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Jonathan Woolf
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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin BWV1001-1006
Sonata No.1 in G minor, BWV 1001 [16:28]
Partita No.1 in B minor, BWV 1002 [23:45]
Sonata No.2 in A minor, BWV 1003 [21:46]
Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV 1004 [27:41]
Sonata No.3 in C major, BWV 1005 [23:39]
Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006 [16:56]
George Enescu (violin)
rec. 1949, New York
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR836-37 [61:59 + 68:16]

The precise dates when these recordings were set down I’ve not been able to ascertain. Forgotten Records state 1949 but Noel Malcolm, Enescu’s biographer, dates them 1950. What is certain is that they were made in New York at the instigation of Helen Airoff-Dowling (1916-1987), a violinist who had studied with both Adolf Busch and George Enescu, and who was also a collector of rare violin recordings. Airoff-Dowling suggested to producer Don Gabor that the seventy year old violinist, by that time not in the best of health, record these ‘Himalayas of violinists’, to use Enescu’s own words. They were eventually issued on the Continental label. The result was a cycle seen through the eyes of a musician. I refer to him as such, as he was equally gifted as a composer, violinist, pianist, teacher and conductor. Yehudi Menuhin, his most famous pupil, said of him that he was ‘the greatest musician and the most formative influence’ he had ever met. Pablo Casals referred to him as ‘the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart’.

No-one can dispute that by 1950 ill health and the ravages of time had taken their toll on the Romanian violinist. Intonation is often wide of the mark, and technique frequently shows signs of strain. Yet despite these shortcomings, for me this is one of the most transcendental and sublime recorded cycles I have ever heard. Enescu plays with nobility, conviction and spontaneity, and his instinctive phrasing and gift of communication compares with that of his pupil Menuhin in his 1930s cycle.

The recordings have had a wide currency on CD. In 1992, Philips Japan issued them (PHCP-3469/70), and in 2002 they appeared on Classica D'oro (CDO 2014). I’ve even seen a Continental facsimile edition from 2013, the same year Forgotten Records issued their release. Doing a head-to-head comparison of the various incarnations has been revealing. The Philips Japan I don’t care for at all. The transfers are poor and the violin sounds suffocated. On my Classica D'oro set (nla), the sound is opened up, and the violin has more air and depth around it. Forgotten Records is similarly vivid, with the violin having presence, despite the surface noise, ineptly suppressed on the Philips version. I have never heard the Continental facsimile edition so cannot comment.

I was interested to note that the release under review has been digitally re-mastered from several LP sources – Continental, Olympic Records, Melodiya, Remington and Electrecord. Despite this, I found the audio quality consistent and generally uniform throughout.

As a point of added interest, the 3 LP Continental LP set is considered ‘the Holy Grail’ amongst collectors, with copies fetching four figure sums.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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