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Bach: Sonatas & Partitas For Solo Violin / Michael Antonello

Release Date: 12/01/2012 
Label:  Mja Productions   Catalog #: 5638057691   Spars Code: DDD 
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas Michael Antonello (vn) MJA PRODUCTIONS 707541548892 (2 CDs: 135:29)

Michael Antonello, by his own admission, is not a professional violinist, which, in common parlance is taken to mean one who does not earn his or her living as a performing artist. But following a career path in life other than that of a professional performing artist is not necessarily a measure of one’s musical abilities or dedication to the art. In fact, when it comes to training and experience—study under Joseph Read more Brodsky at the Curtis Institute, then with Franco Gulli at Indiana University, followed by invitations and appointments to play in numerous professional ensembles—Antonello is not someone who just picked up a violin one day and decided, out of vanity, to learn and record major works from the violin’s mainstream repertoire.

In fact, he is a man of deep humility, a man ever striving to better himself and to make the very best of the considerable technical skills and musical gifts with which he has been endowed. This became clear in a phone conversation I had with Antonello a while back in which he shared with me that more than anything else he wishes his recordings to be a legacy by which he’s remembered by family descendants and friends.

Antonello’s hard-earned technical facility on the violin, coupled with his unerring musical instincts, has more often than not resulted in near topflight professional performances. But it’s the “near” that has made it difficult to review some of Antonello’s earlier recordings in Fanfare, a publication whose readers expect contributors to make comparisons and recommendations from among countless performances of a work by the world’s greatest players, past and present; and again, in our conversation, Antonello acknowledged that he does not consider himself to be in the same league as a Heifetz or a Milstein. That is part of the man’s modesty and humility, and had you asked me what I thought based on hearings of Antonello’s previous recordings, I would have said that it wasn’t false modesty that he was expressing. But his latest release of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin is a real game-changer.

Sooner or later, most violinists decide to have a go at this monument to the art of music for solo violin, with results that have not always been edifying. It has to be acknowledged that Bach wrote these works for the violin he knew, not for the violin of 100 years later. Thus, approaching these works on a modern instrument has always required compromises in the way chords are broken and bowed due to the greater curvatures of the fingerboard, bridge, and bow and the increased tension on the strings. On the other hand, realizing these works on a period instrument may abate those particular problems for the player, while raising the specter of compromised intonation and tonal allure for the listener.

It also has to be acknowledged that Bach’s solo violin works did not arise out of thin air; they are the culmination of a German tradition of experimental speculation in the seemingly improbable possibilities of a non-keyboard instrument engaging in counterpoint with itself. One has only to look to the solo violin works of Heinrich Ignaz Biber (1644–1704) to discover the ancestry of Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas.

Antonello performs these formidable works on his prized 1742 Guarneri del Gesù, which, of course, is set up, strung, and tuned according to modern standards. Before going further, a few words on the recordings themselves are in order. They were made in three different venues between July 2011 and June 2012. Antonello’s sister, Cara Mia Antonello, herself an accomplished violinist, spent many hours listening to and assisting in the editing of these performances, while lead sound engineer Ryan Albrecht and co-engineer Tom Mudge of Senyah Sound insured that optimum advantage was taken of the acoustic properties of each the recording sites. The First and Third sonatas were recorded in Chicago’s St. Paul’s Church; the first, second, and fourth movements of the D-Minor Partita were recorded in Chicago’s Hemingway Museum in Oak Park Heights; and everything else comes from the Unitarian Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. No matter, for so superb a job of equalizing and balancing have the engineers done that you wouldn’t know that the fifth movement of the D-Minor Partita (the great Chaconne) had crossed two state borders.

Now, speaking of the Chaconne, that’s where many a critic would begin his or her review, but not this one; it’s too easy a place to start and, besides, for all its majesty, the Chaconne is actually not the most technically challenging movement among the six works. Stamina and endurance it takes, no doubt, but the most difficult movements are the massive fugues in each of the three sonatas in which concentrated, rigorous, and intensive double- and triple-stopping is pervasive and for long stretches virtually unalleviated.

But there is yet another tough challenge that comes in the third movement of the Second Sonata, and it’s a problem related more to bowing than to fingering. In Bach’s day and on a violin of the period with a flatter bridge and a bow more adapted to the relational height of the strings, it wouldn’t have posed such difficulty. But with a modern instrument and bow the player needs to create the impression that the bow is made of rubber. The technique is referred to as the louré or portato stroke, and to play what Bach wrote requires that a note on one string be held while the bow dips down intermittently to play notes on the string below, while the upper note continues to sound without interruption and without accent. Perhaps I marvel at those who can do it at all (I never could master it), let alone do it smoothly and expressively. This is the first test to which I put any player of the sonatas and partitas, and Antonello passes it with flying colors.

Discretion being the better part of valor, Antonello takes all movements, not just the fast ones, at a somewhat more leisurely pace than we tend to hear them from today’s power players. But what may be lost in the “Flight of the Bumblee” contest of “I can play it faster than you can” in movements like the perpetual motion Preludio of the Third Partita, the Presto of the First Sonata, and the concluding movement of the Second Sonata is more than compensated for in sureness of fingering and bowing, trueness of intonation, expressiveness in dynamics and phrasing, and a buttery smoothness of rich and vibrant tone pouring forth from Antonello’s magnificent del Gesù violin. Moreover, Antonello demonstrates a solidity and evenness of tone production that allows each tone within double- and triple-stops to be equally weighted and to guide the ear infallibly from one harmonic tension and its resolution to the next. This is particularly welcome in the fugues, where “counterpoint,” as such, is sometimes more virtual than actual and can seem a bit wayward when the underlying harmony isn’t clarified in the way that Antonello brings it into focus.

And what of the Chaconne? Well, as indicated above, Antonello’s tempos in general tend to feel unhurried, and that applies to his reading of the Chaconne as well. He allows it to unfold in large periods, rather than calling undue attention to the regularity of the eight-bar variation structure, which, when emphasized as it is by some players—Alina Ibragimova, comes to mind—can make the piece seem a bit choppy. In Antonello’s hands, it feels almost as if the Chaconne is finding its own tempo and its own way of telling. After arriving at my conclusion, strictly by listening, that Antonello’s Chaconne was comparatively on the measured side, I decided to do some checking against other versions in my collection, and it turns out that I was doubly surprised, first, because Antonello is not as leisurely as I thought—among 17 performances, his is number nine, placing it almost exactly midway between the slowest and the fastest—and second because the players I expected to be the fastest were not necessarily so. Here are the results in order of fastest to slowest.

Joseph Silverstein    12:41   

Jascha Heifetz 1952, mono, RCA      12:56   

Arthur Grumiaux   13: 14   

Nathan Milstein (1973. Deutsche Grammophon)    13:55   

Henryk Szeryng (1954, mono, CBS/Sony)      14:00   

Alina Ibragimova   14: 10   

Henrk Szeryng (1968, Deutsche Grammophon)    14:23   

Yehudi Menuhin (1935, mono, EMI)      14:43   

Antonello   14:50    

Gregory Fulkerson   14: 56   

Dmitry Sitkovetsky    15:04   

Uto Ughi   15:24    

Perlman   15:46    

Julia Fischer   15:47    

Sergey Khachatryan    16:25   

James Ehnes   16:41    

David Grimal   16:44    

I guess the four that surprised me the most were Milstein, who I expected to be in first or second place for fastest, Grumiaux, who I would not have expected to be as fast as he is, and both Julia Fischer and James Ehnes, neither of whom would I have expected to be among the slowest. But there you have it. So, at least in the Chaconne, Antonello is right behind Menuhin and Szeryng’s 1968 remake, the latter, my longtime favorite and first choice in the Bach Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas. Not bad company to be in, I’d have to say. Antonello’s performances of these works are, in my opinion, among the very best of the best, and for anyone who is passionate about Bach and the violin they deserve your urgent attention.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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