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.
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 15 minutes in this recording, this series of variations on a theme is perhaps the most incredible movement ever written for the violin.
Benedict Cruft has recorded these pieces in a slightly different order than usual - as he says, this "is the order I have found most satisfactory for the pairs of concerts of the complete set that I have been giving during the last twelve years." This can be slightly disconcerting for those used to hearing them in the "usual" order, from 1 to 6, although this is not a real problem.
Also, he calls them "Sonatas and Partias"; here is his reasoning for this:
"I decided to entitle the CD "Sonatas & Partias" (sic) rather than the more usual Partitas, because that is Bach's title on his manuscript. We thought for a long time about how to list the movement titles - Allemande or Allemanda, Corrente or Courante, Sarabanda or Sarabande, Chaconne or Ciaccona, even Fuga or Fugue etc., and eventually decided to call each movement exactly what Bach called it in his autograph copy, as he obviously intends a different structure or mood to a Gigue and a Giga, so I then thought that we must call the pieces by his own titles as well. Most people think that the missing t is a careless typo." I have adopted Cruft's spellings, even though I don't feel this is such an important issue. At best, it can only confuse people looking for this recording in on-line dealers' web sites…
Benedict Cruft plays a 1715 Carlo Tononi (in modern set-up) using a Francois Tourte bow from about 1785. This is an excellent sounding violin, but his tone can be jarring - the first piece, the E major Partita, starts out with some of the highest notes of the set. For those who have trouble listening to solo violin music, because of its harshness, this can be an instant turn-off. However, in the A minor sonata, where the range is a bit lower, his tone is warm and intimate. In this sonata, the double stops give off a great radiance, and the lower notes on the instrument are strong and project well.
Cruft's tempi are relatively slow compared to most other recordings. Because of this, the music can sound wooden and rigid, such as in the Menuets of the E major partita, where Cruft seems to be just this side of getting the rhythm right. These are dance movements, and they don't dance on this recording. They sound too intense and not joyful enough. Yet, these tempi work much better in the contrapuntal movements, where they allow the various lines to be more clearly heard. The Andante of the A minor sonata also sounds excellent at this slightly slower tempo, with its recurring bass note carrying the rhythm.
The D minor partita is my personal favourite; not only because of the huge chaconne at the end, but because of the rich flowing melodies of the other movements, that seem to be a sort of musical discourse leading up to the final monument. Cruft does well in this partita, giving more convincing rhythmic structure to the Corrente and Giga, although, again, his tempi are a bit slower than the norm. The Chaconne, which is the movement by which violinists are always measured, is performed with a great deal of energy, as Cruft attacks the strings with verve in the initial measures, then maintains this energy throughout the movement. But there are a few places where he misses the rhythm just slightly, throwing off the inertia of this huge piece.
The Fugue from the G minor sonata is one of my favourite movements of all of Bach's music; this fugue fits many forms, and Bach transcribed it for organ as well as lute. Cruft loses the thread in this fugue, with some hesitation that bursts the bubble of magic this beautiful piece creates. His tone here is also a bit off, more so than elsewhere.
The huge C minor fugue, at over 14 minutes on this recording, is a long, complex, mysterious fugue. Cruft manages to instil some of that mystery in the listener, but, again, the slow tempo is just a bit disconcerting, and I lost track of the counterpoint in this movement. Yet, curiously, the final movement of this Sonata, the Allegro Assai, which is also the final movement on the set, comes across perfectly, with the ideal rhythm, the perfect tempo, and impeccable playing. Would that the entire set were as good as this single movement.
The tempi of the different movements make me a bit
uncomfortable. While Cruft plays with emotion, some of the dance movements
just sound too rigid for my taste. This is a fine recording, but not
among the very best. For those interested in a baroque approach, I still
feel that Sigiswald Kuijken's first recording is an excellent choice;
for a more classical approach, Arthur Grumiaux's recording is hard to