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Sonatas and Partitas for Violin BWV 1001 - 1006
Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord BWV 1016 - 1017
Sonata no. 1 in G minor [14.01]
Partita no. 1 in B minor [19.54]
Sonata no. 2 in A minor [19.00]
Partita no. 2 in D minor [24.44]
Sonata no. 3 in C major [20.32]
Partita no. 3 in E major [14.47]

Sonata for violin and harpsichord in E major * [16.51]
Sonata for violin and harpsichord in C minor * [15.21]
Arthur Grumiaux, violin
* Egida Giordani Sartori, harpsichord
Rec: Nov. 1960 (BWV 1001, 1006), Feb. 1961 (BWV 1002, 1005), Mar. 1961 (BWV 1003, 1004), June 1963 (BWV 1016, 1017).
PHILIPS 464 673-2 [146.05]
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Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin stand apart in the composer's work, as well as in the entire repertoire of violin music. While other composers have written solo pieces for violin (some of Bach's predecessors, such as Biber, Westhoff and Walther had written solo violin works, and others wrote solo pieces after Bach), none approach Bach's works, which stand at the summit of the violin repertoire. Written in the middle of Bach's life (completed in 1720), these six suites achieve the unthinkable - they manage to express complex polyphonic music with an essentially monophonic instrument. When listening to them, one is constantly amazed at the unheard harmonies that are created in the listener's inner ear through Bach's magnificently subtle counterpoint.

Bach was himself an excellent violinist, in addition to being a virtuoso organist and harpsichordist, and these works are indeed very difficult, both in the actual playing as well as the nuances of phrasing that need to be applied. Many violinists have recorded these pieces, but few stand out like this landmark recording by Arthur Grumiaux made in the early 1960s. It is indeed excellent to see that Philips has re-released them in their new 50 Great Recordings series.

It is difficult to describe these pieces - they are miracles of music, where a single violin embarks on some of the most remarkable musical discourses ever written. Constructed in the sonata da chiesa form (slow-fast-slow-fast), the three sonatas each contain fugues as their second movements. One of Bach's most memorable fugues appears in the first sonata in G minor; this fugue, originally written for organ, is a masterpiece of simplicity and complexity combined.

Based on the standard suite of dance movements popular in the Baroque period, the three partitas vary from 5 to 8 movements. One naturally thinks of the massive chaconne in the second partita, at over 13 minutes in this recording, this series of variations on a theme is perhaps the most incredible movement ever written for the violin.

Grumiaux's interpretation of these works is singular and personal, and, while some may disagree with his choices of tempo and phrasing, or with his occasional straying from Bach's manuscript, this remains one of the best recordings of these works. He shows a unique understanding of this music. While one may prefer a historically informed performance, such as that of Sigiswald Kuijken on DHM, or Lucy van Dael on Naxos, it is undeniable that Grumiaux gives this music the feeling it deserves.

The two "bonus" works on this recording, the two sonatas for violin and harpsichord, show Grumiaux in a different light. They are less convincing, in part because of the sound (the instruments are separated too much, with the harpsichord on the right channel and the violin on the left channel), and the harpsichord itself, which undoubtedly has the sound that was expected of the harpsichord in the 1960s. (I can't help but think it sounds like Lurch's harpsichord on the Addams Family...)

A mention should be made of the sound quality of the recording. One of Philips' new 96 kHz 24-bit recordings, this indeed has a clean, clear sound, although there seems to be just a bit too much reverb. Listening both on speakers and on headphones (Sennheiser HD 580) shows the sound to be excellent. However, not having the previous release of these works to compare, I cannot really say whether there is truly a difference. Suffice it to say, in any case, that the sound here is near perfect.

This classic 1960s recording of what is, arguably, one of Bach's greatest works is one of the best. The exceptional sound makes this a must-have disc.

Kirk McElhearn

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