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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger


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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin (ca. 1720)

CD1 [68:43]
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV1001 [16:12]
Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV1002 [29:04]
Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV1003 [23:28]
CD2 [74:17]
Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV1004 [29:59]
Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV1005 [24:49]
Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV1006 [19:30]
Jaap Schröder (Baroque violin)
Recorded in the village church of Oltingen, Canton of Basel, Switzerland, in 1984-5
NAXOS 8.557563-64 [2:23:00]

In a fascinating and extended essay which forms the bulk of the CD booklet included here, Jaap Schröder writes with the insight of a historian, but the language of a journalist. He ventures to suggest that we've become accustomed to hearing 18th century music performed on 19th century instruments by players who know only a 20th century technique of playing. His view is one shared by an increasing number of musicians and music-lovers. Drastic changes made to the violin after Bach's time, together with 'solutions' to 'problems' created by those changes, have combined to produce a modern instrument and, inevitably, a technique of playing it, which is fundamentally different to indeed contrary to that which Bach envisaged when writing this music. Schröder cites heightened tensions in the sound character, the development of a constant vibrato rather than expressively selective vibrato and a fondness among today's players for an uninterrupted legato stroke of the bow. This contrasts with the articulated, flexible bow of the past - which, he argues, "contradicts the grandeur of old rhetorical gestures".

This recording was previously released by the Smithsonian Institute, and is now 20 years old; not that you'd know it: it sounds well. Naxos don't say so, but I assume Schröder's essay dates from the time of that original issue. Of course his words are as valid now as ever they were, but it's interesting to reflect on how far we have come in recent years. Grumiaux, Szeryng and Perlman are still regarded as historic benchmarks in this repertory, but the case for playing Bach on a Baroque violin has surely been won. Rachel Podger's recent set on Channel Classics, for example, not only sounds wonderful, and wonderfully alive, but also enables us to hear Bach's counterpoint and his implied-polyphonic harmony. It does this as no modern instrument recording does, or indeed can. Not many 21st century listeners wouldn't prefer this approach: it has indeed become the new norm, the new benchmark.

Standards - and not just styles of playing - have also advanced these past twenty years. In the early 1980s, there were comparatively few experienced or professional players committed to Schröder's cause, and the notion of 'historically-informed' (or, if you must, 'authentic') performance practice tended also to imply an uncomfortably strident tone and unyielding phrasing. But I don't include Schröder, former concertmaster of Concerto Amsterdam and the Academy of Ancient Music, in that generalisation. His instrument sounds fabulous, his intonation immaculate, and his playing is unfailingly accurate, intelligent and affectionate.

Having said that, there are newcomers to the Baroque stage including not only Rachel Podger, but perhaps also - more controversially - Lucy van Dael, another Naxos artist. These artists are even better able to shape and characterise this extraordinarily complex, diverse and demanding music. In making that judgement, I am voicing a slight disappointment in the sense of line projected by Schröder, who occasionally loses the continuity of a top-string phrase, by allowing our attention to be deflected to a bass note or inner part, and not having a sufficient range of tone to be able to pick up the original line, as if undisturbed. Today's players are content for their music-making to be more emotionally and dynamically wide-ranging: especially in a piece such as the great D minor Chaconne, which in Schröder's hands is intimate rather than dramatic, innate but not explicit. Some of Schröder's dances are polite, as if observed rather than partaken: and some movements - especially those distinguished by a stream of identical note values, such as the Corrente and Double of the B minor - tend to sound motoric, without obvious phrase structure or breathing space.

However, anyone accustomed to or offended by the heavy weather often made by 'traditional' or 'old-school' (i.e. modern instrument) performers of Bach's multiple-stoppings and constantly contrapuntal writing, must try this! Schröder's playing may be rather confined, but it's expert, it's beautifully pure, and - avoiding as it does any kind of excess - it will repay repeated listening.

Peter J Lawson

see also review by Zane Turner

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