, as well as the dynamic arches are perfectly shaped. Flawless, but utterly boring.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (9’38”)
The first exposition may be technically perfect—it is far too uniform in articulation and dynamics, and (primarily) in their relentless pace, devoid of agogics. All arpeggios are vehement, short beats (with “scratch-free sonority, of course). The episodes may be lighter and more differentiated in the dynamics—they nevertheless move forward with the relentlessness of a machine, again with minimal agogics.
The second exposition appears richer in dynamics and articulation, with its gentle, soft double-stop passages. The pace is still mostly relentless. Overall, I like the episodes, but the expositions to me feel very technical, cold, devoid of expression, even brutal. I don’t think Bach’s intent was to express perseverance and anger? There is more to this music than technical perfection.
III. Largo (3’03”)
For this movement, Kristóf Baráti takes exactly as much time as Jaap Schröder. However, that’s about the only feature that the two interpretations have in common. Polished, and played with the expected technical perfection, Baráti’s interpretation is devoid of agogics: semiquavers are maybe not performed machine-like, but still almost with the regularity and uniformity of a clockwork. Sure, Baráti uses dynamics to shape long phrases, and, of course, he observes the 4/4 time signature—but such regularity at the level of small notes really is a thing of the past—as is the uniformity and omnipresence of his vibrato.
IV. Allegro assai (3’36”, second repeat not performed)
There is dynamic differentiation (e.g., across a phrase, or between phrases), and the performance is fast and technically exceptionally clean, perfect in sonority and articulation. Apart from that, however, it is sterile, devoid of agogics / Klangrede, relentlessly moving forward, momentarily even rushing a tad. And the final ritardando is excessive and old-fashioned.
Total Duration: 20’16”
Rating: 3 / 3 / 3 / 3 = 3.00
Comment: Technically polished and near-perfect—musically typically boring. Not recommended, unless you are looking for technical perfection (and just that).
Isabelle Faust, 2009
Instrument: 1704 violin “La belle au bois dormant” by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona. This is apparently the only Stradivari instrument that has not undergone modernization, i.e., it still features the shorter and flatter neck.
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Sonata No.1 in G minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1001, as well as on the Partita No.2 in D minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1004.
I. Adagio (4’44”)
Isabelle Faust’s pace is virtually identical to Menuhin’s and Szeryng’s—yet, the piece sounds so different! Simply put: this recording proves that nothing is lost if an artist (almost entirely) omits the vibrato! Quite to the contrary: here, the ear is focusing on the essentials of Bach’s music—and of the calm, the artist’s wonderfully balanced articulation, phrasing, and dynamics! The performance is calm, indeed—but not static at all.
There are of course the natural, broad dynamic arches—nothing is forced or excessive. Plus, there is this beautiful swaying in every bar—in parts dynamics / articulation, in parts agogics. A wonderful moment happens in bar 12, where Bach declines a “landing” on g”, but rather jumps to b♭’, in a surprising move. Here, Isabelle Faust “speaks up” with an instant forte—a second voice, a 1-bar recitative interjection, further highlighted by the absence of vibrato. The arpeggios are not driving impulses, but mellow, integrated “ornaments” and harmonic support (broad in comparison to traditional interpretations).
And, of course, there is the beautiful and balanced sonority of the artist’s wonderful instrument! Nothing is rough, too poignant—yet, every tone exhibits character and color. Exemplary!
II. Fuga: Allabreve (9’46”)
In my listening sequence for the fugue, this is #20 out of 26. At that point, curiosity about coming recordings tends to give way to fear—whether the remaining recordings will offer anything new, and whether I still would be able to create sensible comments. These fears were absolutely pointless here! Indeed, to me, Isabelle Faust’s interpretation is another revelation, after the one in the Sonata No.2 in A minor, BWV 1003: considering the (19) preceding recordings, I was tempted to call this a miracle: at the very least, it is wonder- and masterful!
Now: you are wrong if you expect a description of polished technical perfection, or of voluptuous, impressive / huge sonority. Actually, at a first glance, one might even call Isabelle Faust’s recording frugal. That has two causes: for one, Isabelle Faust’s playing is virtually devoid of vibrato. Then, the recording volume is a bit lower than in the other performances in this comparison, which is deceptive. Relative to other recordings, one needs to turn up the volume, in order to enjoy the full sound. Still, there is no trumping up with virtuosity or (largely) sonority. It really is an interpretation in the service of the composer and his music. Let me briefly summarize my impressions:
Integrative, Harmonious, Insightful
It is hard to do justice to this interpretation in one or two short paragraphs, so I stick to highlights. I see the performance as integrative at many levels. The subject for the fugue is unpretentious. Only gradually, it builds more intensity. However, where others play the chords as hard, forceful, if not crashing “beats”, Isabelle Faust harmoniously integrates the chords into the polyphonic web—and into the dynamic arch. And she manages to keep the polyphony transparent, “readable” also in secondary voices, while building up the dynamics to a beautiful, but not excessive climax. Nothing is harsh, let alone brutal, the chords don’t stand out of the context, but are rounded gentle arpeggios.
At the big scale, Isabelle Faust integrates the episodes into fugue, while of course maintaining the diversity in the textures: The first episode seamlessly grows out of the preceding exposition. Needless to say that despite the simple texture, the episode is full of agogics, differentiation, Klangrede. The second exposition almost casually grows out of the first episode. Only once, for the beginning of the third exposition (with the al riverso subject), the artist allows for a tiny fermata after a slight ritardando. It is a pivotal point in the long movement, the second part almost another movement by itself.
To summarize: Isabelle Faust’s interpretation (as well as of course Bach’s composition) is the stroke of a genius—and a musical marvel!
III. Largo (2’55”)
Isabelle Faust’s pace is a tad faster than Arthur Grumiaux’—and indeed, the tempo feels unusually fluid. Yet, there is a calm basic pace: Isabelle Faust performs in crotchets, as appropriate / required for a 4/4 time signature. Moreover, as in proper 4/4 time, not all crotchets have identical “value”, but crotchets 1 & 3 receive extra weight, almost as in alla breve time. Indeed, in bars 1 – 3, 8, 14/15, the accompanying chords / harmonies only fall onto crotchets 1 & 3. Needless to say that Isabelle Faust performs without any vibrato, with agogics and proper Klangrede. With this, the melody line (in semiquavers) feels like an eloquent narrative on top of a calm, reflective foundation, supported by gentle, half-bar swaying: masterful!
IV. Allegro assai (4’46”)
Truly exceptional in the purity in intonation, sonority (up to the highest positions), and clarity of articulation. Fast (the same pace as Augustin Hadelich and Christian Tetzlaff), only 6 performances are faster. Yet, Isabelle Faust manages to keep the pace without even traces of rushing / pushing—ever. This clearly speaks for the artist’s superb technique. Highly differentiated in dynamics (maybe not as lively and natural as Viktoria Mullova), with Klangrede in every phrase. Constant flow, but never motoric. Mastership at the highest level, a true technical marvel!
Total Duration: 22’11”
Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 5.00
Comment: With great regularity, along with Viktoria Mullova and Amandine Beyer, Isabelle Faust scores the highest ratings in this comparison. Needless to say: one of my favorite performances—strongest possible recommendation, go for it!
Alina Ibragimova, 2009
Instrument: 1738 violin by Pietro Guarneri (1695 – 1762), Venice.
I. Adagio (4’12”)
At almost the identical pace as Sebastian Bohren’s (even closer to the overall average), one striking feature in Alina Ibragimova’s interpretation is her distinct over-punctuation (not quite double-punctuated, though). It often feels as if she wanted to “hide” the semiquaver, or make her sound like an acciaccatura. I see no reason for over-punctuating in this movement—though it isn’t really intrusive.
Vibrato is virtually absent, and the artist rarely tries to move into “huge tone”: she puts all her playing into the service of Bach’s music, trying to reproduce how this music might have sounded at the composer’s time. Her instrument has a very warm, full tone on the low strings. Alina Ibragimova’s sense for perfect intonation even in the absence of vibrato is astounding. My main quibble is with occasional, subtle Nachdrücken.
Here, the entry into the “recitative” in bar 12 is very gentle, almost “through the back-door”.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (10’41”)
I’m listening to this after the interpretation by Christine Busch, one of my top favorites. I felt that rather than describing Alina Ibragimova’s performance “from scratch”, it would be easier to compare her recording to Christine Busch’s.
Recording, general: Both recordings are historically informed, but Alina Ibragimova performs at a’ = 440 Hz. This alone makes the sound brighter, more poignant. Plus, she appears to be playing on metal (or metal-clad) strings, which contributes to making the sound metallic, possibly more incisive. The playing here is without any vibrato, which further clarifies, sharpens the sound. It also makes intonation more challenging—however, Alina Ibragimova’s tonal purity is exceptional and absolutely firm.
One quibble I have is with the noticeable acceleration in the episodes at bars 165ff, as well as bars 245ff. Other artists do this as well, but here, I feel that the result does not feel quite natural and harmonious. It is possible that in live performances this works just fine, but in a recording, the situation is different.
My main objection here is with the articulation. For one, while Alina Ibragimova of course does apply agogics and dynamics in phrasing, her articulation is often somewhat uniform and a tad schematic. The integration of the arpeggios, or of the long notes in double-stop passages is not nearly as natural and harmonious as with Christine Busch. Worse than that, Alina Ibragimova shows a strong tendency towards prominently swelling notes—to the point where (once one has noticed it) it becomes annoying.
III. Largo (3’20”)
Exactly the same timing as Rachel Podger. Clean, straight, vibrato-less tone, unfortunately with a distinct tendency towards crescendo articulation on every tone / bow, occasionally even a scent of Nachdrücken. Also somewhat short-breathed (focus on half-bar periods), lacking the harmonious arch across the phrases. Too much pp, too much intimacy / introversion?
IV. Allegro assai (4’25”)
An amazing performance! Not because it holds the “speed record” among these recordings (faster even than Tomás Cotik). Rather, because Alina Ibragimova does so with utmost clarity throughout, with unmatched elegance and lightness, with clean intonation, and while even retaining differentiation in dynamics and articulation. It does not (!!!) feel rushed / pushed—and hence, unlike some of the slower (!) performances, I can still (just) feel this as Allegro assai, not as an inappropriate Presto. Amazing and admirable—congrats!
Total Duration: 22’38”
Rating: 4 / 3 / 3 / 5 = 3.75
Comment: In this recording, Alina Ibragimova can’t quite match up to the top performances—yet. One should keep in mind that she did this recording in 2009, aged 24. Certainly, the 2009 performance of Bach’s “Sei Solo” is no longer representative for her interpretations today. Did she record this too soon in her career? I can see this happening with other artists, too—definitely a temptation. On the other hand, there is always the possibility that an artist tackles the “Sei Solo” again, later in their career…
Sergey Khachatryan, 2009
Instrument: 1702 violin “Lord Newlands” by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona.
I. Adagio (5’01”)
No.2 in the sequence from slow to fast, though clearly faster than Szigeti’s 1956 recording (5 vs. 6 minutes). Khachatryan’s performance sounds not nearly as static and flat as Szigeti’s. It remains a highly romantic interpretation, though, with its strong (excessive) dynamic arches (bars 1 – 14, 15 – 29, 30 – 34, 34 – 42, 43 – 46). Khachatryan certainly is a technically excellent: he articulates all arpeggios carefully, with balanced internal dynamics, and the arches are shaped very carefully. However, he “abuses” the semiquavers in punctuated motifs to mask a very distinct Nachdrücken (especially in preparation for the subsequent arpeggio). The latter clearly is a danger, rather a “disease”, that is generally linked to the use of a modern (long) bow.
The idea of the dynamic arches is definitely OK, but for a performance of baroque music, it seems far too strong to me in this interpretation. And: the continuous, strong and nervous vibrato defeats the calm, solemn or serene atmosphere of this piece.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (11’34”)
From the timing, Sergey Khachatryan’s performance stands between Joseph Szigeti’s and Henryk Szeryng’s. The latter’s beginning is noticeably slower, though. All three of these performances feature abundant and ubiquitous vibrato, whereby Khachatryan’s is the most prominent and most nervous among the three. Yet, compared to slow movements, the vibrato is somewhat less detrimental in this fugue. Still, Khachatryan’s esthetics appear to be those of 80 years ago. That includes the poignant, metallic sonority from modern strings and bow, especially in loud(er) passages. This sets him apart from most or all other, current recordings.
Esthetics aside, Khachatryan is a technically excellent. He articulates carefully (with a certain tendency towards Nachdrücken and “belly notes”), is equally careful about phrasing and truthfulness to Bach’s annotation, and his arpeggios are never harsh. Like Szeryng, the artist plays out all long notes in two-stop passages—and I must say that this feels much more compelling and integrated here, than with Szeryng. Also, compared to the latter, Khachatryan’s playing is much richer in agogics.
In fugato, Khachatryan always clearly highlights the subject (excessively, even?). However, in general, Khachatryan has a tendency towards expansive, if not extreme dynamics. His dynamic arches often culminate in an impressive ff, and the next phrase then may start pp or below. It feels as if he wanted to raise this fugue to glorious heights. True, the composition is a real masterpiece (just like the Chaconne in Partita No.2). However, I personally prefer performances that stay closer to the context of what Bach may have envisaged. In a way, Khachatryan’s interpretation reminds me of over-enlarging Bach adaptations by Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924).
III. Largo (3’34”)
Close to unbearable, I’m afraid. The basic tempo may be OK, but the phrasing is short-breathed, the strong, intrusive vibrato extremely, disturbingly nervous, the notorious belly dynamics (or should I call this Nachdrücken?) on every note / motif obnoxious. Enough said…
IV. Allegro assai (5’04”)
No chance for vibrato, Nachdrücken, belly notes, or the like: indeed, technically superb, if not brilliant, perfect sonority, clean (near-perfect) in the articulation, and musically excellent. Differentiated and detailed in dynamics, diligent and subtle in the small tempo variations & agogics. Khachatryan’s best movement so far! Quibbles? Well, if I were to look for a “hair in the soup”, then it would be about occasional, momentary traces of rushing—one can safely ignore these. Congrats for an excellent performance!
Total Duration: 25’14”
Rating: 2 / 3 / 1 / 5 = 2.75
Comment: The last movement is one of (very) few highlights in Sergey Khachatryan’s performance of the “Sei Solo“. For the other movements: I cannot warm up to the idea of applying the artist’s vibrato-laden, exceedingly romantic esthetics to Bach’s “Sei Solo“.
Amandine Beyer, 2011
Instrument: 1996 baroque violin by Pierre Jaquier; 2000 baroque bow by Eduardo Gorr. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
I. Adagio (3’56”)
Beautiful! The lower pitch highlights the warm color of the g and d’ gut strings. I’m listening to this right after Kristóf Baráti (virtually identical timing)—and the contrast is extreme! Not just is the sound so much richer in colors, but the music is swaying, living! Amandine Beyer applies an almost imperceptible vibrato, merely and selectively for highlighting of key notes. With this, the listener’s focus is on the beauty of the music, the richness in colors of the instrument, and the beauty (!) of Bach’s dissonances, rather than on technicalities of the artist’s performance.
Unlike with Isabelle Faust and Sebastian Bohren, the “recitative” in bar 12 does not stand out through dramatic dynamic contrast, but rather through extra subtlety, extra agogics, and warm color. “Speaking” agogics is also what primarily makes the “cadenza” in bars 39 – 42 stand out. Amandine Beyer adds very few extra ornaments—these are fitting so well that most people won’t take notice. These are the trills on the second beat in bar 11, on the last beat of bars 14 and 39, and on the final note, most of which others perform as well. A particularly nice one is the extra a” preceding the last beat of bar 33: lovely!
The arpeggios are all harmonious, natural. In bar 18, the artist only touches the punctuated quaver, leaving the bow on the crotchets before returning to the g string for the semiquaver. Yes, Bach writes slurs on the punctuations—but in Amandine Beyer’s hands, the gap in the punctuation is hardly noticeable.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (10’24”)
Ah—a beautiful example of “percussive articulation”: a term that I believe Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973) once coined. One of my violin teachers explained it with the apocryphal quote “A proper tone begins with a ‘T'” (he continued with “hence the name ‘Hohner’!”, whereby Hohner the most prominent brand of / manufacturer for harmonicas). In percussive articulation, every tone begins with a well-defined, little “beat” (when the bow starts moving on the string, especially in down-bows). The antagonist to percussive would be “belly notes” / swelling tones, or, in general, tones with a badly / vaguely defined beginning. Given the nature of the baroque bow (which Amandine Beyer is using), I suspect that percussive articulation was the norm at Bach’s time.
Amandine Beyer’s playing is far from polished perfection. Her tone and dynamics are so full of life and character, and noises from gut strings are the “salt in her soup”. It’s a joy to listen to the artist’s natural, unpretentious tone and articulation. The latter in itself is so rich: here détaché bowing varies from f / portato (for emphasis) to light staccato / spiccato for secondary passages, such as transitions between phrases. Nothing in her playing is demonstrative or pretentious. And nothing lets the listener feel how much of a challenge this fugue is. Finally: the agogics, the Klangrede: marvelous!
III. Largo (3’08”)
Amandine Beyer’s is fluid—yet retains the Largo character on the crotchet meter. The artist’s flowing articulation almost makes the distinction between slurred and stand-alone notes disappear: the focus is on phrasing, and linking one- and half-bar phrases to beautiful bigger arches, through agogics and gentle dynamics. There is breathing in every phrase, leaving a natural amount of “room / space to breathe”, without disrupting the big arches. An interpretation completely in the service of Bach’s music. Marvelous again!
IV. Allegro assai (4’40”)
Very close to the fastest performances: as often in fast / challenging movements, Amandine Beyer takes the risky path, going as far as the baroque bow and gut strings possibly permit. Perfect and smooth sonority in every single semiquaver is not a priority here: the focus is on liveliness, richness, expression. The articulation is always detailed and truthful, though, and the artist has the tempo under full control (no rushing, not of course ever any dragging). An astounding, very colorful and flamboyant performance, often eruptive in the dynamics, truly enthralling, jaw-dropping.
Total Duration: 22’09”
Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 5.00
Comment: Among the performances in this comparison, this is the third one with top ratings throughout—despite being the riskiest one! Once more one of my favorites—strongest possible recommendation, go for it!
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 (3’52”)
In general quite similar to Jaap Schröder’s interpretation, and almost identical in the tempo / timing. Thomas Pietsch remains relatively metric, especially in the “recitative”(bar 12), and also in the “cadenza” bars (39 – 42). This limits the amount of Klangrede in the interpretation. There aren’t substantial, added dynamic contrasts. The articulation is relatively percussive (except for the rare, subtle “belly note”), vibrato virtually absent. The straight, often slightly buzzing sound of the e” string does not hurt at all. A peculiarity of this interpretation: Thomas Pietsch does not try keeping the bow on the resting top note in bars 34/35—he appears to rely upon reverberation (and the close microphone placement) to keep those long notes “alive”.
The main differentiator to the other, historically informed recordings is in the sonority. For one, there is the substantial amount of reverberation—not a major problem here. What is slightly irritating, though, is the somewhat odd acoustic amplification of the instrument’s middle range, especially on the d’ string. This often creates a “bulky” sound, where the middle notes (in arpeggios) dominate over those on the g and e” strings (or, say, c” and higher). I can’t tell whether this is an imbalance in the instrument’s sonority (combined with close microphone placement), or an imbalance in the acoustic response (e.g., resonances for specific frequencies in the part of the church where the recording took place?).
II. Fuga: Allabreve (10’39”)
Thomas Pietsch’s timing is virtually identical to Alina Ibragimova’s—I’m listening to this after the latter. Both claim to be historically informed—but the performances and the recordings could hardly be more different. The soundscape: I have mentioned the church acoustics (and the close microphone placement) in earlier reviews. Here, in the aftermath, the reverberation just highlights the dry, frugal / neutral (cold?) acoustic setting in Ibragimova’s recording. Thomas Pietsch’s lower pitch further contributes to this contrast. It also makes the sound richer, darker.
Thomas Pietsch’s articulation in fugato is short—the reverberation fills the gaps, so the performance does not sound dry. Articulation and agogics also are quite different. As many artists, Pietsch does not make attempts to play out long notes in two-stop passages. I find somewhat irritating that 3- and 4-stop arpeggios tend to disrupt the flow. There are also tempo instabilities (“spontaneous accelerations”). In addition, there are frequent superficialities in the articulation—badly defined tones, tone transitions and semiquaver passages. The latter often sound like acciaccaturas, even though Bach writes them out in full. Also, there are roughnesses in polyphonic passages, occasionally also marginal intonation.
III. Largo (3’51”)
One of four performances that spend around four minutes with this movement (the others are Augustin Hadelich, Henryk Szeryng, and Joseph Szigeti). It is probably Thomas Pietsch’s best movement so far (including BWV 1001 – 1004). Here’s how I feel about it. The calm, broad, and still natural, relaxed breathing, combined with the clean, pure tone (a subtle ornament-like vibrato is applied to very few notes only) creates a unique atmosphere of chastity, of simplicity and warmth—marvelous! And here, the reverberation of the church acoustics helps a lot, by harmoniously engulfing the sound of the instrument. Also, Thomas Pietsch manages to maintain a steady flow of phrases, while still leaving “room to breathe” between the phrases. Beautiful and precious!
IV. Allegro assai (5’57”)
Thomas Pietsch’s pace is almost identical to the one in Monica Huggett’s interpretation—for remarks about the choice of tempo see there. Differences: Thomas Pietsch doesn’t broaden the pace for highlights / climaxes as much as Huggett, i.e., the overall flow is a bit more regular—apart from agogics, of course. Pietsch’s articulation is a tad more noisy (a consequence of the recording setup, I believe), and together with the reverberation, this makes the performance sound “busier”. There are occasional (negligible) superficialities in the intonation of “minor” notes. Thomas Pietsch does not aim for polished perfection in sound / sonority—articulation noise results from the use of gut strings and a baroque bow. And the recording setup further highlights such noise.
Total Duration: 24’20”
Rating: 3 / 2 / 5 / 3 = 3.25
Comment: A sincere, historically informed performance in an acoustic environment that occasionally affects the listening experience through very prominent reverberation. To me, the slow movement is stands out, not just within Thomas Pietsch’s “Sei Solo“—a wonderful and unique experience!
Christine Busch, 2012
Instrument: 18th century baroque violin, Tyrol. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
I. Adagio (4’18”)
I’m listening to this after the recordings by Monica Huggett and Rachel Podger. I may still be a bit “over-sensibilized” by their belly and crescendo notes—so be it: I still dislike the occasional belly notes. There are also frequent instances of Nachdrücken (uncontrolled swelling at the end of a motif), partially hiding in the semiquaver in punctuated motifs. If it weren’t for these flaws, this would be a very nice interpretation, with gentle rhythmic swaying, excellent sonority, and scarce vibrato.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (11’10”)
Quibbles first: also here, there is a tendency towards occasional swelling / belly notes, as well as Nachdrücken. I’m referring to ostensible “swelling” beyond just “letting a note grow / evolve”. But these are really minor issues. Christine Busch’s playing is beautiful, rounded, generous in dynamics, very harmonious—to the point where even most of the arpeggios appear inconspicuous.
Then, there are the rich agogics, the detailed and careful dynamics, phrasing and articulation, all truthful to the score. The episodes are full of Klangrede. This makes the listener aware of harmonic and melodic details that go unnoticed in a traditional, mechanical performance.
In the expositions, Christine Busch of course keeps the focus on highlighting the subject(s)—without neglecting secondary voices, and in double-stop passages, she plays out the long notes (as much as phrasing requires). All this feels absolutely natural, as her 3- and 4-stop arpeggios are rounded, never rude, and well-integrated into the flow. And, of course, there is this rich, beautiful “baroque sonority”, which the listener can enjoy to the fullest, as the artist never appears to get caught in technicalities.
III. Largo (3’11”)
Beautiful sonority, natural articulation, dynamics and (distinct) agogics—Klangrede at its best! There is vibrato, but rather inconspicuous and rather selective, in the sense of ornament / enhancement of (longer) key notes. Nothing here is show: Christine Busch almost de-emphasized ornaments: some of Bach’s trills are hardly audible, appear as secondary / minor features. The only, minor quibble: to me, there is a little too much focus on half-bar phrases, which obscures the perception of bigger arches.
IV. Allegro assai (5’18”)
Fast, but not too fast or pushed—agile, virtuosic, playful, carefully articulated down to the smallest of details (never scratchy), excellent sonority, clear, very “active dynamics” (as if the artist was leaning forward to highlight key parts / the climax in phrases). Keeping tension and drive up—just excellent! And: no big ritardando at the end, just a pronounced “landing” with a mordent (as the only extra) on the final note—love it!
Total Duration: 23’58”
Rating: 4 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 4.75
Comment: One of the best performances in this comparison—strongly recommended.
Sebastian Bohren, 2017
Instrument: 1710 violin “King George” by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona.
For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the “Sei Solo” see the posting on the Partita No.2 in D minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1004.
I. Adagio (4’14”)
Among the 26 recordings in the comparison, Sebastian Bohren’s tempo is very close to the “golden middle”. When moving in from the slow(est) performances, this momentarily feels a tad “fluid”—but the artist exerts excellent tempo control, avoids even traces of unwanted acceleration. Rather, there is the occasional, discreet broadening for highlighted moments.
The vibrato is harmonious and largely inconspicuous, fairly omnipresent, the dynamics very well-shaped: he is not the only one starting with a very subtle pp in bar 34. The sudden, surprising forte for the “recitative” in bar 12 sounds very similar to Isabelle Faust’s interpretation. This certainly is not a coincidence—Sebastian Bohren knows a large number of interpretations inside out. And actually, this view of bar 12 actually feels quite obvious from Bach’s notation.
One peculiarity: bar 18 is in three voices, with the punctuations on the g string. Most performances use a rapid arpeggio, instantly returning to the g string. Others (Menuhin, Szeryng, Grumiaux, Kremer 1980) switch to falling arpeggio, just for this bar, to be able to perform the punctuated motif the same way as if it was in the top voice. If the arpeggio is heavily accentuated, that can sound almost brutal. Bohren rather uses a gentle, regular arpeggio, momentarily leaving the punctuated note alone, while quickly moving from the d’ string to the a’ string and back, then “completing” (returning to) the punctuated note, and appending the semiquaver on the g string. Interesting—and it works for me.
The subtle, intimate and restrained ending is excellent!
II. Fuga: Allabreve (11’39”)
Sebastian Bohren’s duration is almost identical to Giuliano Carmignola’s, a tiny bit shorter (i.e., faster). Yet, my listening impression is that of a slower performance. Sebastian Bohren begins with very mellow, gentle articulation (not unlike Carmignola): he may have felt that the arpeggios alone add enough “percussiveness”. He maintains that articulation for the fugue theme throughout the exposition. Actually, within the exposition, the articulation in general is relatively broad (portato). Also the arpeggios are not harsh, but “flowing”, and they do not disrupt the pace.
For non-thematic segments, the articulation is typically shorter, lighter. Throughout the fugue, the articulation always careful, diligent, the intonation clean / excellent, the vibrato (if present) inconspicuous.
Why then does Carmignola’s interpretation feel livelier despite being a tad slower? I think that up to bar 244, Sebastian Bohren’s tempo and dynamics are relatively uniform. One of the few prominent features: in the exposition #3, the inverted theme (al riverso) appears f, whereas the initial theme (recto) was gentle and p. He could easily add more agogics and variation in dynamics and articulation—in short: Klangrede. In fact, it takes up to the episode starting in bar 245 for the interpretation to “open up”:
As the intermezzo ascends up to g”’, the artist gradually accelerates and intensifies his playing. After the descent into the “jumping pattern with the alternating g drone, the interpretation intensifies and accelerates even further, up to the climax in bar 288. Thereafter, the final fugato with the inverted theme resumes with the original pace. That entire, last episode is truly beautiful in sonority, articulation, intonation and spirit, even enthralling: excellent, thanks! Also the last part, starting in bar 308, shows richness in agogics and dynamics that would have helped the interpretation up to bar 244.
III. Largo (3’29”)
Beautiful in tone, articulation, dynamics, and in the discreet use of vibrato (which never really hurts of turns intrusive). My main quibble here is the focus on 1-bar phrases (as opposed to two-bar melodies with a little caesura in the middle), which makes the piece feel somewhat fragmented. Also, (pairs of) subsequent, slurred two-quaver motifs occasionally feel a tad monotonous. In other words: some extra (more distinct) agogics would have been nice.
IV. Allegro assai (5’24”)
#7 out of 26 in the sequence from “slow” to “fast”—and one of the first where I really sense “Allegro assai“! It’s fast, but not pushed, rather playful, excellent and clear in articulation and sonority: I like the sound of those “beats” on the empty g string! Sebastian Bohren uses agogics and differentiates in the dynamics. No attempt to beat records, no extremes in articulation or dynamics, no unnecessary showmanship—just excellent musical craftsmanship! The only quibble I have with this movement is a slight (temporary) loss of momentum in the first pass of the second half.
Total Duration: 24’46”
Rating: 4 / 4 / 3 / 4 = 3.75
Comment: Maybe not quite as convincing as Partita No.2—but still worth a recommendation!
Giuliano Carmignola, 2018
Instrument: 1733 violin by Pietro Guarneri (1695 – 1762), Venice; 2007 bow by Emilio Slaviero, after Nicolas Leonard Tourte, 18th century. Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
I. Adagio (4’18”)
Giuliano Carmignola’s timing is identical to Christine Busch’s and Augustin Hadelich’s. Like the former, Giuliano Carmignola has a tendency towards swelling notes—without any signs of Nachdrücken, though. Here, however, the swelling mostly has the function of letting a note evolve / grow. It is at the point of being too conspicuous, though. As in Isabelle Faust’s interpretation, the arpeggios are not driving impulses, but mellow, integrated “ornaments” / harmonizations. Carmignola does add a few extra ornaments—to me, these are not necessary, some of them I find “not helpful”. In the “cadenzas“, Carmignola uses very poignant, impulsive agogics. He also often uses a discreet vibrato—nothing that hurts, though.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (11’46”)
Also here, Giuliano Carmignola’s articulation tends towards swelling notes. This is obvious already with the first bars, in the fugue theme, with its very mellow, “non-percussive” articulation. A peculiarity early on: in bars 8 & 9, the artist ignores the ties across barlines (see the middle line in the score sample above)—sounds a bit odd. True, it is impossible to play all the long notes in polyphonic parts at full length—but here, Bach explicitly added ties. Apart from this oddity, Carmignola articulates very carefully, forms motifs and phrases using dynamics and agogics. In particular, he keeps every instance of the fugue theme (or its inversion) in the focus.
Occasionally (sparingly), Giuliano Carmignola adds extra ornaments—which I find fitting and OK, except for where they happen in the fugue theme. The pace is among the slowest, not constant, but stable and controlled. The “jumping episode” in bars 186 – 200 is a tad faster, but the acceleration to that pace is unnoticeable. The artist inserts a short pause before starting the exposition with the inversion of the theme, so also the transition to the original pace. The following episode (bars 245ff) is really beautiful in articulation, agogics & phrasing.
III. Largo (3’27”)
Beautiful tone & sonority, largely devoid of vibrato. Giuliano Carmignola (HIP) and Sebastian Bohren (non-HIP) share the same timing (slightly slower than the average of the performances in this comparison). Interestingly, both performances leave a somewhat “fragmented” impression, maybe even more so with Carmignola. The latter’s focus is very much on motifs, often half-bar phrases—not just through articulation, but even more so through dynamics. The way Carmignola de-emphasizes “weak” phrase part is often extreme.
Motifs have distinct phrasing arches, where the ending often retracts to pp. In addition, Carmignola supports this with occasional jeu inégal and rhythmic “softness” / flexibility (and a few extra ornaments). In general, the “breathing” is in half-bar phrases, which again contributes to the impression of fragmentation. I prefer an interpretation with a “larger breath”.
IV. Allegro assai (5’02”)
Giuliano Carmignola goes to extremes in his attempt to split Bach’s music into two components: the rolling or repeated figures / notes (“accompaniment”), and the “melody component”. The latter consists of notes alternating with the accompaniment, or of peak notes either in the descant or on the g string. The former (“middle line” / accompaniment) is rolling busily and smoothly (both in articulation and sonority). The melody notes, however, are deliberately highlighted with strong, noisy / rough accents. All this at a very rapid pace (just above of the average among the performances in this comparison): a highly virtuosic / adventurous approach on a period instrument & baroque bow.
Together with the lively dynamics and agogics, the above yields a highly vivid, refreshing performance with an exceptional focus and insight into the melodic components of Bach’s composition. This comes at a price, however. For one, not just the melody notes, but the performance altogether leave an impression of noisiness—to the point where it starts affecting the listening pleasure. Then, some notes lose almost all sonority and definition, and there are occasional superficialities in the form of short motives that nearly get “swallowed” in all the rapid action. Interesting, still, but extreme…
Total Duration: 24’32”
Rating: 4 / 4 / 3 / 5 = 4.00
Comment: A very recent HIP performance with some unique “features” / highlights, and a few idiosyncrasies. Recommended, but not my #1 choice.
Mikhail Pochekin, 2018
I. Adagio (3’36”)
An interesting interpretation, with similarities to Thomas Zehetmair’s approach. It is among the fast performances in this comparison. I don’t see a major problem with the tempo, though. My main objection is with the vibrato—primarily about the frequency, the nervousness, not the strength. In a fast movement, this might even be OK, as it does not appear to affect the intonation. Here, however, it defeats the calm character of the Adagio. To the artist’s benefit, though, I should mention that he suppresses the vibrato in multi-stop passages involving empty strings.
Mikhail Pochekin is using very expressive dynamics, occasionally bordering on “too much”, maybe: there are occasional, pronounced “belly notes”. Together with the vibrato, the dynamics contribute to an impression that I don’t see as being in agreement with the Adagio (calm) annotation.
Similar to Isabelle Faust and Sebastian Bohren, he understands the jump to b♭’ in bar 12 as a “shock moment, with sudden forte. However, unlike the aforementioned artists, he appears to abandon the idea of a recitative, rapidly retracting into the distance, to subtle p after the second beat, for the next build-up. In bar 18, he retains his gentle arpeggio articulation, ending with the bow on the d’ and a’ strings—yet, he manages to hide the resulting gaps in the punctuated line on the g string. The dissonances in bar 20 stand out nicely, accentuated by the metal e” string. Here, there is no vibrato, as this would conflict with the empty e” string!
In bars 40 – 42 in the “cadenza“, he takes an approach similar to bar 12: a pronounced chords on each of the first beats, rapidly retracting to a subtle p, rhythmically free.
II. Fuga: Allabreve (9’54”)
For the initial fugue subject, Mikhail Pochekin takes a gentle and melodious approach, with mellow portato articulation, holding the tied notes in bars 8 – 10. With the arpeggios, the articulation gets more “grip” and vigor. The artist successfully maintains the melodic flow in the many instances of the subject, avoiding a disruption through the arpeggio chords. I also like the richness and subtleties in the dynamics, e.g., the pp in bars 62/63, followed by f in the subsequent two bars.
In the first episode, the artist uses a light staccato / spiccato, which nicely highlights the slurred motifs. The closing ritardando (bars 91/92) is perhaps somewhat excessive? The second exposition (bars 93ff) starts as gentle, soft and mellow as the very first bars—causing a very stark contrast to the ff chords in bars 98ff with the triple- and quadruple-stop chords (the same applies to the following expositions). The ff is OK, but I’m not sure whether it makes sense to begin the second exposition with the same dynamics as the first one: I don’t see why single- and double-stop passages (in the exposition) necessarily need to be soft and mellow, the triple- and quadruple-stop ones ff (except that it’s challenging to perform arpeggiated chords with gentle, soft and mellow articulation).
The second and third episodes are more mellow and gentle in the articulation, but uses (more) distinct agogics and detailed, “speaking” dynamics: beautiful!
III. Largo (3’17”)
My main quibble with this interpretation is with the abundance / omnipresence of a fairly nervous vibrato, which in my opinion does not match up to the character of the movement. In addition, there is a tendency towards “belly dynamics”, both at the level of individual (key) notes, as well as half-bar phrases. The latter prevents the impression of bigger / longer phrases. Finally: the three notes (a♭’–g’–a♭’) following the diminished seventh chord (see above) feel rather (too) poignant: their high pitch alone yields enough emphasis, I think.
IV. Allegro assai (4’56”)
Fast, virtuosic. Mikhail Pochekin articulates clearly and cleanly, in fast / repetitive passages (especially on the middle strings) with a somewhat “airy bow”, which he abandons to highlight key phrases / notes or climaxes. But the bow remains light throughout the piece, the articulation light and fluent. The artist typically “breathes” in two-bar phrases, with nice agogic swaying and shaping dynamic arches. Along with the fluid pace and the clear crotchet pulsation, this contributes to the “Allegro assai feeling”.
For sequences with repetitive motifs, Mikhail Pochekin momentarily accelerates the tempo, which at times feels a tad restless, rather Presto than Allegro. Overall, however, the performance is excellent also in the tempo control, nothing feels hasty: technically and musically excellent.
Total Duration: 21’42”
Rating: 4 / 4 / 3 / 4 = 3.75
Comment: Considering that the artist made this recording when he was 18, this is an amazing achievement. Sure, it reflects the school, the environment into which the artist was born. His father is a luthier (creating modern instruments, as far as I know), his teachers aren’t prominent exponents of historically informed / period instrument performances. Yet, in this recording, Mikhail Pochekin had already—knowingly or by intuition—picked up enough features from current recordings and performances to set himself apart from “fully traditional interpretations”. Congrats for this achievement!
Atilla Aldemir, 2019 (Viola, F major)
Instrument: 1560 viola by Pellegrino Micheli da Montechiaro (a.k.a. Peregrino Zanetto, ca. 1520 – ca. 1606), Brescia. Pitch: a’ = 433 Hz
I. Adagio (3’40”)
The sound, the sonority of Atilla Aldemir’s 1560 viola is marvelous, full, rounded, warm, dark in the low strings. Still, this movement doesn’t really profit from that sonority: the arpeggios appear too short for the listener to “read” their harmonies—it’s often “just dark”. There are also instances of occasional Nachdrücken (associated with the semiquaver in punctuations). The shortness of the arpeggios may in parts be due to the left-hand challenges in playing 3- and 4-stop violin chords on a viola. Despite their briefness, the articulation of the arpeggios feels harmonious, is never forced or forceful.
The “recitative” and the “cadenza” are fairly (i.e., a little too) metric; the only exception is the rhythmically free last beat in bar 42. One quibble: with the p on the second beat in bar 34, the tempo suddenly is a tad faster. Deliberate, or a recording cut?
II. Fuga: Allabreve (10’19”)
Clearly, the challenge in this fugue is bigger on the viola than on the violin. Most of this has to do with left-hand finger stretching, but also the slightly bulkier character of the instrument doesn’t make this easier. One way this becomes apparent is with the 3- and 4-stop chords in fugato segments, which are harder to integrate into the flow. Atilla Aldemir starts with a relatively fluid pace—the tempo at the end is a tad slower. The artist performs largely without vibrato, the articulation is light, clear. My only quibble: especially in fugato parts, there are passages where I’m unclear whether Aldemir meant to play staccato or portato—”neither fish nor bird”…
Atilla Aldemir’s intonation is never really off, but also clearly not as clean as, e.g., Alina Ibragimova. There is an area, though, where I felt that the viola has an advantage over the violin! For one, one gets to enjoy the beautiful sonority of the c and g strings: so big, so warm, so full of character! And: the bigger diversity between the registers (e.g., c & g against d & a strings) not only creates a richer soundscape, but it also is a great help in maintaining transparency in polyphonic (fugato) parts. Overall, the recording may have slight deficiencies—it still is a very interesting alternative / option!
III. Largo (2’53”)
Atilla Aldemir’s timing is almost identical to Isabelle Faust’s. And indeed, one could say that Aldemir has adopted many basic features of Isabelle Faust’s approach. Still, Aldemir does not quite reach the latter’s level. For one, one can sense the extra challenges of performing this on a viola (occasional, marginal intonation in the accompanying voices). Also, while there is certainly Klangrede and agogics, the articulation of the semiquavers often feels slightly schematic, a tad rigid. And the sonority in the accompanying voices is occasionally somewhat muffled. With all this, the calm 4/4 beat doesn’t come to full bearing.
Finally: the first note (quaver) after the demisemiquaver line in bar 19 should be f” (c”’ in the original), not e♭”. An uncorrected mishap? An error in the transcription? It’s not a disaster, but definitely a striking deviation. I double-checked this in both Johann Sebastian Bach’s as well as Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscripts.
IV. Allegro assai (5’27”)
From “slow” to “fast”: after a group of four performances with moderate tempo (Monica Huggett, Thomas Pietsch, Jaap Schröder, Henryk Szeryng), this is the first one that feels like Allegro (assai). It is on the viola—and the instrument does amazingly well in this movement!
Atilla Aldemir uses differentiated dynamics, and he articulates clearly and carefully, using spiccato-like articulation for non-slurred motifs. Every note is well-articulated, the sonority excellent across the range (both spiccato and legato). This speaks for the quality of the instrument and for the prowess of the performer. At the same time, it also tells me that a down-shift by a fifth works very well with this piece, and it demonstrates the strengths of the viola (the warmth, the “vox humana” quality). More than just interesting, for sure!
Total Duration: 22’18”
Rating: 3 / 4 / 3 / 4 = 3.50
Comment: Definitely an interesting recording (especially for those who dislike the poignant nature of high positions on the violin): I like the last movement in particular. The recording also demonstrates some of the limitations of the instrument: Bach’s solo pieces are difficult enough on the violin—on the viola, the challenge is even bigger.
Tomás Cotik, 2019
Instrument: 2000 violin by Marc de Sterke (*1948), Emmendingen bei Freiburg / Germany; baroque bow.
I. Adagio (3’15”)
By a small margin, this is the fastest interpretation, faster even than Gidon Kremer’s 2002 recording and Vito Paternoster’s cello performance. Yet, it actually feels calmer than these. How can this be? For one, unlike the aforementioned artists, Tomás Cotik performs simple punctuations as written in Bach’s manuscript. This alone makes the piece sound calmer.
The arpeggios are fluid, unspectacular, as are the dynamics. The artist’s idea may have been: as Bach didn’t add dynamic annotations, the volume should stay approximately the same throughout the piece? Actually, score fidelity appears to be a high priority for this artist. That may seem like a good idea. However, I think, he takes this too far. In several passages, such as the “recitative” in bar 12, or the “cadenza” in bars 39 – 42, I really was hoping for some extra rhythmic liberty.
That brings me to my main criticism—and the explanation why the interpretation is the fastest, yet does not feel that way: agogics and phrasing. I think the artist reads the score way too much note by note. Not just does it lack dynamics in the phrasing, but Tomás Cotik appears to avoid even traces of agogics. He denied himself even minute ritardandi at the end of a phrase, small ritenuti prior to a key note or before launching a new phrase. The performance feels frugal in dynamics and agogics: it lacks “breathing”, feels restless (and, yes, a little fast).
II. Fuga: Allabreve (8’43”)
In terms of timing, Tomás Cotik’s interpretation resides between Gidon Kremer’s 2002 recording and the earlier one by the same artist, from 1980. Only the latter and the most recent one, by Augustin Hadelich, are faster. How does Tomás Cotik fare?
Things are OK up to bar 10: the artist plays the subject with mellow, elastic tone—and some vibrato. The challenges come with the 3- and 4-stop chords. In the integration of these arpeggiated chords into the flow, the artist is not nearly as successful as others (OK, there are also other artists facing the same issue). As the piece progresses, the 3- and 4-stop chords become more frequent. And as the performance builds up towards a climax in expositions, these chords turn more acure, shorter, and more vehement.
The chords now don’t just tend to disrupt the flow, but in their briefness, they lack sonority. Not only does this affect the “readability” of the chords (i.e., their harmonies), but (even more so) it makes it impossible to perceive secondary voices in the sequence of chords. Part of the fugue degrades to a sequence of “beats” with the fugue subject popping up here and there. There are other voices in this!
The fast pace is also affecting the articulation in episodes: in episode 1, many of the motifs involving semiquavers sound superficial, marginal. What’s the reason for the faster tempo in episodes 2 and 3? Particularly in episode 3, the sonority of the “jumping” second part is suffering from the fast pace. Finally, the last exposition (bars 288ff) is pushing forward, as if the artist was in a hurry to finish the fugue…
III. Largo (2’46”)
One may discuss whether to apply jeu inégal to this movement, and where, i.e., to which types of motifs or phrases. However, doing so just in the very first phrase, and then never again does not make sense. Particularly, as the first phrase (the first three beats) are a rhythmic/melodic motif that reappears throughout the movement. Tomás Cotik creates a punctuated motif from the first two semiquavers, and he (partly) does the same on the third beat—and never again. Why? Also, in the second half-phrase (“response phrase”), the trill in the final pair of semiquavers is rhythmically expanded.
I can’t say that Tomás Cotik’s interpretation is devoid of agogics: he articulates carefully and typically broadens the end of a phrase. And key notes (those with accompanying quavers on the lower strings tend to be broader. However, somehow, these rhythmic “features” are applied rather schematically. I don’t really sense Klangrede (a narration in the melody). Rather, the entire movement is dominated by a constant move forward, with occasional (slight) rushing (bar #11), and often without “room to breathe” at the end of a phrase (when the next phrase joins in (too) immediately. Finally, quavers with an accent (phrase highlights, climaxes) tend to have exaggerated “belly dynamics”.
IV. Allegro assai (4’24”)
Not even Vito Paternoster (on the cello!) can beat Tomás Cotik’s tempo (only Alina Ibragimova does, by a small margin). Why so fast? It’s supposed to be Allegro assai, i.e, fairly joyful, not Presto or Prestissimo! Besides feeling too rapid in general, the fast pace precludes differentiation in articulation, let alone Klangrede. Yes, all notes are still articulated (more or less) properly and in tune—but the listener’s ear (and brain) can hardly follow. And it definitely very often feels rushed, often somewhat superficial (musically), constantly pushed—except maybe for the occasional instance where (probably) technical reasons impose a marginal slow-down. A fascinating achievement, maybe, but limited pleasure to listen to, as one is not given any room to breathe!
Total Duration: 19’08”
Rating: 2 / 3 / 3 / 3 = 2.75
Comment: The artist is an excellent technician—sadly with the somewhat unfortunate tendency to aim for the fastest / shortest performance…
Augustin Hadelich, 2020
Instrument: 1744 violin “Leduc, ex-Szeryng” by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698 – 1744), Cremona; baroque bow by Rüdiger Pfau.
I. Adagio (4’18”)
An excellent interpretation, and a performance as technically perfect as it can be. That may well be its biggest weakness: despite the use of a baroque bow, it is perhaps a little too perfect, too devoid of rough edges, wrinkles, etc.? Perfectly balanced, percussive in the articulation (no swelling notes), whereby the “percussiveness” is not drawing from the arpeggios. Swaying agogics, well-shaped, broad dynamic arches. My only (minor) quibbles are that the vibrato really would not be necessary. And: around the center, I feel an ever so subtle amount of unrest / urge—why?
II. Fuga: Allabreve (8’22”)
Augustin Hadelich is one of the most extraordinary violinists of his generation. Here, he just confirms and justifies that high ranking!
With this movement, he offers clearly the shortest overall timing. This had me worried initially: why so fast, when other performances feel rushed / pushed even at substantially slower pace? It turns out that these worries are insubstantial! True, the pace is fast—but amazingly, it does not feel that way at all! How can that be? Well, there’s the foundation—the artist’s superlative technical prowess—at the forefront, not just for his generation. Indeed the performance is as close to technical perfection as it can possibly get. Yet, it’s not pure, cold perfection: there’s agogics and expression, excellent phrasing. One key aspect here is that Hadelich sticks to the Alla breve annotation: read in half notes (two beats per bar), the interpretation feels like a fluid Andante.
Needless to say that Hadelich is careful, detailed and diligent in articulation and dynamics. Sure, some slower performances feature more Klangrede, and they may indulge more in exuberant sonorities, and some HIP recordings feature of the “earthy” character of gut strings. These are my only quibbles with this performance. These pale in comparison to Hadelich’s mastery, which allows him not just to avoid the feeling of rushing, but also to maintain the musical flow through all the 3- and 4-stop chords—and at the same time, to keep the polyphony transparent, allowing the listener to experience secondary voices as well. At the same time, the sound, the sonority of Hadelich’s Guarneri del Gesù is beautiful, perfectly balanced…
III. Largo (4’07”)
One of the slowest performances: only Menuhin is slower (by a fair margin). However, unlike the latter, Augustin Hadelich performs in proper 4/4 time (at the slowest possible pace, though). And he avoids the regularity and uniformity of Menuhin’s breathing (and the nervousness of his vibrato), forming beautiful, (very) long, gentle phrasing arches, through very diligent and subtle dynamics. Flourishing climaxes. Beautiful, although for the (perhaps excessive) length of his phrases, Hadelich’s tempo is maybe a little slow, making the listener seek for moments to breathe.
IV. Allegro assai (4’39”)
Tempo-wise, Augustin Hadelich’s interpretation is between Gidon Kremer (2002) and Isabelle Faust (2009). That is slightly deceptive: for most of the movement, the performance feels faster than Kremer’s, with an (almost) constant, slight urge forward. Only towards the end of a part, Augustin Hadelich broadens the tempo a tiny bit, while at the same time turning up clarity and volume for the final phrase. This is most pronounced in the second (final) pass of the second part. Technically flawless, the interpretation sometimes feels a tad mechanical (and endings predictable), despite careful and differentiated (larger scale) dynamics. The latter, though, are often not nearly as lively at the level of motifs (e.g., in comparison to Viktoria Mullova).
Total Duration: 21’26”
Rating: 4 / 5 / 4 / 4 = 4.25
Comment: One of the best violinists of his generation, with excellent musicianship and near-perfect technique. I’m sure he has the sincere intent to perform to the best of his (astounding) abilities an technical potential. Maybe this drives him a tad too far towards perfection at times?
The results of the comparison are collected in the table near the top, and the separate comparison summary (see also the links below) collates the results from all comparison posts on Bach’s “Sei Solo“. With the amount of work that goes into each of the postings listed below, I’m only posting such reviews every few months. This gives me a chance for a “fresh” approach, less biased by previous results. Yet, I’m happy to see that my ratings have been fairly consistent across the past 13+ months since the first comparison.
Other Review Posts on J.S. Bach’s “Sei Solo“, BWV 1001 – 1006
- “Sei Solo“, Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo — Comparison Summary
- Sonata No.1 in G minor, BWV 1001
- Partita No.1 in B minor, BWV 1002
- Sonata No.2 in A minor, BWV 1003
- Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV 1004
- Sonata No.3 in C major, BWV 1005 — This review
- Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006
- Sebastian Bohren’s recording was sent to me by Mr. Krystian Nowakowski (NO-TE e.U.).
- Atilla Aldemir’s recording was offered by Ms. Barbara Hoppe (NO-TE e.U.).
- Tomás Cotik sent me his CD set with an invitation to review it.
The author would like to thank for these submissions. In fact, they motivated me (after years of pondering the idea), finally to tackle this major project in earnest.