Notes and Editorial Reviews
6 Sonatas for Violin Solo
arr. Schumann), BWV 1001–1006
Benjamin Schmid (vn); Lisa Smirnova (pn)
MDG 333 0614 (2 CDs: 118: 58)
Robert Schumann turned to the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas of Bach toward the end of his life, around the end of 1852, and finished providing piano parts for them in February of 1853. Today we rightly ask why in the world anyone would feel the need to add a piano to pieces that most of us today regard as sheer
perfection. The answer lies in the time in which Schumann lived. Contrary to popular opinion, Bach never completely dropped out of the musical world; but he was not considered, at least in the popular mind, what he is today, though I’ll wager no major composer ever eliminated him from his sights. But many of his works were thought not considerate to populist tastes of the time, and composers devised “aids” to help the general public appreciate them.
One of these aids consisted in making clear the implicit harmonies found in Bach’s solo works. For musicians, some said, it was perfectly acceptable to play the works as is, for they are trained to understand voice-leading and harmony; but the layperson needed help in ascertaining what the composer intended. If this sounds like a slight toward the musical public at the time, I would agree, and I have a hard time imagining that those uneducated music lovers of Schumann’s time were so far behind those in our own age—probably the contrary. Still, it is always foolish to judge those of another age, and since so many composers felt the same way there must have been some sort of public reaction against the more stringent music of Bach.
Schumann himself first got the idea from hearing Mendelssohn spontaneously accompany the Chaconne from the D-Minor Partita with violinist Ferdinand David, first violin of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. It was considered perfect by all who heard it, and not long after Schumann embarked on setting only four of these works himself. After a time he decided to complete the whole set, and even published the set sans violin part, not presuming to make any additions or changes to the original at all. (Any differences in the violin part between then and now are due solely to variances in editions, not of Schumann’s doing.)
The question remains as to whether this version has any significance for modern-day audiences. Truthfully, I think not, aside from historical curiosity. You will not hear anything in this arrangement that expands or illuminates your understanding of these works. Having said that, I do find enjoyment in these; Bach comes through like the star he is, and Schumann’s contributions are at their worst completely unobtrusive (aside from the fact that he is doing this at all) and at their best mildly clever and tasteful.
Haroutune Bedelian and Lorna Griffitt on Centaur recorded these works last year, and though the performances are generally fine they lack the last little glean of insight to pull this off. You don’t want some sort of period performance in these works, yet it seems that a full blown romantic effort would not serve the music, either, though it would perhaps be more historically correct—and we really have no clue as to how the early Romantics played Bach. Here, Benjamin Schmid, professor at the Mozarteum of Salzburg and Bern, plays with brilliant authority and sensible stylistic acumen, providing us with readings that are not fearful of passion yet don’t try to persuade us with any false leanings toward “authenticity.” They are cleanly played, wonderfully executed, and persuasive in their own right, though no one should pretend that they will be substitutes for the genuine article. This will definitely fill a gap for completists.
FANFARE: Steven E. Ritter
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