Ruth Palmer is an enterprising British violinist with a talent for creating intriguing projects. Her first album featured music by Shostakovich, accompanied by a self-financed documentary about her own personal journey with the music of the Russian master. Now she turns to two great pillars of the solo violin repertoire: Bartók's fearsome Sonata and the great D minor Partita by Bach. The album Hidden Acoustics
coincides with a tour taking in a number of unusual venues in which music can interact with space. Alas, I find I have missed her in my area, but this disc offers full recompense with gripping performances of these mighty works.
Late in life, the uncompromising hard edge of Bartók's music softened a little: works such as the Concerto for Orchestra, the Third Piano Concerto and even the Second Violin Concerto step back from the musical precipice glimpsed in some of his more astringent works of the 1920s and 1930s. You'll have to look hard for that softness in the Sonata for solo violin of 1944, but it's there in the greater recourse to lyrical melodic material, particularly in the reserved beauty of the third movement. Palmer is adept at emphasising the moments of tenderness in this score, though her interpretation is also shot through with muscularity and tremendous momentum. It's a riveting performance of a forbidding work aided by her sense of the emotional narrative of the music. The individual voice of the Fuga might not be as carefully characterised as in Isabelle Faust's Harmonia Mundi recording (HMG 508334-35), but Palmer makes a greater sense of the overall trajectory of the piece than I've heard from anyone else. She thankfully opts for the restored quarter-tones in the finale (originally excised by the work's dedicatee, Yehudi Menuhin, after Bartók's initial uncertainty as to the success of the effect) and her excellent intonation helps make this as compelling a case for this sonata as we're likely to hear.
Palmer is warm toned but urgent in Bach’s most formidable Partita, the D minor, capped by a broad and involving performance of the mighty Chaconne. At just shy of 17 minutes, Palmer’s Chaconne occupies more than a quarter of the disc’s duration and in this most demanding of solo violin works she takes the long view, carefully pacing her performance rather than exploiting contrasts. She doesn't push on with the defiance of Arthur Grumiaux (Philips 438 736-2), but she is more flexible in the four shorter movements than Julia Fischer is in her admirable recording for Pentatone (PTC 5186 072). Appropriately, given the disc’s title, the acoustic space feels vast and reverberant, but we miss no detail of Palmer's performance, thanks to the vivid and close recording of the violin. Rather, the vast space is felt when the music stops; in pauses and particularly at the end of the Chaconne, the sound rings out into the space as though continuing on its journey once it's left our ears.