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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin

  • Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001
  • Partita in B minor, BWV 1002
  • Sonata in A minor, BWV 1003
  • Partita in D minor, BWV 1004
  • Sonata in C Major, BWV 1005
  • Partita in E Major, BWV 1006
Mela Tenenbaum, violin
ESS.A.Y CD1049-50
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For a Bach freak, I came to the solo violin sonatas and partitas surprisingly late – in college, in fact, when I heard Milstein in concert play the chaconne as an encore. The idea of a solo string piece (or a solo wind piece, for that matter) had never occurred to me and, frankly, I wish I could tell you I was spiritually overwhelmed. However, in truth I regarded the chaconne as a bit of a sport – Bach showing off his considerable composing technique – mainly because the rest of Milstein's audience seemed to treat it that way. The next week, one of my professors asked me what I had thought of the chaconne, and I told him. He barely believed I knew so little music and sent me to the library to check out the complete score. I also listened to Milstein's recordings. In the context of the complete works, it dawned on me that the near-encyclopedic compendium of Baroque violin figurations and bowing techniques was actually exciting music. It also taught me more about Bach's counterpoint than his orchestral or keyboard works, because writing for an essentially single-melody instrument reduced his counterpoint to basics. Finally, the works taught me that the counterpoint is, in the end, beside the point. Even a beginning student can write a fugue. Bach actually puts his counterpoint in the service of emotional impact of the piece. It goes way beyond a matter of compositional "chops." In a strange way, you take his massive skill for granted. The intensification of counterpoint in Bach usually means an intensification of feeling. Consequently, we speak of Bach's fugues as dramatic or noble or jubilant or serene, even more than we speak of them as fugues per se.

I have three other recordings of this work – by Milstein, Heifetz, and Szeryng on the one hand (all essentially Russian violin school, descendants of Auer). I have no HIP performance, which surprises me, but I haven't seen one available either. Tenenbaum's account comes down decisively in the former camp, and (surprise!) doesn't suffer from the comparison to those giants. She may even turn out to be one herself. These are big, Romantic readings, with ringing tone, razor-sharp intonation, and astounding articulation. In fact, I would unhesitatingly recommend her performances to anyone with the remotest interest in string playing. I don't really understand string technique, so I can't give you the ins and outs of how she brings any of this off – the sonic differences between up-bow and down-bow or this vs. that fingering, for example. I can tell you only that I have heard no better violinist in this material. Besides, you can get some of that from Tenenbaum herself. ESS.A.Y provides a third CD in which she talks about coming to grips with these works, both spiritually and technically.

I must admit I don't agree with any of the readings I have, including Tenenbaum's. It has nothing to do with technique, but with approach. All these violinists aim for Soul with a capital S. They view these works as timeless philosophic statements from a great man. To convey the importance of these works, this means stretching out phrases and swells within a line. Tenenbaum adds that she wants the listener to hear every note in especially the polyphonic textures and, as a result, draws out ornaments and supporting "chords." She gets her wish, most successfully in the second sonata's Andante. However, the imp of the perverse bit me when I was young. I like to regard things more simply. To me these sonatas (and Bach's instrumental music in general, excluding the organ works) are in large part built from dance rhythms. In fact, he takes these basically miniature forms to their structural and emotional limits. Compare, for example, the length of a Bach violin concerto movement to one by Vivaldi. Vivaldi remains a miniaturist, who achieves length by putting together many miniatures together. Bach manages to build, if you will, a Superdance – the difference between a Mahler Ländler and what the Austrian peasant actually stepped to. Nevertheless, unlike Mahler's, Bach's movements retain their dance-like character and thus demand greater strictness in the keeping of time. I like performers who make Bach swing. Rubato is something that one reserves for song. It drives dancers crazy.

Furthermore, I'm convinced that Bach concerns himself more with the illusion of creating several voices from a melodic instrument. Tenenbaum talks about her visualizing the left hand/right hand/left foot/right foot of an organist as a help to clarifying each note in the texture. The careful distinction Tenenbaum has striven so hard for strikes me ultimately as counter-productive. In other words, I shouldn't hear each note in a "chord" individually; I should hear the chord. Therefore, I believe she should minimize, not emphasize, the "anticipatory" notes. She takes her approach to extremes in the Sonata #1 in G minor, the Siciliana movement. She obliterates the beat (tactus) to such an extent you can't tell the thing's in triple time. Not that I condemn her to artistic perdition, however. She delivers absolutely stunning, exhilarating accounts of the Fuga and Presto movements.

However, to me the slow movements of these works challenge the player even more than the fast. Providing very few clues on the page, they insist that the player find not only the tune, but the arch of the piece. It's a little like trying to rebuild a radio after you've taken it apart, particularly if you have pieces left over, but you're still receiving NPR. Tenenbaum does better in some movements than others. Her sarabande from the first partita stands out, as does (once again) the Andante from the second sonata. The latter is a particular killer because the texture is so exposed – basically, an aria like the one in the Italian Concerto, with melody accompanied by notes on the beat. With incredible command over her bow, Tenenbaum manages the illusion not only of two distinct voices, but of two distinct dynamics, one for each voice.

My favorites include the second and third sonatas and the second partita. Overdone rubato mars the third partita for me, although there are wonderful movements throughout all six works.

So now you're going to ask me how well she does in the chaconne. She nails it, technically, and she does more. One of the worst things that ever happened to that piece is its transformation into the Thinking Listener's Encore. It really has become a musical icon. As a result, I believe, it is the rare violinist who ties it to the rest of the second partita. It generally looms out from the other movements like the Chartres cathedral, with the other movements sloughed over. Sure, it's a great work, but it is part of a larger whole. According to what I pick up from Tenenbaum's comments, sloughing over anything, most of all Bach, sins against the spirit. As a result, her chaconne continues, even flowers from, what comes before.

I'd characterize the sound image as intimacy in a large, slightly bright room, highly appropriate to the music. I would also like to mention the liner notes by, I assume, producer Adam Abeshouse – concise, conveying all essentials, and beautifully written.

Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz