Sigiswald Kuijken is both a fine violinist and an excellent conductor, with his group La Petite Bande. He has long specialized in Bach, recording cantatas, orchestral works, and a previous set of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. One of the leading proponents of historically informed performances (HIP), in the 1970s, especially with Gustav Leonhardt, he has long been one of the stalwarts of baroque music.
These six pieces are the summit of the violin repertoire. Both melodic masterpieces and technical nightmares, no violinist worth his or her salt can ignore them. All the great violinists have recorded them, as, unfortunately, have many mediocre performers. Sigiswald Kuijken made a first recording of these pieces in 1983, which was a landmark. It was the first real historically informed performance of these works, played in period style (as much as this can be said) and on a period instrument. While this first recording has its rough edges, it remains one of the best versions of these works.
But it is not perfect. Kuijken's tone slips at times, his playing has its faults, but the energy is there - listening to the entire set, one can hear the drive behind this recording. Kuijken has been playing these works in concert for some two decades now. I was fortunate enough to hear them performed live a few years ago, in Tours, France, and found the same strengths and weaknesses as on the recording. That is, living music, with its imperfections, but with an undeniable level of energy.
When I saw that Kuijken was releasing a new recording of these works, I was delighted. His 1983 version is my favourite; I naturally assumed that, with time, it could only get better. I was not only wrong, but also very disappointed when I heard this new recording.
The 1983 recording has a unique sound. At the time, reverb was not a systematic addition to classical recordings, and the violin sounds close, present, almost as though it is playing right in front of the listener. But, now, nary a classical disc appears that does not try to sound as if it was recorded in the Winchester Cathedral. And, this is the main fault with this set. It has layers of reverb, making the sound of the violin disappear in a haze of effects. It almost sounds as if it were a mistake, it often sounds false, as if it were electronically processed, which, of course, it is. While sound engineers must believe that it adds something to the music, in reality it smoothes out the nuances, and hides the subtle harmonies. On this recording, it is so flagrant it is jarring - the magnificent A minor fugue, for example, sounds like several violins are playing together in a bathroom. (I thought it was just me, so I asked my wife - who is not interested in classical music, and knows nothing about recording or sound - and she was convinced that there were several instruments playing.) And it gets worse; in the fast and furious parts of the famous D minor Chaconne, the reverb makes the sound muddy, making it very hard to follow the music.
Why this terrible sound? Is this a techno version of the pieces? Is DJ Siggy trying out something new, remixing them for a younger public who is not used to the pure, unadulterated sound of solo instruments? Perhaps the producer felt that he could attract a new public by making the instrument sound like something it is not.
Not only does the reverb annoy, but the sound of the instrument is harsh and scratchy. Many people complain about this type of sound when hearing HIP versions of these works, and this can often prevent them from discovering some fine recordings. But, on this set, the sound is disagreeable - it is not what I expect a violin to sound like. The basses seem attenuated, and the trebles way too present.
Other than the sound, it does not seem that there is much difference between Kuijken's interpretation on his 1983 recording and this new version. If anything, he sounds more choppy and hesitant on this later version, although, in spite of the reverb, he seems to have much more mastery in the difficult passages of the Chaconne from the D minor Partita. The timings are a little longer than the first recording, but, when listening to the movements of both version sequentially, this difference hardly stands out. Also, he is playing on the same instrument; a different violin would make this recording stand out a bit more from the first one. I think of Anner Bylsma, who has recording Bach's Suites for Solo Cello twice, and whose use of a Stradivarius in the latter recording makes it very different from the first.
Listening to this recording has that strange feeling you get when meeting an old friend after many years and discovering that they are not exactly as you expected. I was so looking forward to a new recording of these works with the experience of time to give them more depth; I ended up hearing what sounds like a techno version of some of the finest violin music ever written. The only recommendation I can make is to avoid this set; if you want to hear a fine performance, pick up the first Kuijken recording, which, I hope, will remain available. If not, Lucy van Dael's recent set on Naxos is another fine historically informed performance.
This new recording of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin not only offers little improvement over Kuijken's 1983 recording of the same works, but is marred by terrible sound.