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Bach violin ONYX4228
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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin
James Ehnes (violin)
Sonata No 1 in G minor BWV 1001 [16:39]
Partita No 1 in B minor BWV 1002 [28:36]
Sonata No 2 in A minor BWV 1003 [24:20]
Partita No 2 in D minor BWV 1004 [21:18]
Sonata No 3 in C BWV 1005 [23:32]
Partita No 3 in E BWV 1006 [17:01]
rec. June 2020, Ellenton, USA
ONYX 4228 [69:43 + 72:00]

James Ehnes gave us his thoughts on the Bach solo violin works more than twenty years ago (review), so aside from their fathomless mysteries, what inspired him to go back to them in 2020?

The answer, as with so many other aspects of the last few years, was lockdown. With the concert halls of the world shutting their doors, Ehnes delved deep into his instrument’s solo repertoire, and you can’t go much deeper than Bach. Not only did he get reacquainted with the music but, with the help of Simon Kiln, his friend and engineer, he turned his living room into a recording studio and created six films in June of 2020, all of which are available to view on his website.

Ehnes’ programme for the videos was the six Bach works featured here and the six solo sonatas by Ysa˙e. The videos are very well done, and well worth watching. Like most of us, Ehnes could have done with a haircut by this stage of lockdown, and he’s a very engaging host. It’s gripping to be able to watch him play these masterpieces close up in what amounts to a private performance. Any time I’ve seen him on the concert stage, one of the things that impressed me about him is his stillness as a performer, communing so deeply with the music that he doesn’t need demonstrative lurches around the platform. You get that here, too: he quietly gets on with the job with his feet rooted to the same spot, and he creates wonderful music in the process.

What we have here is the high-resolution audio from those videos. The Ysa˙e sonatas were released on Onyx last year (and they’re fantastic), so the Bach is a natural companion set. However, the CD has to stand up on its own, away from the videos, so does it?

In a word, yes; triumphantly so. In fact, it’s the finest modern violin set that I’ve heard in years. That goes way beyond the poignancy of the locked down world in which the recording was made, though it probably plays a part. For one thing, Ehnes and Kiln have done wonders with the recorded sound. Recorded in his living room in the depths of the night (so as to minimise any extraneous noise) the sound they have captured is close-up without being invasive. There is even a degree of space around the sound that suits the violin very well. You’d never mistake the acoustic for that of the Royal Albert Hall but, with works of such intimacy and personality, you’d never want to.

Ehnes’ playing is, of course, remarkable; but we knew that already from his earlier performances. What sets this one out is the beauty and maturity of its emotional response, something which, to my ears, has definitely deepened in the intervening two decades.

Each work has a character all of its own. There’s a great extent to which Ehnes is simply tapping into something intrinsic to the music, but in doing so he seems to enhance it and make it completely his own. Sonata No 1, for example, is suffused with a spirit of beautiful, pensive spirituality throughout. That’s particularly clear in a heartbreaking opening Adagio - perhaps the most immediately arresting “Track 1” of a CD that I’ve listened to in years - but it’s also there in the forensic seeking of the Fugue and even in the acerbic dash of the concluding Presto. In fact, that ending brings a full stop rather than a conclusive dash, thereby pointing up the emotional trajectory of the whole sonata, something that’s typical of the other works, too.

Take the second partita. It culminates, of course, in the magisterial chaconne - how could it not? - but, more than in many performances, Ehnes plants the seeds of that astounding conclusion in the partita’s opening: the first phrase of the Allemanda sighs with an ineffable air of melancholy, something more weighty and shaded than that of the first sonata, so that right from the first bars we seem to be on a journey towards the life-and-death grandeur of the chaconne.

There is a huge variety of moods available, too. The second sonata, for example, carries an air of quasi-Romantic lyricism that you’d more regularly associate with Schumann or Tchaikovsky: period instrument purists, look away now! That carries on into the remarkably extended Fugue and, even more so, the dangerously seductive Andante with its constantly throbbing pulse. That pulse effect is deployed, albeit more discretely, to similar effect in the gorgeously meditative Adagio opening of the third sonata, out of which grows the Fugue as though with a smile and a wave before ascending to what feels like empyrean heights.

Normally the second partita gets all the limelight among these works, but here the honour is more evenly spread, helped by the meditative intimacy of the occasion. I found myself (almost) as much in awe of the first partita’s Allemande, for example, and there are fireworks aplenty, such as in that partita’s crazy-dash Presto, the disc’s first “Wow!” moment, for me. What’s more, my ear was constantly being drawn towards details in the shorter movements that I often miss, like the sinuous games of chase that the violin plays, or the multi-textural harmonies that shouldn’t really be possible with just one violin.

There’s even, in movements like the first partita’s Bourrée, some fun! But, of course, it it’s fun you’re after then you’ll hear it coursing through the third partita from its airborne Prelude to the rustic drone embedded in the second Menuet and the heel-kicking Bourrée and Gigue.

These are the sorts of insight you only achieve when you’ve been living with a set of works for decades. Few violinists get the chance to set down two interpretations of the solo Bach works, and Ehnes deserves credit for taking the opportunity provided by lockdown and turning it to good effect to produce these discs. Others know the discography of these works far better than me, so I hesitate to pronounce on this definitively, but if you’re looking for a recent performance on a modern violin then this could well be a first choice. It’s certainly my new favourite.

I do recommend the videos to you as well, though. They’re produced with remarkable professionalism, considering the circumstances in which they’re created, and the visuals will help you to get closer to these excellent performances, helped by the remarkable fact that Ehnes performs everything from memory. In addition, I’d speculate that Ehnes’ living room is rather more splendid than yours, and that adds to the appeal: when you see it you’ll understand why it makes such an effective recital space.

Simon Thompson

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