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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Homage to Bach – The Solo Violin Sonatas
Sonata No 1, BWV 1001 [16:49]
Sonata No 2, BWV 1003 [22:51]
Sonata No 3, BWV 1005 [23:06]
Arranged for string quartet by Paul Cassidy
Brodsky Quartet: (Gina McCormack (violin), Ian Belton (violin), Paul Cassidy (viola), Jacqueline Thomas (cello)
rec. 9-11 November 2020, Church of St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London.
CHANDOS CHAN20162 [62:58]

Paul Cassidy shares with many musicians a daily relationship with Bach, and in particular as a string player with the ‘Six Solos for Violin without Bass Accompaniment’; “I am a devout being and these are my bible… endlessly cleansing and enriching for the body and soul, a balm for the spirit.” Cassidy recognises the fragility of Bach’s legacy as a composer, having been admired more as an improviser than as a composer in his day. He is also deeply sensitive to the music and its challenges, as well as acknowledging the numerous transformations and resurrections of Bach’s music over time, “which is still on an upward trajectory today.” He is also humble with regard to these arrangements, seeing them as an educational tool as much as anything else. “If these arrangements of the three Solo Sonatas help bring this hallowed music to even one more listener who may have missed them in their original form, that would already make the whole endeavour worthwhile.”

For those of us already tuned into the Solo Sonatas there is inevitably some adjustment to be made when hearing such familiar music in this altered context. What is immediately admirable in Paul Cassidy’s arrangements is that he has avoided setting them as ‘solo plus accompaniment.’ These are genuine string quartets and well-conceived chamber works from start to finish. There is of course often more activity in the violins than in the other instruments, but each part sounds rewarding, and a great deal of imagination has gone into the sonorities and voicing of each movement.

While it is impossible to avoid making comparisons at times, my approach with this sort of re-working of iconic music is to take it for what it is, an entirely new version of pieces that are readily available in their original form. There is no conflict, and any negative responses have nothing to do with any encroachment onto ‘hallowed’ and therefore somehow untouchable terrain. Having removed such resistance it is easy to hear how these arrangements have their own way of working. Can we say they enhance the original? This is a personal and subjective question, but listening to the opening Grave of BWV 1003 you can certainly hear new beauty emerging. The following Fuga is another intriguing question. Bach’s solo music implies harmony and polyphony, and hearing it worked out in such a complete way can seem to add a kind of weight which might add drag to something previously so economical and streamlined. The Brodsky players perform with a lightness of touch that prevents the music from becoming bogged down, and there is plenty of delightful phrasing and dynamic contrast. This is one case which sails close to losing that ‘enhancement factor’, but it remains an effective movement in its own right. Pizzicato accompaniment gives the Andante of this sonata a pastoral ‘Four Seasons’ feel, and while the final Allegro loses a little of the agility of the original its harmonies and occasional syncopated rhythmic features keep everything moving along nicely.

Each of these sonatas has its own plusses and arguable minuses. It would be nice to pretend this can be viewed entirely objectively, but this is always only going to be one point of view on what has to be seen on the whole as a very successful project indeed. On a first impression the slow movements seemed to work better than the brisker ones, but then again the Fuga from BWV 1005 at times takes on the character of something from The Art of Fugue, and the new meaning it acquires in this way is entirely worthwhile. The Finale: Allegro assai from this sonata takes on a rousing, rustic feel which is also quite surprising.
As you might expect, recording quality is impeccable on this release, the church acoustic perfectly integrated into a detailed but nicely balanced sound. The Brodsky Quartet is of course excellent, providing committed performances that can stand up to repeated listening and increasing appreciation. Let’s hope the Partitas can be given the same treatment some time soon.

Dominy Clements

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