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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006 (c.1720)
Alexander Schneider (violin)
rec. 1949, Reeves Sound Studios, New York
BIDDULPH LAB2055 [2 CDs: 143:38]

This is a real rarity. Alexander Schneider, famed second violin of the Budapest Quartet until 1944, later leader of his eponymous quartet and a member of other chamber groups – as well as becoming a conductor – recorded the Sonatas and Partitas of Bach in New York in 1949. Mitch Miller was producer and Robert Fine engineer though neither man was able to overcome the boxy Reeves Sound Studios acoustic. The recordings came out on Mercury the next year, to mark the bicentenary of Bach’s death.

The LPs are very hard to find and I’m not aware of another previous CD reincarnation though there may have been a Japanese or Korean issue for all I know. The cycle was released at around the same time as that of the ageing Enescu and the 1950s then saw an outbreak of sets from the likes of Heifetz, Martzy, Milstein, Telmányi (with his weird Vega bow), Szeryng, Szigeti and the much more obscure José Figueron on New Records Inc, who must have vied with Schneider as being the first to record the set on LP. Menuhin of course had recorded them all, over a number of years, on 78s.

Schneider’s readings are lithe and robust, broadly forward-moving, sometimes gruff. The Presto finale of the first sonata is vigorous though the Presto of the first Partita is a little too etude-like. Enescu took a similar tempo but despite his technical frailties managed to vary the tempo less motorically. This Partita’s Borea though is first class, full-toned and alive, though moments in the concluding Double of the work sound a little unsteady. This is robust, no-nonsense Bach playing. He takes an interesting phrasal view of the slow movement of the second Sonata and plays with old school probity and drama in the Sarabanda of the second Partita. Its Chaconne is well-voiced, and he avoids heavenly flights of rhythmic elasticity or expressive exaggeration. He neither makes a crunchy sound nor rushes his bars but remains steady. The Adagio of the third Sonata, though, has a very ugly plosive attack toward the end and there’s some rough bowing in the ensuing Fuga.

I wonder how many days the set took to record and if there were any retakes or splicing. I can’t hear any but that doesn’t mean to say there aren’t some. If they are run-through performances then small smudges and details of this kind are an inevitable corollary and it’s wholly to Schneider’s credit that he maintained a near-heroic level of technical assurance. Not ever fiddle player had the luxury of the pre-war Kreisler and his 15 takes for a four-minute piece.

The close-up recording catches some string touching but has been finely transferred by David Hermann. I’ve not heard the original LP. Tully Potter’s notes give a good account of Schneider’s musical career.

A word of warning; the booklet tracking details for CD 1 have gone askew. Sonata 1 ends with track 4 and the Partita 1, which follows, is tracked 5 but listed in the booklet as track 4 (again). If you are playing individual movements be aware, therefore, that there are 16 tracks on this first disc and not the advertised fifteen.

Jonathan Woolf

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