Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata No.1 in G minor BWV1001 [17:55]
Partita No.1 in B minor BWV1002 [30:21]
Sonata No.2 in A minor BWV1003 [25:39]
Partita No.2 in D minor BWV1004 [30:34]
Sonata No.3 in C major BWV1005 [24:49]
Partita No.3 in E major BWV1006 [18:49]
Pavel Šporcl (violin)
rec. The chapel of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, Prague, Czech Republic 16-18 April, 20-22 May, 15-17 June 2015
SUPRAPHON SU4186-2 [72:45 + 73:38]

Pavel Šporcl is right up there in my A-list of modern violinists whose performances and recordings I am always eager to hear. On this new set he tackles the Everest for any violinist: Bach's extraordinary set of Three Sonatas and Three Partitas for solo violin. Not only do these works make extreme technical demands on any player; they require the highest levels of musicianship too. That being the case, no single version however fine can ever be considered to be the final word on these works. Indeed, part of the joy for the listener is to hear succeeding generations of players with new influences and new approaches rediscover these supreme works of Art.

Šporcl is now in his early forties and seems to have discarded - for this set at least - the somewhat goofy bandana touting, blue-violin playing, thumbing nose at convention public persona of his earlier discs. Indeed the Supraphon publicity machine seems to have gone to the opposite extreme here. Instead we are given images of a positively austere Šporcl striding through a graffiti-ridden underpass dressed in a neo-18th century priest's frock coat. Quite what either public 'image' means I do not know and neither do I care much. Simply because it is the music-making that counts and by that measure alone Šporcl is a supreme and serious artist. The blue violin remains - it is a modern Czech instrument - and very fine indeed it sounds. Šporcl's approach to these works is distinctly unmannered and unfussy. I think it would be impossible for any player to ignore the musical implications of 'historically informed practice' and Šporcl acknowledges this with flowing tempi, sparing use of vibrato and a lightness of texture that older monolithic performances avoid. Yet he is not an 'authentic' player as can be heard in his choice of pitch - and instrument set-up - and most crucially bow-stroke. It is with the bow that the style of this and any performance is most clearly defined. The bow defines the intensity of the tone, the amount of 'air' between notes and the fluency of the playing. So while luthier Jan Špidlen gets the press for his blue violin good to see that modern bow-maker Petr Aufednik is credited too.

As is the norm, the six works are presented in order with the Sonatas alternating with the Partitas. In one regard, Šporcl is very mainstream with overall tempi very 'standard' and few if any idiosyncratic interpretative quirks. Even in an age of technical brilliance Šporcl glides effortlessly through the many awkward and taxing passages in these endlessly demanding works. I particularly enjoyed his inward and thoughtful approach to movements such as the Sonata No.1 Siciliana [disc 1 track 3] and the beautiful and freely expressive Sarabande [disc 1 track 9] from the first Partita. Against these movements such as the first sonata's Presto [disc 1 track 4] and the first Partita's Double [disc 1 track 8] sparkle with stunning articulation and a subtly understated marking of the music's harmonic line. This is where you hear Šporcl's essentially modern bow technique at work with a stroke not 'glued' to the string neither is it a true spiccato.

The three Fuga movements that appear in each of the Sonatas are some of the technically most demanding sections of the set. Bach achieves an aural sleight of hand by writing essentially monophonic music that sounds to the listener as if there are a series of independent musical lines at work. For the player, aside from any minor issues concerning intonation and even-ness of projection there is the need to balance these individual notes within chords to aid the listener. Šporcl is remarkably secure in this aspect of these movements. My only thought would be that some other players generate an even greater sense of been drawn harmonically inexorably towards the climactic points in these movements. I have to admit that while I have great respect for many brilliant HIP players my own preference is for an earlier performance style. Alongside Šporcl the likes of Shumsky and Milstein can sound occasionally gruff and less immaculate but over the longer-spanned movements I find a greater sense of inevitability. Šporcl sits somewhere between that approach and the intimate musing style of Christian Tetzlaff. Given that not a single note or bar will be played without a clear conception of intent and execution I am not wholly convinced by all of Šporcl's choices. Once or twice he favours quite an spiky 'pecking' style quite at odds with the silky smoothness of his playing elsewhere. The tempo di borea in the first Partita is a particular example - he has the technique to bring it off but I do not like the effect. If you turn to Jean-Jacques Kantorow's approach - perhaps not the fairest of comparisons since he is accompanied by Gordon Back playing Robert Schumann's piano and violin edition of the work - he links these Partita movements back to their origins as court dances and the extra spring and lightness allows the chords to be less weighty. Of the 'proper' original versions Tetzlaff lets the music dance to great effect.

The second disc opens with the Partita No.2 in D minor. This contains the single most famous movement in the set - the mighty Chaconne, a work that transcends what might appear to be the limitations imposed by a solo violin. As with the rest of the set, the virtues of Šporcl's performance is technical ease, a simplicity and clarity of musical thought and an even beauty of tone and production. It will be for the individual listener to know whether they like the greater sense of journey and drama that a Shumsky or a Milstein find. This is absolute music - no more than a series of variations on a repeating harmonic progression but I do like the sense of narrative with cumulative climaxes that the older generation of 'Romantic' players find. There is an extraordinary moment in the work where after a stormily virtuosic passage in the home key of D minor the music shifts magically to the major. In Milstein's hands after the turmoil of the preceding passage this fragile simply gentle passage is of heart-stopping tender balm. I rather like Perlman here too - at the heart of the movement which is in turn the heart of the Partita and the wider set. It is easy to take Perlman's brilliance rather for granted but returning to this set alongside other such fine players you instantly hear him for the great musician and player he is.

If you want to hear an interpretative extreme, compare Shumsky's opening of the final Sonata's Adagio - all intensity and tone pushed to its limit with Šporcl's gently pulsating approach. Shumsky will have those with a preference for historically informed approaches reaching for the smelling salts and I must admit even I find the sustained power of his approach nearly overwhelming. Great music is 'bigger' than any single approach and I find Šporcl's minimalist style equally compelling. The fugue that follows is second only the Chaconne in terms of scale in the entire set and is possibly the most technically demanding movement in the entire set. Perlman is nearly a full minute quicker than Šporcl who to my mind slightly miscalculates the tempo and makes the music slightly too insistent and heavy. Even Shumsky after his massive opening Adagio let the fugue flow to the music's benefit. Shumsky is not recorded in nearly as flattering an acoustic as Šporcl or Perlman — this latter really too resonant and cloudy — and there is a relative roughness in his playing that modern digital recording techniques would no doubt sanitise but this is wise and humane playing with a sense of a journey made and a destination reached.

The third and final Partita opens with the set's most famous movement - after the Chaconne - the celebratory Prelude in E major. This is exactly the kind of music to show Šporcl's remarkable technique to best and most obvious effect. Again he chooses a middle-ground tempo - 3:51 to Tetzlaff's spry 3:17 or Perlman's 3:23. Interestingly Shumsky clocks the identical time to Šporcl - 3:50. Not just for being the quickest, Tetzlaff does find a lightness and festive brilliance that seems to be the essence of this glorious piece. Indeed the whole third Partita has the feel of something lighter, less probing than the immediately preceding works. It is the work where the music seems closest to its dance origins. This Šporcl captures well in concluding movements although for once I find his approach to the second movement Loure rather too plain almost hypnotic - again the polar opposite to Shumsky's vibrato-laden approach.

The use of a chapel location for these recordings has given the violin a pleasing bloom, with the acoustic audibly present - although not overly so as it is for Perlman. Šporcl is placed quite close to the microphone and although some breathing is audible it is far from intrusive. The closeness of the microphone positioning does reinforce the awareness of the brilliance of Šporcl's bow arm - you never hear a bow change unless he wants you too. Indeed, as a whole, my abiding impression of this set is one of clarity. Clarity of musical thought often expressed in a straight forward unfussy manner, immaculately executed. I do find the style of the Supraphon booklet a little tedious; Šporcl + Bach + graffiti = ? The English section of the tri-lingual booklet (French and Czech are the other two) makes some brief but valid points before descending into poorly translated academe: "Disburdening and respect to natural phrasing are also desirable ... the endeavour to find the cornerstones of the composition and their dynamic and articulatory gradation may shed a new and novel light ... [while] restoring their erstwhile exclusivity". In other words play what's on the page.

Great art like this is a mirror - the versions we each like are those that reflect most closely what we want to hear and what we expect to receive from that work. If my desert island only has room for the interventionist humanity of a Shumsky that is not to diminish the skill and achievement of Šporcl here. Bach in searchingly metaphysical mood.

Nick Barnard

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