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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Six Sonatas and Partitas
for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006 (c. 1720)
CD 1
Sonata No.1 in G minor, BWV 1001 [14:43]
Partita No.1 in B minor, BWV 1002 [28:58]
Sonata No.2 in A minor, BWV 1003 [20:55]
CD 2
Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV 1004 [28:23]
Sonata No.3 in C major, BWV 1005 [20:46]
Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006 [18:14]
Viktoria Mullova (baroque violin)
rec. 18-19 March 2007, 20-22 October 2008, Bolzano, Italy. DDD
ONYX CLASSICS 4040 [64:50 + 67:32]
Experience Classicsonline

I have been brought up on two principal recordings of the Sonatas and Partitas: Arthur Grumiaux from 1960 on Philips Classics Duo 438 736-2 and the 1973 version from Nathan Milstein on Deutsche Grammophon 'The Originals' 457 701-2. I played these recordings over and over again during my university studies having a slight preference for the account by Milstein for its additional refinement. In the early 1990s Mullova recorded the 3 Partitas on Philips 434 075-2 on a modern strung violin but not the 3 Sonatas. In the light of her discovery and subsequent embracing of period instrument performance Mullova would rather people now forget about the Grammy-nominated Philips recording. Having heard this quite remarkable new Onyx set I can quite understand her position. I am still basking in an afterglow of satisfaction.

This is not the first recording to use using period instruments; not by any means. Probably the finest account has been from the impressively sensitive Rachel Podger on Channel Classics CCS SEL 2498. There are also two fine Naxos sets to consider from baroque violinists Jaap Schröder on 8.557563/64 and Lucy Van Dael on 8.554422/23.

From her formative years in Russia as a student at the Moscow Conservatoire and for many years as a performer Mullova followed the tradition of playing the modern stringed violin and bow. Her Moscow teachers had laid down strictures for performing Bach. Mullova explains, “they were based on a widely-held approach of the time that combined a standardized, beautiful sound, broad, uniform articulation, long phrasing, if possible, and continuous vibrato on every note, in imitation, they used to say, of an imaginary organ.”

From not even being aware that a period bow existed Mullova has gradually developed her passion for Baroque and Classical music performed on period instruments. Her epiphany occurred following an inspirational meeting in Paris with Baroque specialist the bassoonist and continuo player Marc Postinghel. Since then she has immersed herself in early music, working with several outstanding period instrument specialists: Ottavio Dantone, Giovanni Antonini, Andrea Marcon and Giuliano Carmignola.

I recall Mullova's splendid 2001 recording from St. Jude's Church, London of Mozart's Violin Concertos 1, 3 and 4 both as soloist and director of the period instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Philips 470 292-2. There she used a 'Jules Falk' Stradivarius from 1723 with gut strings and a period bow. For Onyx she recorded in 2004 at Cremona, a superb disc of Vivaldi's 5 Violin Concertos again using her cherished 'Jules Falk'. This was with the period instrument ensemble Il Giardino Armonico under Giovanni Antonini.

I have fond memories of her 2007 Vivaldi collaboration at Toblach in the Italian Dolomites with Baroque violinist Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra under Andrea Marcon (Archiv Production).

On this new Onyx recording Mullova now favours her 1750 Giovanni Battista Guadagnini violin with gut strings, tuned down to A415 Hz. She uses a contemporary copy of a Baroque bow by Italian maker Walter Barbiero. Mullova does not take the authenticity obsessively far having her Guadagnini in a modern set-up that she feels does not adversely affect her interpretations.

For those interested in a few historical details Johann Sebastian Bach probably commenced writing this collection of 6 Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin during his tenure with the Duke Wilhelm-Ernst of Sachsen-Weimar. In 1717 Bach was forced to leave the Ducal Court at Weimar. It was in 1720 whilst employed as Kapellmeister by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen at Köthen that Bach completed the set.  
The first disc here commences with the Sonata No.1 in G minor cast in the traditional four movement church sonata form. In the G minor score I was struck by the aching tenderness of the opening Adagio. The following Fuga: Allegro feels like a depiction of an unrelenting struggle against humanity. The short Siciliana is coquettish and nervy at times and I could easily picture a wooing ritual at the Ducal Court. Boisterous and extrovert, Mullova's playing of the concluding Presto is breathtaking with a real sense of risk-taking.

The Partita No.1 in B minor is designed in chamber sonata form as an eight movement dance suite. To open the score the effervescent and elegantly performed Allemanda convincingly depicts a dancing scene at a Court Ball. Infused with incense, an air of sacred mystery hangs densely over the first Double. In the youthful exuberance of the Corrente one can easily imagine a scene of children of the nobility playing in the Court grounds. Breathtakingly fast, almost wilful playing from Mullova in the second Double marked Presto takes the listener to the brink of frenzy. By contrast the languid relaxation of the Sarabande is evocative of a lazy summer's day slumber. Strict and forthright Mullova demonstrates the finest manners in the third Double and with unrestrained vigour the joyful clamour of freedom is paramount in the Tempo di Borea. In the fourth and final Double Mullova provides whirling music of dizzying abandon.

The Sonata No.2 in A minor opens with movement marked Grave significant for its mournful nature with aspects of reflective affirmation. Mullova's bright and uplifting playing shakes off the cobwebs in the Fuga resisting the temptation for even quicker speeds. I loved the exhilarating flourish for a few moments at 6:54. Mullova dedicates the tender and poetic Andante to her daughter Katia. Here I felt the music evocative of a narrative of hope and justice for mankind. There is brisk playing from Mullova in the final movement Allegro who twists, kneads and shapes this music of virile athleticism into an endless reverie.

The second disc opens with the five movement Partita No.2 in D minor. The final movement of the D minor Partita is the monumental Ciaconna (Chaconne) designed as a theme and series of variations. Considered by many to be the summit of solo violin repertoire the Ciaconna is often played as an independent score. Of a disproportionate length to the other movements it has been suggested that the Ciaconna was written in remembrance of Bach's wife Maria Barbara. According to musicologist David Ewen the Ciaconna gives, “testimony to Bach's capacity to bring to his polyphonic writing whether for violin or cello, a wealth of emotion as well as thought.” ('The Complete Book of Classical Music', Pub: R. Hale, London, 1965).  
An Allemande opens the D minor Partita with an assured Mullova conjuring up a haunting atmosphere. In the following Corrente the soloist imparts a safe and comforting world of carefree ecstasy that contrasts with the somewhat starchy, serious and introspective central movement Sarabanda. Blistering playing of white-hot intensity from Mullova in the Giga demonstrates awesome technical mastery. In the darkly brooding character of the mighty Ciaconna I was struck by the astonishing playing, rapt with intense concentration and generating terrific emotional impact. Of the many highlights I especially enjoyed the fiendishly difficult fiery run at 12:49 - effortlessly played and completely glorious too.

The Sonata No.3 in C major opens with an Adagio of a spare almost saturnine quality. In the extended Fuga Mullova communicates this profound and humane music as a powerful quasi-devotional utterance. I love the way Mullova's Guadagnini sings with aching tenderness amid the leafy light and shades of the Largo. In the final movement Allegro assai Mullova surges the music forward fervently with the radiant energy of a flaming beacon.

The final disc of the set is the Partita No.3 in E major a seven movement score and the shortest Partita of the trio by some ten minutes. The well loved Preludio is often played as a separate recital piece. Technical distinction is a striking feature of Mullova's magnificent playing especially when woven with this elevated level of exhilaration and colourful drama. A distinct melancholy pervades the Loure without ever becoming cloaked in unwelcome sentimentality. Mullova sensuously phrases the extremely popular Gavotte en Rondeau a gravely beautiful outpouring. This is followed by the first Menuet, serene and mysterious in colour lavished with assiduous care for blend and balance. The second Menuet is gracefully performed with a distinctive purity and grace that invites admiration. I admired the glistening freshness of the short Bourrée abundant with vitality and rhythmic zest. The E major Partita and the whole programme concludes with the Gigue marked by Mullova's uplifting and determined playing of such striking presence that it reminded me of the boughs of a mighty oak resisting a determined gusty wind.

I first became aware of this Mullova recording last week, alerted by the large amount of attention it was receiving at the listening booths at the renowned 'Ludwig Beck' department store in Münich. There I had time to hear a few excerpts on their TEAC player and Pioneer headphones and was immediately struck by the outstanding sonics. From subsequent hearings on my own set-up I can report a cool, crystal-clear sound with superb balance. Lacking in an informative essay about the actual scores this double set from Onyx is otherwise beautifully presented. 
There are a select number of very special discs of masterworks in my collection. I treasure these above all others; my 'Desert Island' discs, if you like. In this list I would include sets of the Chopin Ballades and Scherzos from Artur Rubinstein on RCA Red Seal Living Stereo; both the Haydn and Beethoven complete Piano Trios by the Beaux Arts Trio on Philips; J.S. Bach complete Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord with Arthur Grumiaux and Christiane Jaccottet on Philips; Mendelssohn's complete String Quartets from the Henschel Quartet on Arte Nova; Mozart Piano Sonatas by Mitsuko Uchida on Philips; J.S. Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier by harpsichordist Kenneth Gilbert on Archiv Produktion; Beethoven complete String Quartets by the Takács Quartet on Decca and Schubert Winterreise performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jörg Demus on Deutsche Grammophon. I consider this life-enhancing Onyx set to be in the same elevated league. Beautiful, expressive and often haunting this timeless music is performed with the flaming power of a blast furnace. 

Throughout the set the glorious timbre of the Guadagnini and Mullova's imperious playing are intoxicating. This is a very special recording - one to treasure. I wouldn't be surprised if this became one of the great 'classics'.

Michael Cookson

see also review by Jens Laurson


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