J.S. Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo
St.Peter, Zurich, 2019-06-02
2019-06-06 — Original posting
2019-06-07 — Correction in the description of the instrument
Dornröschens Sternstunde: Isabelle Faust mit Bachs “Sei Solo”, den Sonaten & Partiten für Solovioline — Zusammenfassung
In zwei aufeinander folgenden, atemberaubenden Solokonzerten präsentierte Isabelle Faust sämtliche sechs Sonaten und Partiten für Violine solo von Johann Sebastian Bach. Seit ihren Aufnahmen von 2009 und 2012 hat sich ihr Ansatz gefestigt—und befreit, geöffnet für die barocke Klangsprache. Das Instrument ist noch dieselbe Stradivarius von 1704, mit dem Beinamen “Dornröschen”—jetzt hingegen spielt sie mit einem Barockbogen, mit leichter, gelöster Artikulation, differenziert und lebendig, gleichzeitig unprätentiös: ein einmaliges Erlebnis, überzeugend und bewegend!
- Setting, etc.
- General Remarks & Observations
- Sonata No.1 for Violin solo in G minor, BWV 1001
- Partita No.1 for Violin solo in B minor, BWV 1002
- Sonata No.2 for Violin solo in A minor, BWV 1003
- Partita No.3 for Violin solo in E major, BWV 1006
- Sonata No.3 for Violin solo in C major, BWV 1005
- Partita No.2 for Violin solo in D minor, BWV 1004
- Isabelle Faust’s Recordings from 2009 / 2012
The concert agency Hochuli Konzert AG offers two separate series of concerts in Zurich: one features concerts in the Tonhalle Maag. The other one is a series of String Quartet recitals in the Kirche (Church) St.Peter. The 2018/2019 series of string quartet concerts is over, but the agency added one extra event: a “Bach Marathon“, performed by Isabelle Faust:
I don’t need to introduce the German violinist Isabelle Faust (*1972, see also Wikipedia). She is one of my top favorite violinists. I have written numerous blog posts about her, both on CD recordings, as well as on appearances in concert.
Isabelle Faust’s “Bach Marathon” featured all of the “Sei Solo” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), in other words: the Sonatas and Partitas (or Partias) for Violin Solo, BWV 1001 – 1006, which Bach originally published as “Sei Solo”:
With his “Sei Solo”, the 3 Sonatas and 3 Partitas for Violin Solo, BWV 1001 – 1006, Johann Sebastian Bach created the pinnacle of works for the solo violin. Technically, there are more advanced & challenging works. However, none reached the level of complexity, variety, perfection, etc. of Bach’s collection of three Sonatas (church sonatas in the strict sense) and three Partitas (baroque dance suites).
I won’t explain the six compositions in detail (other than giving the list of movements). For one, these works are very well-known. Plus, a detailed description is way beyond the scope of this note. However, I have given some brief, additional explanations on the first two sonatas and the Ciaccona in a report on a recent solo recital by another violinist in Windisch AG, on 2019-04-21, and in an earlier recital in Lucerne on 2018-09-13. Here, the following, short and general remarks must suffice:
- The three Sonatas are all following a four-movement scheme slow — (fast) — slow — fast, whereby in all three Sonatas, the second movement is a fugue, with the complexity growing towards the third sonata. In the latter, the fugue is highly complex by any means, a four-voice double fugue (on a theme and its inversion) with a length of 354 bars.
- The Partitas are loosely following the traditional, baroque suite scheme Allemande — Courante — Sarabande — Gigue. The first Partita includes a Bourée in lieu of a Gigue, and for each of the four movements, there is a Double, a variation of the movement (typically with diminutions, etc.). Only the second Partita features all movements of the suite scheme, but the Partita ends with an additional movement, the famous Ciaccona (Chaconne). The Partita No.3 only retains the Gigue from the standard set, but otherwise features a Preludio and several additional dance movements.
Performing the Sonatas and Partitas in One Single “Bach Marathon”
A typical audience wouldn’t last through the approximately 2.5 hours that it takes to perform the “Sei Solo” as a whole. Isabelle Faust split her recital into two parts, with a 45-minute intermission:
- Sonata No.1 for Violin solo in G minor, BWV 1001
- Partita No.1 for Violin solo in B minor, BWV 1002
- Sonata No.2 for Violin solo in A minor, BWV 1003
- Partita No.3 for Violin solo in E major, BWV 1006
- Sonata No.3 for Violin solo in C major, BWV 1005
- Partita No.2 for Violin solo in D minor, BWV 1004
Isabelle Faust kept Bach’s scheme of alternating between Sonatas and Partitas. However, she switched Partitas 2 and 3, starting the second part with the lighter (and easier) Partita No.3, continuing on with Sonata No.3 with its extremely long and difficult fugue, and ending the recital with the famous (but equally challenging) Chaconne from Partita No.2. Isabelle Faust did not try the “easiest” solution, nor did she try a physically and mentally “balanced” sequence (e.g., by evenly spreading the big challenges across the recital). However, with the exception of Partita No.3, all of the Sei Solo are challenges. And, in the end, as we will see, the sequence chosen made perfect sense.
Isabelle Faust’s instrument is from 1704, named “La Belle au bois dormant” (“Sleeping beauty” / German: Dornröschen), by Antonius Stradivarius (1644 – 1737). This is one of the most precious Stradivari instruments. Though, of course, it is not in its original, baroque state: as the vast majority of the instruments from that time, it has undergone “modernization”. This primarily implies a longer and steeper neck (for increased string tension and more volume), as well as a longer finger board. Isabelle Faust was also using metal-wound gut strings (G, D, A), and a metal E string (with the increased tension, gut E-strings are not really feasible).
Correction: The 1704 “Sleeping Beauty” Strad apparently still has its original neck. From the looks, though, I assume that the fingerboard length corresponds to that in modern / modernized violins.
Isabelle Faust’s 2009 / 2012 CD Recordings
Isabelle Faust has recorded the “Sei Solo” on CDs, back in 2009 (Partita No.2, Sonata No.3, Partita No.3) and in 2012 (Sonata No.1, Partita No.1, Sonata No.2). At that time, she used a modern Tourte bow. I remember reading in interviews with the artist that (quoting from memory):
- she liked performing with baroque (pre-Tourte) bows, not just because they are historically more correct, but also because their shorter “active” length prevents the tendency to use Nachdrücken. The latter is the unwanted acceleration towards reaching the end of the bow, causing a slight swelling at the end of long notes.
- At the same time, for the 2009 / 2012 recording of Bach’s Sei Solo, she “did not feel quite ready yet to make the step towards using a baroque bow”.
I was of course more than happy to note that in this recital, the artist was no longer using a Tourte bow. The concert leaflet did not include information on the bow model, but from the looks I believe it was a 18th century bow. The upper (distant) end was the swan-bill ending of a typical (late) baroque bow. The curvature (maximum distance of the wood from the bow hair) wasn’t quite as big as on early baroque models (where it may be as much as 5 cm). However (most importantly), Isabelle Faust held the bow well above the frog, as typical for non-Tourte bows, hereby shortening the active / usable length.
Ahead of the recital, I was worried whether there would be enough people choosing to attend 2.5 hours of violin solo music rather than enjoying the beautiful weather on one of the first real summer afternoons in Zurich. I was more than delighted to see that there was plenty of audience: in fact, the nave of St.Peter’s Church was sold out, additional chairs were required even. As the organ is currently undergoing renovation, the balconies were not available for the audience in this concert.
My seat was #423 on the right-hand side of row 11 (second row in the rear block in the nave, just under the rear balcony). As the floor is flat, the artist was performing on a podium about three steps up. With this, the visibility was reasonable. The church has some reverberation. I was curious to see how this worked out for a violin solo recital. As there was no official photographer in this concert, I was generously offered the exclusive privilege and opportunity to spend the second half of the recital as the only listener on the balcony. All photos in this posting are my own (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved). They all were taken after the intermission.
General Remarks & Observations
For many years, Isabelle Faust has been using vibrato sparingly in classical works., In her baroque performances, she essentially uses no vibrato at all. Same here, of course: the cleanness (not to say chastity) of her tone, the purity of her intonation are both exceptional, breathtaking even.
Only very, very rarely, Isabelle Faust added a tiny amount (merely a hint) of vibration to specific notes in a cantilena, hardly recognizable at all. One almost needed to watch her left hand to notice it.
Be it in linear passages, or in double, triple, or quadruple stop playing—one could call the intonation perfect. Throughout the two recitals, there were very, very few instances (maybe one or two, towards the end of the second part) where a tone or a multi-stop interval was not “sitting” perfectly even before the bow touched the string.
That’s all the more astounding, as there was no vibrato giving tones a certain “bandwidth”. Vibrato would obscure the pitch, making the intonation less “critical” (some might claim “more robust”). Of course, that goes at the expense of purity. As the artist convincingly showed, the latter opens a clear, unobstructed view on the “essence” of the music. Why disturb the perfection of Bach’s inventions with unnecessary vibrato?
Sound / Acoustics
In Isabelle Faust’s hands, the “Sleeping Beauty” produced an ideally balanced, well-equilibrated tone across the tonal range. Nothing was ever rough. Only occasionally, rarely, the tone showed a little more “grip”. That is of course both the instrument, as well as the artist’s playing: the lighter baroque bow, and the way in which it is held produces far less pressure on the strings, hence a smoother, lighter tone. Isabelle Faust was never trying to “push” the tone. However, the instrument projected effortlessly into the remotest corner of the church.
On top of that, the amount of reverberation seemed ideal for this music, this instrument (and the way in which it was played). I don’t recall any moment when the reverberation had any negative effect on the performance: also the fastest passages retained their clarity, one could always follow melodies hidden in fast passagework. Actually, the church acoustics seemed to provide optimum support for Isabelle Faust’s playing and her instrument, beautifully rounding off the performance.
Needless to say that Isabelle Faust’s articulation was far, far from the permanent legato or the permanent, broad, uniform and boring détaché bowing (and the full tone) of Bach performances some 50, 80 years ago. The articulation was light—not because it is fashionable in the HIP era, but because it serves the music. Of course, the artist used legato where Bach asks for it. However, the key is that every phrase, every motif fitted the expression, was “talking” in itself. That may sound overly intellectual, didactic, all “thought-out”.
In fact, in reference to her recording of these pieces form 7 – 10 years ago, I recently heard a comment that they are “a bit heady, over-intellectual”. I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment, but I can see where the judgement comes from. Isabelle Faust indeed seems to place every detail in her performances consciously, and these recordings in particular indeed don’t “breathe an excess in spontaneity”. However, that was 7 – 10 years ago, and in a studio. In the meantime, her interpretation has matured, become so much more natural. All the carefully elaborated details have become a mere basis on which the music, the performance can flourish. Plus, this here was a live performance that one can’t compare with a studio recording.
All this seemed to happen effortlessly, naturally, and Isabelle Faust seemed to be completely relaxed in all her playing, firmly grounded, unpretentious, unassuming, avoiding grand gestures, making only slight body movements. Occasionally, she put on a more serious, even earnest face. Hoowever, that almost certainly wasn’t a sign of technical or intonation challenges. It was rather showing her focus, or reflecting the “emotional state” of the music at that moment.
So much for my general remarks, which apply to all of Isabelle Faust’s performance. For the remainder of the post, I will focus on specific observations that I scribbled down during the recital. I don’t mean to analyze details like with a magnifying glass: I merely want to illustrate the artist’s performance, demonstrate her attention to (and care for) detail. True, I can’t just switch off my analytical hearing: one could just as well thoroughly enjoy these performances through “naïve listening”. Nothing was ever boring or lengthy in these 2.5 hours of music for solo violin. What I hope to achieve, though, is, to show that there is a universe of detail to discover in Isabelle Faust’s performance. And this can make her recitals an even richer experience.
- Fuga (Allegro)
- the decidedly short, almost abrupt closing G minor chord in bar 2, giving room for a fresh start into the second phrase;
- careful observation of Bach’s slurs / phrasing.
- the considerate, reflective pace (this is not a Sarabande, not a dance movement!). Rhythm only exists momentarily, not even for entire bars: the Adagio lives entirely from the “inner life” of phrases / phrasing arches, down to motifs. Isabelle Faust follows the notation, but remains rhythmically fairly free, letting the music flow naturally, within each phrase. It’s timeless music, a reflection, a sequence spontaneous thoughts.
- the clear, careful distinction between the melodic and harmonic framework and ornamentation (fioriture, passing notes, etc., all of which Bach has written out in detail)
- in the absence of vibrato as (illegitimate) means for expressing emotion, all of Isabelle Faust’s expression happens through agogics (this subtle interplay between tensioning and relaxing between bar lines), though dynamics, and through phrasing / articulation: masterful!
- a fascinating detail: how the artist gradually, gently lets the final G minor chord fade away.
II. Fuga (Allegro)
I would describe the articulation in the fugue theme as “short portato“, a “soft détaché” that lets the theme breathe—gentle, never forceful, let alone violent, even sequences of quadruple string chords feel effortless: the rigid scheme of a fugue embedded in a gentle, natural musical flow, yet always clear about the start of the fugue theme. And this agogic differentiation in the flow of semiquavers in bars 42ff (after the arpeggiando segment)! Actually: not just there, but throughout the fugue, there is this natural breath, culminating in the gentle stretto cadenza in the last four bars.
No excess indulging in beautiful cantilenas, but again this gentle breathing, the subtle highlighting of the initial 7-tone motif, and the lovely responses in the quaver sixths: also here, a gentle, idyllic discourse, never trumping up, merely the blooming of little (smaller and bigger) phrases, coming out of silence, in the end moving back into a distance.
Fast, virtuosic—yet mellow in the articulation. Never strict, never rigid, but rhythmically clear, subtly highlighting the underlying melodic / harmonic foundation. Bach didn’t write accents: merely by grouping semiquavers with slurs he created a variety of rhythmic pattern. The frequent changes between these pattern make the flow of the semiquavers sound intricate, if not confusing, as the meter is often hardly recognizable. Isabelle Faust didn’t perform this as a polished, virtuosic showpiece: rather, using agogics and subtle dynamics, she focused on the flow—and the fun, the playfulness in this music. Needless to say that—here and throughout the recital—she observed all repeats.
- Allemanda – Double
- Corrente – Double (Presto)
- Sarabande – Double
- Tempo di Borea – Double
I. Allemanda – Double
Even more than the G minor Sonata, the Partita in B minor struck me with its tonal purity, the clean execution. Despite the light bow, the minimal bow pressure that Isabelle Faust exerted! With all the wide jumps in the Allemande (and all the complex playing that followed through the recital), strings not responding (or not responding instantly) were an extremely rare incident.
And then, the dance feeling! Retaining a sense of dancing is essential in Bach’s Partitas. Here, every figure (every crotchet period with punctuated substructure) seemed to have this agogic swaying, this interplay between a subtle ritenuto in the center, followed by re-gaining momentum towards the end. It’s an Allemande, a slow, but reflective and playful dance—not relentlessly progressing as other dance types: full of little hesitations, followed by seemingly random progressions: masterful as composition, as well as in the execution !
As stated, the artist performed all repeats. In doing so, she sparingly added little variations, few extra ornaments (the music is rich enough already). Isabelle Faust carefully shaped every detail, every little phrase. However, that didn’t make it an intellectual performance: rather every motif / figure / phrase was coming to life, was blooming up through these details: a fascinating microcosm throughout!
With its regular, flowing movement (all in semiquavers, except for the closing notes), the Double is in stark contrast to the Allemande. Isabelle Faust performed this gently, pp, like a distant echo of the preceding dance, whereby the distance seemed to have evened out the note values. The latter does not imply that the artist performed this all in a regular movement: rather, she managed to retain, to mirror the rhythmic swaying from the preceding Allemande. The repeats were even softer—mere reminiscences, memories of the dance movement.
II. Corrente – Double (Presto)
The Corrente (Courante) is all in quavers. Here, Isabelle Faust used a gradually more marked articulation, with slight broadening towards the climax / closing phrase. The short, subtle détaché (a very soft spiccato, almost) increased the contrast to the slurred motifs. Yet, the lightness, the purity in intonation made this often sound like bird songs from heaven.
The Double (Presto): fast (presto), indeed, this relentless sequence of semiquavers! However, the 3/4 meter retained the pace of the Corrente, and it also kept the dance-like swaying. And all in a light articulation, in this the violinist modulated the intensity by between a light détaché and a gentle spiccato: virtuosic, but not aiming for cold perfection. There was so much life, so much in subtle agogics in every phrase!!
III. Sarabande – Double
Perfect (but never neutral) tone quality, despite the numerous triple- and quadruple-stop chords. Rarely, the trace of a rapid vibrato, the violinist inconspicuously added subtle, fitting extra ornamentation in the repeats. No trumping up with excess volume (as tempting as it may be to indulge in the harmonies!), rather a calm blooming up of beautiful flowers in an oasis of silence. The ending was simply otherworldly!
The Double entirely retained the relaxed, calm character of the Sarabande. Spiritual clarity in the gentle swaying, even softer in the repeats.
IV. Tempo di Borea – Double
A fast pace, but gentle, never violent (nor stomping), carefully articulated. Not tamed, but full of momentum in the quadruple-stop chords of the accentuated opening motif. Harmonious dynamic arches further into the movement. Still, Isabelle Faust’s playing reflected the unruly, sometimes almost wild nature of this Borea . Isn’t it for good reason that the composer chose the Italian Borea, rather than the French term Bourée for this movement?
And once more, Bach followed up with a Double in flowing quavers. Despite the even note values, Isabelle Faust managed to retain the Borea character, by keeping its pace, while creating the dance swaying with subtle agogics and dynamics. Tasteful, but scarce additional ornaments enriched the repeats. They added extra life, but were rare enough to avoid predictability, to avoid déjà vu effects. A very refined, diligent performance, but far from being merely ethereal, nor purely intellectual: masterful!
A stately attitude, broad, but with an expressive dynamic arch in every single phrase. Stretches of mental tension / suspense, long notes evolving, gently intensifying, with the occasional trace of vibrato. Absolute purity of the closing octaves. Then, these final intervals! A mere hint at flattement on the minor sixth, a trill on the major sixth, resolving, transcending into another, cleanest octave!
Clarity and purity in polyphony, more grip, more emphasis than in the equivalent movement in the first Sonata—but still smooth in the articulation, devoid of coarseness in the instrument’s response. Never did the tension drop—rather, Isabelle Faust picked up additional momentum from the polyphonic segments, culminating in the demisemiquaver cascades of the cadenza that precedes the final A major cadence.
An utterly serene, harmonious and beautiful movement! Isabelle Faust takes this at a fluent pace (respecting the 3/4 meter), not celebrating the music. Rather, she carefully shaped the phrases, enriched the melodies, the motifs with extra ornaments: richer than in any movement so far, but still not excessive, perfectly adequate, and full of imagination. And despite the moving pace, there was no unrest: the artist kept the calm, letting the music flow in to the gentle swelling and decrescendo of the final 3/4 note that closes the first half. And she kept the cantilena singing, while sometimes merely alluding to the notes in the accompaniment.
Was it the acoustics that added an extra “spatial component” to the performance, making the contrasting p responses sound like an echo from a distance? The effect was intriguing! The performance was clear and articulate, down to secondary (deminsemiquaver) notes, still smooth, though not excessively legato (except where needed, of course). Pallid, bloodless, intellectual??? No, nothing less than that!
Actually, that last movement may look all linear—it is anything but simple—rather full intricate, sometimes queer jumps and hidden polyphony: not to be underestimated!! In the final p bars, in the repeat, Isabelle Faust relaxed the pace, switched to gentle, mellow articulation, for a peaceful, conciliatory ending prior to the intermission.
- Gavotte en rondeau
- Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I
My comments below may appear thin—that’s not because I was busy taking photos, but because most of what I stated above also applies to the second half of Isabelle Faust’s performance.
Smooth, fast (but not too fast), unpretentious, lucid, with lively dynamics—and of course as clean as everything else!
Such serene, almost simple music. However, the performance was so careful in phrasing and articulation: sheer beauty! Here now, for the first time in the recital, Isabelle Faust used a rich set of ornaments to the repeats. However, even these ornaments remained all harmonious and natural, never turned extravagant or too conspicuous.
III. Gavotte en rondeau
Also this is a simple, joyful movement! Yet, Isabelle Faust used so much refinement and detail in phrasing and articulation! Rather than adding too many ornaments in the repeat of the initial refrain, she “ornamented” it with extra detail in agogics and articulation. She seemed to devote extra attention and care to the beginning of phrases and motifs, and to the shaping of motifs at the climax of a phrase.
IV. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I
There it was again, this intense dance swaying. The artist took this in groups of two bars: this avoided the feeling of regularity, allowed more “room” in expanding (“spelling out”) accented notes. The agogics, the swaying were even stronger in the Menuet II. The artist gave the musette bars a “popular / peasant dance note”, with “joyful, innocent” responses in the in-between bars without drone. After this, the returning Menuet I felt so subtle in fun and joy—wonderful!
This is not the wild Borea from the first Partita, but now a “proper” Bourée—a movement full of drive and momentum, with contrasting dynamics and subtle accents: happiness and joy throughout!
Rather than as a stand-alone movement, Isabelle Faust performed this attacca, as a kind of Double to the Bourrée—doubling up on the joy: pure pleasure!
To me, Isabelle Faust fully restored the image of the third Partita. It’s a work whose movement I have heard abused as “cheap encore” many times over the past decades. Thanks for this!
- Allegro assai
The sheer compositorial weight of this Sonata made the Partita No.3 appear like a light overture to the remainder of the recital!
Every punctuated motif in this movement was carefully crafted. As Bach is adding voices, Isabelle Faust seemed to add weight by gradually broadening the pace, with the phrases peaking in the non-punctuated bars. Bars 12 – 14 formed a stark contrast, like a short, dramatic recitative, then the artist returned to a new build-up in “Adagio mode”.
Isabelle Faust’s playing remained calm, even solemn, yet effortless, even where Bach moved into a four-voice texture. She did not apply pressure to try making three (let alone four) strings sound simultaneously, but resorted to arpeggiando for three- and four-voice chords. Still, the excellent, resonant sonority of the instrument (supported by the acoustics) connected the abbreviated notes (usually on the lower strings) to form a continuous accompaniment to the punctuated motifs. And the arpeggiando avoided unnecessary drama in the calm parts of the movement. A movement as durchgestaltet and harmonious as it can be!
A gentle start with mellow articulation—leading into the most challenging polyphonic work for solo violin! Of course, the movement didn’t stay all calm and serene. Isabelle Faust gradually picked up expression and momentum. Already the second entry of the fugue was noticeably faster than the (first) exposition. In contrast, the first episode (bars 59 – 92) was light, relaxed, playful.
The subsequent re-entry of the fuge is in minor key. In Isabelle Faust’s hands, the four-part polyphony appeared relaxed, almost casual. It was devoid of enforced violence and harshness. Still there was a stark contrast to the serene, almost playful episodes, especially where these move up on the fingerboard (bars 187ff). Even more so after the al riverso exposition: in bars 245 -263, the melody line appears to evade into a world beyond, about as high as one could play on the shorter, baroque fingerboard. This subsequent arpeggiando segment appeared like the apotheosis of the hidden fugue theme. Though, the transfiguration is not final: the composer returns “down to earth in a final polyphonic segment.
The audience was stunned, overwhelmed: spontaneous applause was about to break out!
Also here, as already in the Andante in Sonata No.2, Isabelle Faust chose a seemingly fluent tempo. Correctly, of course, considering the 4/4 meter. This helped her forming “speaking”, expressive phrases, “making the music talk”. And with this, she easily managed to form a single, big arch over the movement. The music felt like a gentle dialog between the melody line and the accompaniment, devoid of over-indulging in beautiful motifs / melody fragments.
IV. Allegro assai
This movement, alternating between rolling semiquavers and string-crossing, “hidden” polyphony, could easily serve as a proof for the superb qualities of the “Sleeping Beauty” Strad. Completely relaxed especially in her right arm, the violinist was able to make the instrument sound and project with absolutely minimal bow movements (and pressure). One may often hear the rolling figures sound like a sewing machine. Here, they were full of expression and momentum. Isabelle Faust applied differentiated, lively dynamics, and in the string-crossing bars, the (fragmented) melody always was carefully shaped, the note durations subtly tuned. Stunning!
Earnest and firm in the attitude, but rigid in the pace. Rather, again shaping out every single phrase, bringing it to life, broadening highlights.
Another dance movement with noticeable, rhythmic and dynamic swaying. The artist played the few, isolated double- and triple-stop notes as marked accents—milestones in a flow that alternates between punctuated quavers and quaver triplets.
A piece like a formal, ceremonial dance—yet, of course with the appropriate rhythmic swaying: holding back, then re-gaining momentum (especially in demisemiquaver figures). There were of course extra, subtle ornaments in the repeats. But even more noteworthy: the markedly extended fermata in bar 21—and the subsequent, infinitely delicate, refined and soft return into the coda. Also in the last bar, Isabelle Faust added a fermata to the first note, even inserted a rest prior to the last D that felt almost like a reverberation.
Very light, very fluent—probably as fast as is manageable using a baroque bow. This was maybe the only movement where in the second half there were some momentary superficialities (primarily in the left hand). However, this was towards the end of a veritable Marathon performance, and hence more than understandable.
Isabelle Faust used distinctly broad articulation to present the theme. Also here, she avoided harshness in multi-stop playing, rather carefully phrased the melody line. She kept the articulation mellow, only switched to clear détaché bowing in the (unslurred) demisemiquavers. The subsequent, extended arpeggiando segment was all flowing, gentle. It only gradually grew into the climax. The violinist never pushed the tone, even across all four strings.
The central D major section started simple, with very mellow articulation, again slowly building up towards the climax, where the repeated semiquavers mutate to the broad D major theme again, finally transcends into arpeggio again, full-sounding and fluent.
The return of D minor brought a sudden change in atmosphere, from the arpeggio jubilations to a depressed, somber, almost sad mood. This of course was only the beginning, the fresh start for the final build-up and coda, culminating in whirling triplets, a short cadenza, and the last return of the theme. The tension of Bach’s music and of the performance persisted beyond the last note: the artist kept the bow above the strings, as if meditating the music in silence. It took more than half a minute until the applause finally broke out, ending in a long, standing ovation: a true “Abbado moment”.
What an enormous journey! Isabelle Faust’s broad smile is fully understandable, her happiness wholly deserved—congratulations for a most memorable, long and successful performance!
I don’t claim that Isabelle Faust’s interpretation of Bach’s “Sei Solo” is the only valid approach to this music. However, already her recordings from a decade ago were a significant achievement in the discography of these compositions. Here now, the artist has made yet another leap forward, not only by minimizing the use of vibrato, but in adjusting her playing for the baroque bow. Her interpretation may (and will, undoubtedly) continue to evolve. However, I feel that progressing towards a truly baroque violin (abandoning the “Sleeping Beauty”? What a horrible thought!) and gut strings would only yield marginal, additional gains. As a live performance, this was a truly great moment, an opportunity not to miss, by all means!
Isabelle Faust’s Recordings from 2009 / 2012
Although I have listened through these recordings in short excerpts only (so far), and although after this concert, I think that these are no longer representing Isabelle Faust’s “state of the art”, I still wanted to add links to these two CDs, for your reference. And yes: if you don’t have a chance to witness her performance in a live concert, these CDs are still highly recommended!
J.S.Bach: Sonatas & Partitas, BWV 1004 – 1006
Isabelle Faust, Violin
harmonia mundi France HMC 902059 (CD, stereo); ℗ 2010; booklet 28 pp., fr/en/de
J.S.Bach: Sonatas & Partitas, BWV 1001 – 1003
Isabelle Faust, Violin
harmonia mundi France HMC 902124 (CD, stereo); ℗ 2012; booklet 32 pp., fr/en/de