Notes and Editorial Reviews
Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas
Viktoria Mullova (vn)
ONYX 4040 (2 CDs: 132:22)
Viktoria Mullova explains, in her notes, that her recording of Bach’s Solo Sonatas and Partitas represents a milestone in her development: that she had been taught in the Moscow Conservatory to play these works with beautiful tone, uniform vibrato, and rigidly controlled articulation. Now, making use of a 1750 Guadagnini, gut strings, a baroque-style bow (made by Walter Barbiero), and tuning to A = 415, Mullova’s Bach should
make a very different impression. This isn’t the same cut-and-thrust swordswoman who strutted onto the stage in 1987 to play a program of blockbusters with slashing aplomb, but a more thoughtful musician who still bears a strong relationship to her younger self. She recorded the works in sessions between March 18-19, 2007, and October 20-22, 2008, in a highly reverberant venue in Bolzano, and the hall works as a sort of partner in her conception, creating effortlessly the church- or organ-like effect that, she relates, her teachers encouraged her to achieve. What reverberates sounds free, though, paradoxically, calculated, in the First Sonata’s Adagio; the ensuing Fuga bounces along at a good clip; one of the most interesting moments occurs during the long-held pedal over which the upper lines move in thirds: she plays the upper parts with only an occasional return to the pedal. For generations, violinists have looked for resolutions of this kind of passage, trying, variously, arpeggiations and broken double-stops. But Mullova’s way sounds the way the music looks. She’s not afraid of individualizing the Siciliana, nor of dashing cross-accents in the finale (the “old” Mullova peeping through?). Here, the reverberation itself nearly creates fleeting pedal points and suggested counterpoint.
Pointed rhythms, piquant and dance-like, pervade her reading of the First Partita’s Allemanda, though its slower moving Double—and the Corrente, as well—sound more mechanical, despite her plentiful nuances. The Corrente’s Double, on the other hand, glimmers with highlights—as, in general, do all the faster movements, such as the Tempo di Borea. Mullova recorded this Partita in Utrecht in 1987 (Philips 420 948); and in 14:2, David K. Nelson noted that her playing made “no concessions to period style other than an avoidance of
(Mullova seems almost painfully aware of that.) In fact this performance certainly sounds archer, more sharply articulated, and more dramatic in its contrasts between phrases, although it doesn’t go so far in adopting twangy period-instrument mannerisms as Maxim Vengerov did in his recreation of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue (EMI 7243 5 57384 2 4, 26:4).
As she did in the First Sonata’s Adagio, Mullova plays with rhapsodic freedom in the Second’s Grave. She holds on to the thread of the Fuga (the fugues of these three Sonatas become progressively longer and more complex in almost arithmetic progression: in these performances, 4:58, 7:07, and 9:18). The Andante, by comparison, sounds grimly determined; but her timbrally variegated Allegro shimmers like a rainbow trout.
In the Second Partita, Mullova emphasizes the Terpsichorean nature of the Allemanda, Corrente, and Giga with accents flintier than those to which many listeners may be accustomed. A bigger surprise comes in the Sarabanda, here moodily reflective—almost sultry. Mullova’s Ciaconna lasts only 13:33, yet her statement of the theme itself promises much, and she makes the harmonically pregnant lines reveal all their import. The generally steady tempo and the variety of bowings and articulations throughout (for example, she seems to come closer to the bridge during the arpeggiated passages, creating at first a sort of
) follow up on the variety of her first statement. As in the First Sonata’s Fugue, she plays some of the passages with surprising fidelity to the manuscript text; others, not usually so lavishly arpeggiated, rise to climaxes of noteworthy intensity.
The Third Sonata’s Adagio exhibits here a breadth and depth that even those who admire Milstein should grudgingly admire (I’ve always contended that this Sonata, rather than the Second Partita, inspired his most noble playing). The comparison with Milstein breaks down in the monumental fugue, though Mullova’s hardly sounds puny beside his—her slashing fugal entries alone almost guarantee that. After an exceptionally reflective Largo, her spiky version of the Allegro assai, often played as an encore by Milstein and Menuhin, brings the Sonata to a brilliant conclusion.
The Preludio of the Third Partita also often appears as an encore, and Mullova plays it fairly straightforwardly. The Loure can suffer from too ponderous an approach; this Mullova avoids with accents flicked off with her characteristically quick reflexes, relieving the movement of much of what could have been excess interpretive weight. While the Gavotte en Rondeau, another encore number taken by itself, may not need such an infusion of helium, it certainly doesn’t hurt, and Mullova adds a few notes here and there to ensure the lift-off. The two Menuets receive similar treatment, while the Bourée and Gigue sound at times almost intoxicating.
Beneath all the warmth and brilliance—and the overall apparent flexibility—of Mullova’s performance lies the same flashing steel that I heard in 1987 (now accompanied by a sort of unvarying use of whining timbres and articulation); overall, it’s a synthesis of two approaches: Mullova may have changed her mind, but that mind’s still hers. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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