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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (ca. 1720)
Sonata No.1 in G minor BWV 1001 [16:12]
Sonata No.2 in A minor BWV 1003 [21:44]
Sonata No.3 in C major BWV 1005 [22:10]
Partita No.1 in B minor BWV 1002 [28:07]
Partita No.2 in D minor BWV 1004 [29:11]
Partita No.3 in E major BWV 1006 [16:42]
Gottfried Schneider (violin)
rec. August 2011, Hochschule für Musik und Theater München, Grosser Saal
OEHMS CLASSICS OC868 [63:52 + 77:39]

There are just so many recordings of J.S. Bach’s great Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin out there that this kind of review becomes another conundrum. Which versions do we take for comparison? and, having left out dozens of no doubt great recordings, how is a fair assessment at all possible, even amongst the ones used as a reference? Are there winners and losers, and if so, why? Does Gottfried Schneider beat Rachel Podger on Channel Classics? Or Julia Fischer on Pentatone? Or Itzhak Perlman on EMI? Should we even see this as a competition?
Any real fan of this music is likely to have more than one version of it on their shelves, and perhaps seeking an ‘ideal’ recording is part of your collector’s quest. You can pick your own names out of a hat and have a royally entertaining time seeking out nuances, but in the end each recording has to stand on its own terms.
Gottfried Schneider is not exactly a household name but he has won plenty of prizes, held high level appointments and is a keen and highly respected performer of contemporary music. His own ‘Notes concerning the Interpretation’ can be taken in a number of ways, including with a pinch of salt. Schneider claims this recording wasn’t “intended for publication, but rather emerged out of the need to sonically fix Bach’s unique violin cycle - with which one had occupied oneself on a daily basis for almost half a century… in a sonic snapshot, so to speak, knowing full well that nothing final or exemplary would come of it.” He concludes, “If this recording is indeed made available to the public, its aim is to invite an active and interested listener on this adventure; if possible, to share this cosmos with him or her.” Hmmm. Well, the active and interested listener will hopefully have long perceived that any recording is always a snapshot, no matter what grand intentions or otherwise might be had from such a project. We might take the ‘not intended for publication’ declaration as an attempt to disarm critics, but if we also take as a given that no musical performance is really complete without an audience, this is the juncture at which I would apply my pinch of seasoning.
In the end, there is no real need for this kind of Bescheidenheit, as both recording and performance of these Bach masterpieces is rather good. There are one or two moments where one could wish for a little more distinctiveness in the playing, a couple of patches where intonation in the double-stopping might have been a touch more accurate, but with a fine recording and well considered and expert performances this is a set which can stand on its own two feet without our having to carry the notion that it has been raised from obscurity, where it might forever have languished in the back of the artist’s scrapbook.
Having listened with rather casual pleasure for a couple of sessions to a new dose of the Sonaten und Partiten I invariably dive for the most demanding heart of the matter, the Ciaconna final movement of the Partita No.2 in D minor BWV 1004. This again is given a masterful performance by Schneider. What I miss a little is the change in character between contrapuntal lines you have with some players, giving the upper melodic line a more distinct colour when in conversation against the bass or harmony notes. There are of course moments where the technical demands of the music make this kind of subtlety as good as impossible, but Schneider’s playing is more horizontal than many in this regard. As an alternative example, Julia Fischer’s approach guides the ear more, taking it along the dual paths of melody and counterpoint both real and imagined. Schneider is capable of generating electric excitement in the faster passages, and his shading of the tone of his instrument in the different ‘rooms’ through which Bach takes us is compelling. He takes a relatively direct approach however, driving on harder where some players slow or even virtually stop for moments of reflection. This results in a compact timing of 13:58, compared to, say, Itzhak Perlman’s by no means excessive 15:48. Perlman is still hard to beat in this and any other movement of these works, and I prefer his way of lifting away the pressure of this incredibly intense piece from time to time, giving the brain a chance to regroup.
Would Wolfgang Schneider’s Sonatas and Partitas be my first choice for a recording? No, but neither would I be too dismayed if I found myself on a desert island with his as the only version on my solar powered music pod thing. Schneider engages with Bach’s music with integrity and a good proportion of passion versus the cerebral. If I were to make a blanket criticism it would be a certain lack of contrast, both within movements as well as in the change of character from one to the next. There is contrast, but just not quite as much as can be found elsewhere. With legendary players such as Perlman and Arthur Grumiaux to be had with the greatest of ease, this set would not be the one I would be pushing at you in the shop as a first-time Bach adventurer. The ‘snapshot’ recording is very good indeed, the violin sound captured well in a spacious but not overly resonant acoustic. The booklet notes are an intriguing but somewhat esoteric essay on the essentially unplayable nature of Bach’s writing for the solo violin - an appropriate parallel to the virtual impossibility of reviewing it.
Dominy Clements