Notes and Editorial Reviews
BACH Solo Violin Sonatas: No. 1 in g, BWV 1001; No. 2 in a, BWV 1003. Solo Violin Partita No. 1 in b, BWV 1002 • Isabelle Faust (vn) • HARMONIA MUNDI 6902124 (60:22)
In Fanfare 34:2, I urgently recommended the first volume of Isabelle Faust’s collection of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas for the
violinist’s “intellectual energy, for her tonal strength, and for the vibrant individuality of her playing... as one of the most personal and most inventive after [Nathan] Milstein’s.” The confidence and flexibility of her projection in the opening measures of the First Sonata, coupled with the same easy nobility of tone production that characterized the first volume (again on the 1704 Sleeping Beauty Stradivari), foreshadow a completion to the series, recorded in August and September of 2011, that’s in every way equal to its opening. Both complexity and variety mark her reading: She plays the fugue lightly and quickly, brings an airy grace to the Siciliana and a combination of virtuosity and effervescence to the gigue-like Presto—like Milstein’s various readings of this sonata, this one’s hardly academic, though it probes deeply, wearing its learning lightly—and elegantly.
Faust sharpens the dotted rhythms in the First Partita’s Allemande, creating excitement in the place of mere ritual acknowledgment of the movement’s piquant-looking rhythms. Her light and liquid grace in the Double provides a perfectly balanced foil. She accents the Corrente very strongly, yet again indulges rhythmic flexibility (enhanced by a cornucopia of articulations) that preserves the movement from any hint of the mechanical; and she pairs it with a performance of the Double that gives the impression, perhaps because of the giddy clarity of her détaché bowing, of being more rapid than almost anybody’s, except maybe Ruggiero Ricci’s (teachers often advise students that evenness at a slower tempo sounds quicker than a faster irregular speed). Her double-stops in the Sarabande sound resonant and sweetly in tune, and her gloss in the Double haunting and reflective. In the Tempo di Borea, she opens the shutters to a clean, bright light, with overall crisp articulation adding definition to her feathery bow stroke, and her playing of the Double extends this manner to the end of the work.
Even those who consider the Second Sonata the most abstract of the set should be convinced by the sense of almost ruminative, improvisatory freedom that Faust brings to its Grave. Her reading of the fugue at least seems to emphasize the subject’s compact geometry less than its linear flow, yet she provides plenty of punctuation, dividing the piece clearly into contrasting if complementary sections. She doesn’t linger over nuances in the Andante’s accompanied melody, but continually moves the melody and its musical argument forward. In the final Allegro, she adopts an approach heavier than she took in the first sonata’s Presto—perhaps in order to realize its almost concerto-like virtuosity and weight.
The engineers have captured Faust up close—close enough to pick up breathing, some of it, it seems, rather heavy, although not heavy enough to serve as a distraction in such a performance. For on the whole, Faust has encompassed in this set goals (whether she explicitly adopted them or not) that have eluded so many of her contemporaries: a thoughtful individuality that’s free from quirkiness and a style of bowing that suggests the period but still exhibits an almost seductive tonal sheen. Like Milstein, in either of his recordings, this is magisterial, authoritative—and urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
For ordinary people who are not violinists—or for violinists who may be just ordinary—imagining what talent, what dedication, what effort, what sheer will it would take to learn to play just one of the Bach solo sonatas or partitas is daunting enough; but to arrive at the place, and especially at a relatively young age, at which you can perform all six of these formidably challenging works is something really special, something that few performers accomplish. Add to this setting down every one of the thousands of notes in front of a microphone in a modern digital recording studio, where every tiny detail, every nuance, every scratch of the bow, every point of intonation, from single pitches to double and triple and quadruple stops, will be captured without mercy.
Some performers and their recording teams go to great trouble to try to present perfection: a young Shlomo Mintz told me in an interview that for his 1984 DG recording, he did more than 2,000 takes. Others, that is, most everyone else, without such luxury of studio time, and with considerably more daring, just play, opting for the benefit of momentum, and for the interpretive consistency achieved with fewer interruptions. And still others, such as Isabelle Faust, choose to split the project into two parts; her first volume in this set was released in 2010, and this completion wasn’t recorded until more than a year later.
Whatever logistical approach Isabelle Faust took in recording this second and final volume of her sonata/partita traversal for Harmonia Mundi, her playing certainly doesn’t have you thinking of edits or any other studio manipulation. As in her earlier effort, she just convinces you that she owns these works—that her way is as natural, unmannered, and stylistically appropriate as that of any of the more eminent artists who’ve traversed this territory, backed up with the kind of technical polish and assurance that dispels criticism, or at least attracts our admiring attention.
Faust doesn’t take her time: her slow movements in the sonatas are urgent and dramatic, while her fast movements—the Double: Presto in the Partita; the Presto in the first sonata—are as super-charged as any on disc, as nimble and quick as Milstein, who (on his classic 1950s EMI recording) takes only the first repeats. Faust’s bowing is more fluid, her articulation less deliberate, and her expressive insertions effectively more engaging than James Ehnes’ much more deliberate, carefully judged expression in his equally valid reference interpretations. And Faust truly knows how a 21st-century violinist should handle an 18th-century violin, freely exploiting the vibrant, venerable voice of her 1704 “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius.
You may judge some of her tempo decisions to be too fast or too slow, or her ornamentation too subtle or too generous, but overall it’s hard to conclude anything but that Faust is one of today’s premier interpreters of this cornerstone of violin repertoire. If you already own a favorite set of these works, you probably don’t need this; but if you’re looking for a solid performance and recording that will certainly stand the test of time, you won’t go wrong here. And the sound, from a Berlin studio in September, 2011, is excellent.
David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com Read less
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