Notes and Editorial Reviews
Solo Violin Sonatas: No. 1 in g; No. 2 in a; No. 3 in C. Solo Violin Partitas: No. 1 in b; No. 2 in d; No. 3 in E
Ilya Kaler (vn)
NAXOS 8.570277 (2 CDs: 147:84)
Ilya Kaler has contributed to Naxos’s catalog some exemplary recordings of solo works for violin, including the Paganini caprices, (Naxos 8.550717), and Ysaÿe’s sonatas (Naxos 8.555996, 28:1). His performance of Bach’s unaccompanied solo sonatas and partitas fits well in quality with these others. The sonatas come from sessions on July
19–22, 2006, in the Church of St. John Chrysostom in Newmarket, Canada; the partitas hail from later ones on February 1–4, 2007, in the same venue—although, with the engineer (Norbert Kraft), editor (again, Kraft), and the location remaining the same, the recorded sound also remains pretty much constant throughout: close but ideally reverberant—enough, in fact, to enhance the violin’s sound but not so much as to blur individual lines.
Kaler’s set, at nearly two and a half hours, may be one of the lengthiest available, but it communicates little sense of ponderousness. In the First Sonata’s Adagio, Kaler allows the chords to resonate (and the last one to die an exquisitely—or excruciatingly—lingering death). He separates the lines of the Fuga, and even more, the entrances, with strong dynamic differentiation, bringing to the movement a welcome intellectual liveliness. His reading of the Siciliana similarly allows separate lines to stand out, and he plays the Presto’s conflicting rhythmic groupings tantalizingly against each other. Nevertheless, as occasion will arise to note throughout the works, Kaler is no dry expositor of sacred texts but consistently strives, in the manner of Nathan Milstein, to personalize his interpretations with tonal nuances. Yet he never sacrifices beauty of tone to make quasi-academic points: in the dances of the First Partita and their doubles, he achieves a warmly expressive tonal ambiance even while unpacking the embedded contrapuntal ideas, and his chords ring with a purity—of both sound and intonation—that recalls Grumiaux’s. Nevertheless, individual notes or chords never assume undue importance in themselves, but always point like vectors to others in the complex web. In the double to the First Partita’s Sarabanda, for example, jagged melodic lines seem smoother than might be expected, not only because of the reverberant ambiance that connects them but because of an underlying logic that Kaler has brought to life.
The Second Sonata’s Fuga hardly takes prisoners, even at 7:57—it’s always dancing, with abrupt entries, and with sharply articulated ideas, some of which build dynamically through long stretches, lending the whole a purple-mountain majesty that it sometimes lacks. In the Andante, Kaler slows down to spin out ideas at a rate that nevertheless seems natural and genial. Of course, there’s a danger that such majestic tempos will grow viscous; and, in fact, the strong articulation of the final Allegro of the Second Sonata might make its point just as stirringly if it moved at a faster tempo.
In the second volume of his massive treatise on violin-playing, Carl Flesch published an annotated version of the Allemanda from the Second Partita with slight pauses delineating phrases; and I’ve tried and taught the movement both with and without them. Kaler strikes a middle ground, breaking longer lines into manageable chunks but keeping the whole well connected nevertheless. The Corrente sounds brisk by comparison. Kaler adds a judicious ornament here and there in the Sarabanda, as he does in other movements, particularly slow ones like the First Sonata’s Adagio. The Chaconne opens with clipped articulation that may seem just beyond the mainstream, but his chordal playing builds to a mighty, cathedral-like climax. Ida Haendel recommends keeping the Chaconne’s tempo steady, like a great heartbeat; while Kaler doesn’t seem to do that, his sequence of tempos consistently makes sense—if you allow any at all. On the whole, it’s like Kogan’s recording of the Brahms Concerto (with Kondrashin and the Philharmonia Orchestra): it builds eloquently but doesn’t command attention from the very beginning; stay with it a few minutes and it won’t let go (unless, possibly, you can’t tolerate the way Kaler arpeggiates the chords near the end of the section in D Major). The Adagio of the C-Major Sonata opens with rolling chords continually breaking like waves. The Fuga may unfold with just a bit too great a regularity for listeners who prefer a more kaleidoscopic development, such as Milstein’s. And while the Largo, with its pulsating accompaniment, might, like the Fuga, seem to wander through its material too slowly, the Allegro assai, which Kaler plays with great strength and authority, has all the panache of a concerto movement. The Preludio of the Partita in E Major, an often-played encore in itself, suffers in Kaler’s reading, like the stateliest movements of the C-Major Sonata, from an almost étude-like solidity and regularity. The Loure, however, moves with greater grace; and the popular Gavotte brings an irresistible rhythmic zest to a movement that can seem like an obligatory nod to accessibility. The Menuets that follow share this rhythmic incisiveness, whatever their tempos (and Kaler inserts a note here and there that keeps the lines fluidly mobile); the last two movements share exuberant tempos.
While Kaler’s performances may not consistently—or individually—sound leisurely, they do occupy more time than, say Milstein’s (whose second set took about 20 minutes less—and even Rosand’s took approximately eight less). In fact, glancing through the sets, Kaler seems almost as fast as Milstein only in the Second Sonata’s final Allegro, in the Chaconne, in the Third Partita’s Preludio, Loure, and Gigue, while he’s actually faster in the Second Partita’s Corrente and the Third Partita’s Bourée. But accepting Kaler’s exposition at its leisurely pace allows a listener to hear the works in a meditative frame of mind similar to the one the cello suites can evoke. Perhaps after generations of slowing down, musicians became intoxicated with the bracing speed period instrumentalists popularized. And now, perhaps too, it may be time for a more contemplative version of Bach’s solo works for violin—a version, in fact, like Kaler’s. Recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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