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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin
Sonata No.1 in G minor BWV 1001 [15:57]
Partita No.1 in B minor BWV 1002 [29:10]
Sonata No.2 in A minor BWV 1003 [23:16]
Partita No.2 in D minor BWV 1004 [29:55]
Sonata No.3 in C major BWV 1005 [22:32]
Partita No.3 in E major BWV 1006 [19:17]
Dénes Zsigmondy (violin)
rec. 1995, Church of St Johann Baptist, Holzhausen am Starnberger See
PALADINO PMR0093 [68:01+77:26]

Until this CD came along recently, I’d never heard of the Hungarian violinist Dénes Zsigmondy. A spot of googling revealed that he’d made a substantial number of recordings with his wife, the pianist Anneliese Nissen. These include sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, and I’m at a loss to explain why they've never achieved a wider currency.

Perhaps a bit of background is in order. He started life in Budapest in 1922 as Dénes Liedemann but later changed his name to Zsigmondy, his paternal grandmother’s surname, considering it more Hungarian, rather than German. He studied at the city’s Franz Liszt Academy, where one of his teachers was Leó Weiner. He was later mentored by Carl Flesch and Zino Francescatti. His fellow compatriot Béla Bartók instilled in him a love of Eastern European folk music. A solo career beckoned and he performed in venues throughout the world. He gave many premieres including violin concertos by Günter Bialas, Harald Genzmer, Helmut Eder and Fritz Büchtger (his performance of the latter can be heard on YouTube). He also worked with some of the finest composers of the day, such as Zoltán Kodály, Roger Sessions, Luigi Dallapiccola, György Ligeti and György Kurtág. Over the years he held many teaching posts both in the States and in Europe. He died, aged 91, at his home in Bavaria, on 15 February 2014.

How this recording actually came into being makes for a fascinating read. In 1994 Zsigmondy’s wife and duo partner died. A year later the violinist spent several days alone in the Church of St. Johann Baptist, Holzhausen am Starnberger See, Germany, a venue familiar to the duo, playing solo Bach to microphones already set up by the recording engineer Otto Braun. The violinist operated all the recording equipment himself. The result was over 50 hours of random Bach movements on DAT tape. Thanks to the sterling work of producers Martin Rummel and Robert Müller and the financial backing of Zsigmondy himself, CDs of the sessions, without a label, were manufactured in 1996. To mark the 95th anniversary of the violinist’s birth, these have been remastered and issued in the format we have here. Muller speculates in his liner contribution that these recordings may well have been the violinist’s farewell to his wife.

Curiously, in this recording the Sonatas and Partitas are not set out in the usual tried and tested fashion, but appear as follows - CD 1: Sonata 3, Sonata 1, Partita 1; CD 2: Partita 3, Sonata 2, Partita 2. At first, I thought this rather odd but then, after a couple of hearings, it all began to make sense. Unlike the other two Sonatas, the opening of Sonata No. 3 is divested of all embellishments and ornamentation, instead conveying an air of simplicity with single notes gradually evolving as one harmonic layer is added to another. It’s almost like a lonely voice emerging out of nowhere and beginning a journey. At this stage the music gives no hint of the formidable technical challenges that are to follow. Also, the mood of the opener is elegiac and expressive (maybe a farewell to his wife). So this Sonata seems a logical starting point for the cycle. The dance-like Partitas 1 and 3 are bookended by the more profound Sonatas 1 and 2. The recording ends with the mighty Chaconne of the Partita No. 2, a movement which sets the seal on the cycle, making the final utterance.

Zsigmondy was 73 when he set down these aural documents.  Having recently listened to several of his earlier recordings on Youtube his violinistic skills in these late Bach traversals, whilst not equalling those of his earlier years, still retain their potency, innate musicianship and gift of communication. One can forgive him the odd technical slip or intonation lapse, as he renders these wonderful scores with profound depth, sincerity and spirituality. His performances called to mind those George Enesco made in the 1950s. Although not technically perfect they are played with nobility, conviction and spontaneity. Zsigmondy’s playing never sounds mannered or idiosyncratic. Slow movements are expressive and imbued with poetry. The dance movements are animated and lively. The polyphonic lines of the fugues are cleanly delineated. The opening of the Chaconne is noble and magisterial, and the variations that follow are stylistically characterized. At the end when the theme returns, there is an abiding sense of inevitability and fulfilment.

The acoustic of the Holzhausen Church is warmly resonant.

All told, for me at least, this has been a thoroughly enriching experience.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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