Notes and Editorial Reviews
Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas
Kristóf Baráti (vn)
BRILLIANT 94667 (2 CDs: 113:38)
My belated discovery of Kristóf Baráti came barely eight months ago when I received his Beethoven violin sonatas for review in 36:4. Rarely, if ever, have I been so awed by a violinist previously unknown to me, or by such indescribably stunning performances, that I concluded my review by suggesting that all other versions of the Beethoven sonatas had been rendered irrelevant. Them’s fighting
words, I know, but I was so overwhelmed by Baráti’s playing that I begged for the opportunity to review his Bach Sonatas and Partitas, even though I knew they’d already been reviewed and urgently recommended by Robert Maxham in 34:1.
Baráti’s Bach was recorded in 2009 and originally released on Berlin Classics. Assuming you didn’t purchase it then at the full price of $33.99—which, by the way, you still can—it’s now available in this Brilliant Classics transfer for $11.99.
Most of what’s laudable about Baráti’s performances of Bach’s unaccompanied violin works was described in Maxham’s review, so rather than simply restate and endorse what was already said I’d like to expand upon it by addressing another aspect of Baráti’s readings.
It’s often said that Bach’s intent in these works was to mimic on the violin the contrapuntal interplay of lines more naturally suited to a keyboard instrument. The result is writing heavily reliant on double- and triple-stop chording and bow crossings that skip adjacent strings, requiring fingerings and bowings that run contrary to the physics of the violin and its fundamental design as a melody instrument. The three massive fugues—one in each of the four-movement
-form sonatas—are particularly unrelenting in their contrapuntal demands. But even where there’s nary a double-stop in sight—the rapid-fire perpetual motion concluding movements of the three sonatas, the Gigue in the D-Minor Partita, and the Preludio in the E-Major Partita—the writing is such that a sequence of notes in a given measure is answered by a complementing sequence in a following measure, much as the right and left hands answer each other contrapuntally in Bach’s keyboard works. The trick on the violin is to manage these reciprocating volleys in a way that cons the ear into hearing two lines instead of one.
This sleight of hand can only be accomplished through a deft combination of phrasing, dynamics, and bowing articulation, and here is where Baráti really shines. This is one of those times when it would be especially helpful if we could offer actual musical examples, but I will have to do the best I can without them. In both the last movement of the C-Major Sonata, marked
, and the first movement (Preludio) of the E-Major Partita, you have constant alternations between and alterations in bariolage-like figurations. In the former-noted movement, a figure rocking between the A and E strings is mirrored approximately in reverse two bars later on the D and A strings, giving the impression of the left hand answering the right. And through it all, there are accented
downbeats that seem to pop out like the bass pedal on an organ. In all of the many performances of this movement I’ve heard, the only other violinist who manages to create the effect of this counterpointing interplay as sharply and as smartly as Baráti is Nathan Milstein in his later 1973 recording for Deutsche Grammophon.
In the latter-mentioned movement—the E-Major Sonata’s Preludio—you have that twice- occurring, right-brain vs. left-brain, bariolage passage in which the alternation occurs between an open string and higher notes played in a higher position on the string below it. It’s backwards and counterintuitive, but the thing to listen for is the last sixteenth note of each four sixteenth-note groupings. That’s the note that should pop out at the end of each beat like an ostinato bass note, and in Baráti’s performance, just listen starting at measure 21: wuh, wuh, wuh, wuh on each of those last sixteenths, so that by the time you get to the end of the passage at bar 28, your brain has mentally redrawn where the bar lines and the downbeats are. This is just another of Bach’s little rhythmic tricks to keep you constantly off balance.
Look at the last movement (
) of the G-Minor Sonata in a meter of 3/8. But there’s a constant shifting and regrouping of the six sixteenth notes per bar, so that sometimes they’re heard as triplets (two groups of three notes each), other times as duplets (three groups of two notes each), and still other times, slurred across bar-lines or regrouped in unexpected ways, like one, four, and one, dislocating the naturally accented beats altogether. Baráti takes it all in his stride, navigating the hairpin twists and turns with bow strokes of surgical precision and intonation so accurate it wouldn’t move the needle one cent or comma off center on a pitch detector.
As Maxham noted, Baráti’s Chaconne is a bit on the brisk side—13:05 to be exact, almost a full minute faster than the aforementioned Milstein and considerably faster than a number of other leading violinists, but still about 10 seconds slower than Heifetz—but delivered with such technical perfection, dignity, and nobility of spirit, it doesn’t sound rushed or pressed.
There is one thing, however, that Maxham failed to mention, and it’s the one thing that I find really disappointing, especially since there’s absolutely no rational explanation or excuse for it in these studio-made recordings. In every single binary-form movement, where you have first and second halves repeated, consistently and without exception, Baráti takes the first-half repeat but omits the second-half repeat. That affects a lot of movements: the last movement (
) of the G-Minor Sonata, every single movement of the B-Minor Partita, the third and fourth movements of the A-Minor Sonata, every movement of the D-Minor Partita (except for the Chaconne, which is not binary), the last movement of the C-Major Sonata, and the Louré, Menuets I and II, the Boureé, and the Gigue of the E-Major Partita. I simply can’t understand why Baráti made this choice; it’s not like the two discs are anywhere near capacity.
Would I reject Baráti’s Bach because of this? No, it’s simply too good to be doctrinaire about it, but for his fantabulous playing I could kiss him, while for his questionable of judgment, I could slap him. Still, these are performances of Bach’s Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas that everyone needs to hear, and I second, third, and fourth Maxham’s urgent recommendation.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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