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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata No.2 for unaccompanied violin in a minor, BWV1003 [24:10]
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Sonata No.1 for violin and piano, Sz.75, BB84 (1921-2) [34:45]
Midori (violin); Robert McDonald (piano, Bartók)
rec. 22-23 August 2005 (Bach); September 1999 (Bartók), Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA, USA. DDD.
BMG SONY CLASSICAL 82796977452 [58:59]
Experience Classicsonline


Why have Sony sat on the Bartók recording, recorded in 1999, for so long? Was a recording of the Second Sonata planned and then aborted? As it is, it is difficult to recommend this CD in preference to those recordings which do couple the two Bartók Sonatas (Pauk and Jandó on Naxos 8.550749, with Contrasts; Tetzlaff and Andsnes on Virgin 545668-2, with the Solo Violin Sonata) or which couple the First Violin Sonata with the Solo Violin Sonata (Faust and Kupiec on HMN91 1623).
 

The notes acknowledge that the coupling here “may at first seem incongruous” but seek to defend it on the basis that both are “landmark works, each stretching the conventional model to a new plane” – a claim which itself stretches special pleading to a new plane. Combining Bach and Bartók is not new – Viviane Hagner coupled three Bach Solo Violin Sonatas with the Bartók Solo Violin Sonata on Altara ALT1016 – but the combination just doesn’t work here. 

This incongruity of the coupling would matter less if the Bach were more recommendable. I had been hoping for something like Janine Jansen’s recent success in her recording of the solo violin Partita No.2, coupled with 2- and 3-part inventions, a MusicWeb recording of the Month (Decca 475 9081 – see review). As it is, Midori’s playing is perfect in every respect except the affective. Nothing is out of place, but the final effect is of icy competence. Some will find that her playing chimes completely with their view of Bach, especially the Bach of the solo violin and cello pieces, as a cerebral composer. 

This cerebral Bach, however, is not one that I recognise: even in his most academically-orientated works, such as the Musical Offering and the Well-tempered Klavier, good performances bring out things to enjoy as well as to admire. So, too, in these solo violin pieces does that violinist for all seasons, Grumiaux, whose recording of the three sonatas and three partitas on a 2-CD Philips set remains my benchmark. This version is available on Duo 438 736-2 and may now also be found with the two violin-and-harpsichord sonatas on Originals 475 755-2 (see review of an earlier version of this coupling). For the dissenting voice of one who finds Grumiaux’s Bach as inflexible as I found Midori’s, see Jens Laurson’s comment in his recent review of a Grumiaux Telemann reissue: “I adore Grumiaux and most of his recordings – but I’ll gladly admit that I find his solo Bach dispiritingly monotonous”. 

It isn’t just a question of tempo, though Midori is considerably slower than Grumiaux in every movement except the Fuga. Even in this movement, where Midori is almost a minute faster, her playing fails to engage the listener emotionally. 

In every movement of the sonata I felt that the music was beginning to outstay its welcome; I never expected to find myself feeling bored by Bach. Like Organ Morgan in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, I place Bach top of the tree, with Organ Morgan’s second choice, Palestrina, also somewhere very near the summit, but Midori’s performance of the third movement Andante almost deprived me of the will to live. The notes rightly describe this movement as “most imaginative” and “breathtaking” – not epithets that I would apply to this performance. 

A deft account of the final Allegro goes some way to exonerate the performance, though the “dynamic contrast” which the notes rightly encourage the listener to expect is not fully brought out. 

Listening to Grumiaux immediately afterwards restored my faith in Bach’s music. From the very opening of the first movement he makes this music to enjoy and to admire in equal measure. The ADD Philips recording hardly shows its age – if anything, it is more immediate than the Sony and contributes to the impression that Grumiaux is communicating with me, whereas the slightly more remote Sony contributes to the feeling that Midori is playing for herself. 

If Grumiaux is slower than Midori in the Fuga, he still manages to sound more engaged – in fact, I’d call his playing here deliberate rather than slower: Julian Haylock’s description, in the Philips notes, of this Fuga as “earnest” is spot on for Grumiaux’s performance. 

The success of the Grumiaux performances demonstrates that it is not essential to perform Bach on a gut-stringed instrument, provided that the performer plays with some sense of eighteenth-century style. By general consent, Christian Tetzlaff achieves a similar combination of modern bow and period style on his Virgin Classics set (due for imminent reissue at super-budget price on Virgin de Virgin 5 22034 2, 2 CDs) and again on his recent recording (Hänssler Classic 98.250, 2 CDs) Midori surely cannot be unaware of some of those basic conventions, but she seems to turn her back on that knowledge throughout her performance. If it is a combination of authenticity and superb playing that you are looking for, Rachel Podger on Channel Classics will do very nicely (CCSEL2498, 2 CDs). Jaap Schröder’s performances on two Naxos CDs (8.557563 and 8.557564) have also been praised in several quarters. 

Bartók seems much more Midori’s cup of tea than Bach. Here I felt that there was much more to enjoy, though I was not wholly won over by the first movement. The tempi in the Bartók sonata overall benefit from being slightly faster than on my benchmark, the Pauk/Jandó version, especially in the Adagio, where the new Sony version is almost a minute faster than the Naxos. 

The opening of the first movement sounds tentative. This is partly in keeping with the improvisatory nature of much of the music and the sense that Bartók is sometimes writing for the two instruments in opposition to, rather than in harmony with each other, but I would have welcomed something more positive from both players. Pauk and Jandó are far less hesitant and they sound as if they have thought out the direction of the whole movement from the start, an impression heightened by the more forward Naxos recording. 

As the movement develops, the playing on the Sony recording becomes less tentative, mainly thanks to McDonald’s nudging the piano part forward whenever he gets the opportunity. Ideally, the angularity of the piano writing in this sonata should be offset by evocations of warmer Hungarian music from the violin. In this first movement, however, it is the pianist rather than the violinist who more often lightens the tone by evoking the gentler moods of the Debussy-influenced piano writing. On the rival version, though Jandó is Naxos’s senior in-house pianist, he does not dominate the proceedings as McDonald does here. 

In the Adagio, Midori makes the pace and the piano follows. At times here I felt that she was engaging with the affective nature of the music in a manner quite different from her Bach. Feeling is allied with the beauty of Midori’s playing in this movement, with the piano content to play a subordinate role; I was totally won over. If I drifted off in her account of the third movement Andante in the Bach, the account of this Bartók slow movement never outstayed its welcome and I began to appreciate this sonata as I never had before. Previously I had rated Bartók’s six string quartets as far superior to his other chamber music; now, I’m not so sure. Be aware, however, that none of the chamber music would be my recommended introductory key to Bartók for those who have yet to become acquainted – start with the Concerto for Orchestra or the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. 

In the Finale the piano really does deliver the angular music, with the violin evoking a ‘Hungarian’ repertoire; Midori and McDonald present an ideal performance of this movement, well supported by the recording engineers – the slightly recessed balance preventing the listener from feeling overwhelmed. They bring the house down at the end; if anything, they are preferable to Pauk and Jandó in the last two movements, especially in their exuberant account of the Finale. 

One good and two very good movements in the Bartók, then, coupled with a version of the Bach which just won’t do, making this effectively a very expensive 35-minute CD. Even if you like the Bach, 59 minutes is not generous; with 75 minutes of Bartók, well performed and recorded, the Naxos is clearly the better buy. 

Neither recording quite erases memories of the performance of the Bartók sonata by Leonidas Kavakos and Dénes Várjon at the Wigmore Hall on 6 June, 2006. Were a recording of the Bartók and Busoni sonatas offered that evening to be made commercially available (on Wigmore Hall’s own label?) it would be well worth hearing. BBC Radio 3 broadcast the performance in good sound. The rapturous applause at the end of the Bartók was very well deserved and the Busoni was equally well performed (the Beethoven and Debussy items were less deserving, as I recall). Unless and until that recording is issued, the Naxos will do very nicely.

Brian Wilson


 


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